I have just got back from a lecture tour from Adelaide to Sydney. After 21 talks in 24 days – not to mention 19 lunches and 16 dinners with members of the various committees – I was bound to have become a bit disoriented. But, perhaps, this feeling may have been exacerbated because the itinerary, which had been worked out with great skill by the Association of Design and Fine Arts Societies of Australia, had a habit of looping around and doubling-back on itself. Hence Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney all seemed to appear and disappear with startling regularity. All perfectly logical, as it turned out, but it got me thinking about the links between the places that I was visiting and the talks that I was giving as well as about the idiosyncratic relationship that Australia seems to have with maps.
I first noticed this in Adelaide when I came across a chart that the anthropologist Norman Tindale had created, which disproved the notion of Australia as a continent that had been populated by nomadic people before the arrival of the Europeans. That afternoon I had been talking about Jacquetta Hawkes’ use of Henry Moore’s drawings of quasi-archaeological figures in her book Back to a Land to illustrate the way in which ancient sites help to shape our perceptions of a landscape. What I found particularly interesting, however, was that Tindale had used language variations to map the locations of different indigenous groups. I was reminded of this a few days later when comparing Richard Long’s circular wall-piece at the 1988 exhibition, Magiciens de la terre, to a piece by an indigenous Australian artist on the floor next to it. I had just been explaining how Long recorded his subjective impressions – including the snatches of pop songs that came into his head – and juxtaposed them with the place names on hi walks. I then remembered how one of the audience had told me that indigenous people had chosen the place names in the area because they imitated the sounds made by frogs in specific locations. They were thus useful in helping them to find their way across an otherwise undifferentiated landscape.
The preconceived way in which Long imposes lines and circles on a landscape evokes a wonderful description in Voss, Patrick White’s great novel of Australian exploration. In it the eponymous hero, who is trying to find his way across the continent, sends back his indigenous guide for help but the latter gives up since he becomes distracted by his habit of living in the moment around him. I was reminded of Voss’s hubris once again when someone told me that when gold was discovered near Melbourne the locals drew a misleading map, which indicated that their town was much closer to it than Geelong, thus ensuring the city’s future development as the state capital. Similarly, towards the end of my trip another of my hosts told me that the famous trio of explorers who discovered a trail over the Blue Mountains may have been accompanied by an indigenous guide or at the very least have followed paths that had been known to local people.
The relationship of landscape to national identity reappeared in a lecture about Munch in the form of a comparison of the romantic landscapes of the Norwegian artist, Johann Christian Dahl, to the work of the Australian painter Eugene von Guerard. Most of my lectures, however, seemed to focus on the way in which artists used the language of history painting to create statements about contemporary life. This was true of a talk about the links between Rembrandt’s Night Watch and the role of the militia at the start of the Dutch revolt and of another about Joseph Wright of Derby’s allegories of the philosophical and scientific ideas of 18th century Britain. Since several of my talks were about the European Enlightenment, I was also intrigued to discover how the artists who accompanied Baudin, the French explorer who came across Flinders in Encounter Bay, portrayed indigenous people in sympathetic poses in accordance with preconceived ideas of the ‘noble savage’ that they had derived from Lahontan and Robinson Crusoe.
The most iconic of Australian heroes is, of course, Ned Kelly and I was fascinated to find how much Sidney Nolan’s great series about the outlaw resonated more strongly in Australia than when I had first seen it in England. The same was true of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles whose purchase by the National Gallery of Australia for AS$1.3m in 1973 created a political scandal for Gough Whitlam’s government. Watching Australians queue up to take their selfies with the painting – now estimated to be worth about $300 million – it seemed far more significant than it had at its recent showing at the Royal Academy or when it left the artist’s studio. Nolan explained his curious decision to to adopt a comic opera idiom for the series because he felt that the policemen who were pursuing Ned had been naïve to sleep in hammocks in the wilderness and to burn trees for warmth, which gave away their position. Indeed, there is something of the Pirates of Penzance about his portrayal of one of the members of the posse when he unwisely decides to take Ned Kelly’s wife upon his knee.
Equally hagiographic but in a very different way were the works of Rodel Tapaya, an artist from the Philippines, whose paintings were being exhibited in the gallery adjacent to the series in Canberra. His combination of south Asian animist beliefs with post-modernist extravagance and sci-fi dystopia provided an interesting contrast to the work of several indigenous Australian artists on show. Among them were the late Rover Thomas whose laconic paintings read both as depictions of the outback and as modernist abstractions. Only when one reads the labels does one find that their titles refer to actual events in the recent history of indigenous people from the devastation of Cyclone Tracy to the shooting of a cattle rustler.
Like his fellow artist from the Kimberley, Queenie McKenzie, Thomas has become an important figure in the reinterpretation of Australian history by indigenous people. One of the most recent expressions of this is the decision by the current director of the war memorial in Canberra to show paintings of the conflicts that they waged against the settlers. The huge number of young people that Australia lost in two world wars made this a controversial decision. Although comparable to the Imperial War Museum North’s display of a police shields from the miners’ strike or memorabilia from Greenham Common, its real significance can only be appreciated on the spot. The week before I left for Australia I happened to visit Highgate Cemetery where Sidney Nolan is buried a stone’s throw from Karl Marx. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find his grave, which is located next to a narrow path among a group of other émigrés. In retrospect, it seems a fitting metaphor for how far my journey would lead me off the map.
Also published on Medium.