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Art In Australia

By Professor


Professor of Fine Arts, Melbourne University

AUSTRALIA, SO RICH in talent, has still to realise that union of architecture, paint- ing and sculpture out of

which the new national art may most appropriately arise. In fairness, this task of uniting the arts also awaits the older countries of Europe. What can reasonably be said is that Australia yields to few in

the brightness of her hopes.

THE Royal visit pro-

vides a timely oc- casion to appraise the con- temporary situation in

Australian art. The moment is the mid twentieth century, when Australia shares, more consciously than at any other time in her history, the preoccupation of the

international scene.

Behind stretches a past with its cultural roots in Georgian England; indeed the student of British colon- ial art in its imperial phase reaches the end of his pil- grimage in Hobart, where, amid an antipodean land- scape, Georgian architect- ure enjoys its Indian sum-


Between this gracious legacy and the present lies a century of evolution, a complex and complicated story of diverse styles, in which a romantic his- toricism takes the lead, particularly in architecture. There is a notable time-lag in relation to the Mother Country and to Europe; Aus- tralian "Impressionism" is es- tablished by the Heidelberg School in Victoria from 1885 onwards, and even at this late date owes as much to the Barbizon School as to the true Impressionists.

Post-Impressionism does     not become a significant force before the 1920s, and because of its late arrival mingles with influences which a Euro- pean critic is accustomed to keep distinguished.

THE genius of the country

appears earlier and more forcibly in painting than in architecture. For though there are important adaptations in architecture to the new en- vironment from the very be- ginning, a painter like Tom Roberts (1856-1931) is al- ready applying techniques learnt from Europe to a

wholly Australian subject


There is, in other words, a situation between the in- herited civilisation and the primeval wilderness, to which

the painter responds more sharply and more freely.

Roberts, who had studied in a sophisticated Europe, paints bushrangers, boundary riders, prospectors and settlers

in a virgin bush. He turns to the immediate and.already

semi-legendary past. This  

pioneer consciousness is an active agent to-day, for Aus- tralia has the last frontier, and the drama of settlement is still being played out be- fore the artist's eye.

Foremost among the con- temporary artists who see the present as advancing history is Russell Drysdale (b. 1912).

The Australian Impression- ists had painted the rich coastal fringe while it was still being settled; Drysdale has turned to the desert heart of an age-old continent.

THIS concern with the

desert inland owes some- thing, no doubt, to a Euro- pean trend of which T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and the art of the late Paul Nash are among the notable English phenomena. Oscar Wilde illustrated his thesis that nature imitates art by asserting that there were no fogs on the Thames before Monet and Whistler painted them; an even more striking illustration might be taken from Central Australia, designed by Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland in a happy partnership aeons before either

was born.

Drysdale began his career, sketch-book ever ready in pocket, as a jackeroo in the outback, and was later trained in the advanced George Bell School in Melbourne, in Lon- don, and in Paris.

After his return from Europe in 1939 he was drawn, by irresistible impulse, away from his accomplished school of Paris exercises, to an al- ready decaying frontier fringe. For it is one of the paradoxes of an expanding Australia that the frontier fringe has in many cases declined or re- ceded. His "Joe" shows a Greek immigrant running a cafe in a dilapidated 19th cen- tury township. "The Drover's Wife" carries her modern kerosene tin against a desolate background of drought-strick-

en. trees.

What distinguishes these re-   markable paintings from their

American counterparts of Middle Western genre and erosion is their preoccupation with formal relationships. For this reason Drysdale is per- haps at his best when he de- picts natural phenomena rocks, boulders, dead trees shaped by the attrition of time.

In "Deserted Outstation" the formal contrasts are en- hanced by symbolic associa- tions: the mathematically severe wreckage of corrugated iron is lifeless; the monstrous

dead tree appears as a thing

alive and writhing in agonis- ed commentary.

AMONG younger painters

who have been similarly drawn to outback and hinter- land are Arthur Boyd (b. 1920) and Sidney Nolan (b. 1917). Neither has had, and perhaps not wished for, the formal dis- cipline of the School of Paris.

Boyd, largely self-taught,   has been inspired by Breughel, both in his landscapes and symbolic murals. Nolan first came into prominence with his Ned Kelly cycle, first exhibited in Melbourne in 1948, and, with considerable acclaim, in the Maison de l'Unesco in Paris in December, 1949.

Jean Cassou, in describing Nolan as "le chantre d'une belle histoire de chevalerie" hit upon that very note of romantic restrospection which we have remarked in Roberts and Drysdale.

And if this turning back- wards seems odd in a young country, we may remember that Australia has urgently to discover and proclaim her own tradition.

The search for a tradi- tion goes hand in hand with a growing internationalism. Paris is still the Mecca of study for

the youngest and most nation- ally conscious painters, while progressive architects will argue that they have broken completely with Australia's

Victorian antecedents.

So, too, many painters have deliberately rejected the Aus- tralian scene in their quest for more purely international stan- dards. Abstraction and sur- realism have their enthusiastic and sometimes exclusive vot- aries.

Eric Wilson (1911-1946) was perhaps the most promis- ing of the abstractionists

before his premature death at

the age of 35.

When the Orient Line, at the discerning initiative of Sir Colin Anderson, commissioned leading Australian as well as British contemporary artists to decorate the Oreades, there was certainly no falling off on the Australian side of the partnership. A mural by

Douglas Annand fully justi-

fied its pride of place, and one of the best textile designs was Justin O'Brien's "Three Kings."

Indeed, it is difficult, in a survey of broad trends, to account for artists as diverse as Lloyd Rees (b. 1895), with his rich and painterly land- scapes, and Francis Lym- burner (b. 1916) whose sensi- tive art would possibly com- mand more immediate recog- nition in Europe than it has in this country.

Some fine painters of the old traditionist school,- like Hans Heysen (b. 1877) are still producing vigorously. Moreover, almost every year brings to notice younger artists of the promise of Charles

Doutney and Eric Smith.

This complexity has been further intensified by the im- migration of an elite from Europe. Among the leaders of this "New Australian" contri- bution may be mentioned Desiderius Orban (b. 1884), a distinguished painter whose teaching has made a profound mark in Sydney in the post- war years; Dr. Ludwig Hirschfeld- Mack, an original mem- ber of the Bauhaus staff, a close colleague and friend of Paul Klee, whose work has influenced his own highly original abstract paintings; Sali Herman (b. 1898), and the recent winner of the Blake Prize for religious art, Michael

Kmit, from the Ukraine.

The variety of styles and movements is not peculiar to Australia, and it would be rash to forecast the pattern of development Among the many contrasts that might be mentioned is one between a classic idealism and a con- science-probing social realism

There are many reasons why this country, stocked by peoples of northern energy

who have advanced into warmer regions, should glance back at the earliest Mediter- ranean heritage.

Constance Stokes (b. 1906) and Jean Bellette (b. 1909) are two painters who have announced the pursuit of the classical ideal as their aim. Constance Stokes' "Girl in Red Tights," with its Vene- tian richness of colouring, ably sustains the monumental harmony of the classical tradi-


The spectacle of the Aus- tralian beaches in the summer would have delighted the ancient Greeks: Jean Bellette has re-created the myths of Hellas in a not dissimilar landscape, and with a curious poignancy.

SOCIAL realism suffered a

temporary eclipse when its leader, Noel Counihan (b. 1915) left for England and Eastern Europe. The group that attacked the School of Paris for formalised sterility nevertheless included Cezanne

the portraitist with Rem- brandt, Daumier and Dobell among its models.

The movement has gained from being in a minority, for it has never attempted to perpetrate the bourgeois vul- garities of contemporary Russian social realism. Couni- han excels as a draughtsman and is a powerful social caricaturist in black and white. His "At the Start of the March" was included in the Jubilee Exhibition of Aus- tralian art, where it com- manded respect by its sin-  

cerity and power.

With a stone-age culture surviving on her soil, and proximity to tribal societies on the north and east, Australia need not look, like Europe, to the museum for the inspiration of the primitives.

The curious spectacle of Margaret Preston (b. 1883) painting like the aborigines, and Albert Namatjira (b. 1902) like his white teacher, points an important lesson: Miss Preston's art vigorously belongs to the 20th century, where as Namatjira's, what- ever its merits, has broken tragically with the traditions

of his race.

The noble savage has been dismissed as an eighteenth century illusion, but primitive peoples still preserve what the modern age has lost, the sense of life as a symbolic ritual.

AMONG Australian paint-

ers who have been drawn to this ritual dignity of the primitives are William Dobell (b. 1899), lan Fairweather and Donald Friend (b. 1915). Those who have seen Dobell's New Guinea sketches await anxiously what may well be his crowning achievement.

Fairweather's art still awaits its due recognition. Haunted by strong and dramatic fears, as independent as Blake,

------------ABOVE: "Margaret   Olley," which won Wil- liam Dobell the 1948 Ar- chibald Prize (National Art Gallery, N.S.W.).  

LEFT: "Hell," by Ian Fairweather (Melbourne


and far closer to primiti- vism than Gauguin or the later Fauves, he possesses those mysterious powers to which the term "genius" may fairly be applied.

"Hell" belongs to that late period when, a recluse who slept by day and painted by night, he was living on his memories of life in China and the islands. A student of Ori- ental image-scripts, he here creates from flowing calli- graphic lines a world of the imagination, the spiritual in- tensity of which is heightened by an absorbing movement

The freeze-like pattern organ- ises a strange spatial complex-

ity, out of which emerges the ghost-like and obsessive forms.

In November, 1951, the new Society of Sculptors and Associates held its first out- door exhibition in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. The exist- ence of a vigorous group of younger sculptors came as an unheralded surprise to a majo- rity of the Australian public; in reality it was the denoue- ment of a series of pioneer ex- periments, notably by Lyndon Dadswell (b. 1908).

Among the sculptors repre- sented were Dadswell himself, whose group "Native," with its flow of line and turning sur- faces, leads the eye into an exciting arrangement of open spaces; Robert Klippel (b. 1920) again an experimentalist with open-form sculpture and new materials; G. F. Lewers (b; 1905), whose essentially lyrical gift translates the poetry of movement in a school of fish, a flight of birds or a ballet dancer into a gracious semi-abstract language; and -----------RIGHT: "Girl in Red Tights," by Constance Stokes (Daryl Lindsay). BELOW: "Bailed up," by Tom Roberts (National

Art Gallery, N.S.W.).------------

Tom Bass (b 1916), a strong sculptor working mainly with- in the humanistic tradition.

ONE of the first criticisms

of those artists who, in a transitional age, pioneer a new vision, is that their work can never be popular History has so often falsified this predic- tion in the past, that it would hardly be worth refuting to- day, had it not been directed violently in certain quarters of the Press against the Sydney


The popularity with child- ren of the playground sculp- ture of Anita Aarons (b. 1912) is an encouraging indication that time is on their side.

No less encouraging is the attention paid to certain mem- bers of the group of critics both in Europe, and the Uni- ted States: Margel Hinder (b. 1906) won a £250 prize

in the International Sculpture competition for a monument to the "Unknown Political Prisoner," and the same inter national jury awarded a prize to a Sydney art student, John


No single factor can aid the aitist more in his iel mons to society than the cicition of a contemporary style in architec- ture. When our new buildings are right, the falsilt of much popular painting to the age will be exposed.

ARTISTS have been denied

the chance of mural

painting in a contemporary setting, to say nothing of the neglect of sculptors, who have even stronger claims to col-

laboration with the architect and landscape designer.

The delaying factor here has been, with some honour- able exceptions, the resistance to contemporary styles in lead- ing governmental and indus-

trial circles. Too many of

our most progressive architccts have been restricted to com- missions for private homes by a few enlightened patrons.

In a short survey of broad trends, a policy of selection is necessarily imposed on the critic. I have necessarily omitted many names of equal


Recent reforms in art edu- cation, and an important movement to promote high standards of industrial design, should have major conse-

quences in widening the basis of public appreciation.

Finally, by participating in the forthcoming Biennale at Venice, Australian culture enters on a new phase of in- ternational recognition. Her place, by its vigour, variety   and sense of advetnure will be an honourable one and her future may well be watched with interest by the rest of

the world.

Digitisation generously supported by
Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
Digitisation generously supported by