Writing in Art

I attended the Art Gallery of NSW  20/3/2013 as part of a group from the Catalyst program doing Introduction to Australian Literature.

We were given a guided tour by our lecturer Michael, who did a wonderful job in helping us discover for ourselves the development of Australia as told in Art and Literature.

Being honest, it is probably the first time I have really looked at art as more than just pretty pictures. In drawing or painting or creating an image, the artist not only wants to show beauty and perhaps his skilfulness in being able to reproduce, but true artists want to convey a message. Sometimes it is an urgent message, perhaps it is one of reassurance, Perhaps in painting beauty, the artist is just wanting to show others what true beauty is.

In looking at Art through the generations in Australia, I have tried to see what the message is that is being portrayed, whom the intended recipient would have been, and  in some cases create a small dialogue between the artist, and the recipient.

Early Colonialism

John Glover, tried to show the Australian bush as a gentle place with rolling hills, flat grass and trees that were rounded and beautiful.

“Dear Mother, you have no need to concern yourself with my welfare. I am well and happy. There is nothing here to harm me. The trees are easy to scale, their bark smooth. There are rounded branches so I would not even snag my trousers when i pass by.”

” The natives are friendly and harmless. They are naïve to our ways. They play all day in the water. The father goes out to hunt the animals (which are quite docile), the mother digs the yams up, while the children play.”

Mid 19th Century

Eugene Von Guerard showed us just how insignificant we are in relation to the greatness and magnificence of the Australian bush.

” I am overwhelmed by the age of this land. We call it a new land, but in fact these trees are as old as the Welsh hills. Where the history of Britain lies in ruins of crumpled castles, the history of this great land is untouched; there for all to read. The bush, the hills and the waterfalls are so vast they seem to go on forever.”

Late 19th Century

It was this period which brought to light for me the power of the written word. Without the skill to read and write, Australia would seem like a lifetime away from the rest of the world. News from the old country only arrived every three months. That was supposing somebody you know could write, and afford the postage rate. And writing back would take another three months.

Australia became personal. It seemed that everybody knew somebody who had emigrated, willingly or not, to Australia to start a new life.

” From a distant Land” The artist, David Davies,shows a farmer, or a person from the land. He sits at the table with the letter from home in his hand. It is hanging there. The man is remembering the writer of the letter with fondness. Perhaps it is his mother who has written. I speculate and say its his sister. He is thinking back of the time of their childhood and how life was so different back then. And now here was young Ginny, all grown up with a bairn of her own. Time goes by fast. “I shall never see the bairn,” he thinks “I shall be lucky if I see Ginny again too”. “No matter”, he wipes the silent tears from his eyes, and smudges some of the dust on his cheeks. “Life goes on” and with that he dons his hat to join Jacob in bringing the sheep in from the outer paddock for shearing.

The second painting from this era that took my fancy was “Gold diggers receiving a letter from home.” Attributed to William Strutt. Actually, the letter belongs to one, and the other is eager to hear what is written. Does the letter belong to the one holding it or is he merely reading it for his friend. His friend cannot read but has asked his mate to read it for him. The writing , the words on the page are magic. He marvels at the message conveyed. He looks at the writing and now knows that it is the total sum of the contact that he will have with home. He is not thinking of home so much as the person who has written the letter, and he urges his friend to continue reading. “What else does she say” he prompts ” Does she mention how Dad’s leg is?”

The reader is thinking to himself… “there are many men in this camp who can’t read and write. Perhaps if i set up a service I can make some money from my fellow miners reading notes from home, and scribbling something to sweethearts and kin back home”.

We move now to the next period of Australian history in art. Until this period, it seems all the paintings were done from memory, or perhaps the artist did a small preliminary sketch, before working on the canvas back in the darkness or different light of a studio.

In 1891 Arthur Streeton painted “Fires On”. it was the first time a colonial artist did a work in the field. This painting depicts the building of the tunnel through the blue mountains. It is divided into two halves. the first half showing nature in all its glory, unmolested by humans and their need to conquer it all. There wildlife flourishes. We see some fauna and can see distinctly the Gymea lily adorning the hillsides. The other half we see the landscape stripped and raped of its beauty all in the name of progress. The rock is bare, wounds appear in the mountain as a result of mans digging and blasted TNT. But the mountain gets its own back. The camp flies a red flag, to show a casualty has occurred at the tunnel site.

And so the history of this great land progresses and its story continues to unfold in the art produced.

In 1928 Grace Cossington Smith distorted reality in her depiction of Sydney titled “Curve of the Bridge”. This shows the building of the Harbour Bridge from an angle I have never seen before, from the foot of a pylon. The painting is in bold primary colours. It records an important part of Australia’s social history.

Backtracking a little to 1918, Arthur Streeton, who was the official War artist painted “Bologne”. This depicted a battlefield in France and all the events that took place in this small french village. It again tells a story which is an important part of the social history of Australia; Australians at war. Australians as a part of the world community. His aim was to reshape reality; to bring the story of war so that lives and hearts would be touched, moved to support our troops overseas. Many a girl back home contributed to the war effort with the making of things to give the soldiers in red cross parcels and sending letters of encouragement to soldiers, men and boys who were missing from the dinner table. I am sure many people were influenced by this Streeton work to bring a coin from their pocket to help the war effort.

In  1919 Roy de Maistre along with Roland Wakelin explored the relationship between music and art. The painting called “Rhythmic composition in yellow-green minor” not only documented their findings but also was important in the therapy of returned soldiers after World War One.

We then entered a room that was dominated by a sculptor or installation with the title of “Memory of Nature”. It is a hard piece to describe or even understand. What I gathered the artist was trying to portray is that man, and science can create in a lab what once was achieved purely in the natural world.

Adorning the walls in this room are two important paintings by Elioth Gruner. The first, “Morning frost”, shows nature on a winters morning; complete with fog and frost on the ground. all seems peaceful and serene. The second, on the opposite wall, is in complete contrast. “Valley of the Tweed” shows the affects on nature of deforestation… desolation. Where once there was beauty, now there is none… though the painting itself is beautiful.

In the mid 20th Century, Russell Drysdale explored the social dynamics which tried to incorporate indigenous people groups into white society. We see aboriginal people dressed in flimsy European dress, with bare feet. The bare feet show a connection with the land and the people’s heritage. The colours in this painting blend the natives with the landscape, making the subjects at one with the land.

In contrast, a painting of a European family show the family stark against the landscape.

Sidney Nolan  tried to interpret the landscape as seen from the air, and place it on canvas in his painting  “Central Australia”. In my humble opinion he failed when compared with the same view done by indigenous artist, Angelina George, who completed her work sometime later. George showed that she had a real relationship with the landscape where Nolan could only paint what he saw.

From there we saw a series of artists wanting to portray Australian history in their works. Nolan painted his famous Ned Kelly series, with one titled “First Class Marksman” showing a different side of Kelly but still in the traditional body armour and helmet. “Bourke” tells the story of the explorers frustration when they hit the salt plains, suffering in the desert.

Arthur Boyd continued the historical theme but with a different slant. He depicted biblical scenes in Australian landscape. ” Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall” is such a depiction, with the extra meaning of showing the plight of children subject to the effects of NAPALM in Vietnam during their war.

We also looked at some modern art, with” The Balcony2″ 1975, Brett Whiteley being my favorite, for its colour and depiction of Sydney Harbour.

We concluded the tour by looking at how indigenous art had developed over time.

“Painting to Heal”or ” Ngayuku Mamaku Ngura” 2011, Wawiriya Burton, is one such paining that was important to show the development of aboriginal art over time. While keeping in some ways to traditional styles of art, it was the first time the artist had worked on such a large piece. The painting depicts small pregnant mammals and the subsequent birth of their babies, then the trek from place to place to find food and water for their young.

Uta Uta Tjangula painted Jupiter well to Tjakula in 1979 to portray the unity of people on a journey from one place to another, through many nations. Each nation agreed to having their place in the painting making this an important work.

The entire tour was very informative and helped me see art through new eyes. The saying is ” A picture paints a thousand words”, but I have seen it can cover so much more. It can paint a whole life.



Filed under art, literature

2 responses to “Writing in Art

  1. Dave, you saw so much more than just a gallery. Guiseppe

  2. What a fabulous entry on the NSW Art Gallery visit David! You have left very few stones unturned. Your reflections on the key paintings are insightful and well written. I liked especially your original reflections on the “Memory of Nature” room, which really seemed to catch your imagination. There are a few minor typos that could be corrected here, but I would like to draw your attention to a feature in WordPress that can pick all these glitches up before you actually post. It is a great tool and will show you in class how to use it.

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