Section 20 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 20

Painting the place

Art, in Australia, provides a truer gauge of national growth in culture than does literature. Convictism and larrikinism never intruded into oil-painting, or, at least, into landscape-painting; and neither did journalism, to any serious extent. The half-tone process of reproduction, even to this day, cannot reproduce colour satisfactorily or cheaply in newspapers. The colour-artist in Australia has had to work to please the taste of individual patrons of art, and has not had to subordinate decoration and design to “meaning,” as his brothers of the pen, whether in literature or in black-and-white drawing, had to do.

The foremost black-and-white artist, Norman Lindsay, developed his slickness, speed, sense of humour and sense of human caricature, it may be presumed, under journalistic influence — under the influence of the half-tone process, and, later, of the etching-press. Even his best work is not entirely free from caricature and “cartooning.” Norman Lindsay is in a class apart, and will be considered as such at a later stage in this tractate. He is not a representative “Australian” artist. Hilder, Heysen, and Gruner I take to be the leading examples of distinctively Australian achievement in art.

Landscape artists, whether they liked it or not, have had to face Australia, examine it carefully, and create, or recreate, the land as art. They came by intuition and of necessity close to the Spirit of the Place, whatever it is, as they submitted themselves, with easel, colour, and brushes, to necessary vigils on lonely hillsides, observing the unorthodox contours of the land, and the light-quality of an atmosphere not previously painted or described in text-books. Landscape painting in oils, by its meditative and quiet technique, is a mystical process, an intuitive process of mind. If there is any such thing as the Spirit of a Place, the landscape artist will be likely to find it first, and to show others what it is.

Thus the birth of a distinctively Australian culture has been heralded more precisely by our great landscape painters than by our writers, because landscape painting has been subjected to fewer disturbing and extraneous influences than any other form of aesthetic expression in Australia. The work of Gruner, Hilder, Heysen, Streeton and others is a new contribution, an Australian contribution, to the art of the world. Whether it is recognised as such by overseas critics at the moment does not matter. The work is there, and the distinctiveness is there. Art-criticism and art-recognition in London (or Paris) is very much allied in practice to art-marketing and the artistic struggle for existence. Among so many “schools” of modern and modernistic theory, mainly concerned with the log-rolling of cliques, and among so many dealers concerned mainly with marketing Old Masters to the New Rich, it may well be that Australian art will have a long time to wait for recognition outside Australia. Some day, by a swing of the pendulum away from Epstein, towards restfulness and the exotic but quiet beauty of Gruner, it may become a Vogue to have gum trees and sunlit Murrumbidgee valleys on the walls of Mayfair and Manhattan flats. That day has not yet arrived, and could only arrive if a group of art-dealers first secured a “corner” in Gruner pictures before launching a campaign of theory to prove that he was Corot redivivus, but more charming, more strange, more incomprehensible except to the initiated.

While appreciation of an artist by his contemporaries remains a matter of whim, or of “wangling,” or both, the Australian landscape painters need not seek world-recognition, for they will not get it. They are forced to establish themselves here; to please their own people first — a stroke of luck for the development of Australian culture.

Art depends more directly upon individual patronage than does literature, which depends upon mass-patronage. An artist sells his original, his unique object of merchandise, almost directly to the buyer whose walls it will adorn. The landscape artists in Australia have been fortunate in finding patrons, picture-buyers, amongst Australian people of wealth. I do not say “people of taste” — the artists themselves provided the taste; their patrons merely bought the works, and thus almost unknowingly encouraged the development of culture here. Perhaps they bought mainly for “furnishing value,” perhaps the dealers here, working a “wangle” in their own way, urged upon patrons that the pictures were a commercial investment; perhaps, even, the buyers were actually pleased by the landscapes — anything is possible in a “new” country, and to a new bourgeoisie . . . but whatever the reason, the fact remains that pictures have actually been bought here, that an Australian school of painting has thus been established, and that this school of painting is something new and delightful in the world’s art — certain at some time to be lauded as such; something quite as distinctive as Japanese art, or Persian art, which have had their vogues in world-appreciation.

The development of art in Australia (I confine the discussion for purposes of the thesis to landscape art) has been subject to the same influencing factors as the development of literature. The factors are:

(1) A preconceived or European hypothesis, brought hither by immigrants.

(2) A continued contact with Europe, by the export of artists and the import of European works of art and criticism.

(3) The growth of indigenous art, despite the repressive influence of the two former factors, by means of local criticism and a local marketing technique.

Landscape art in Australia, in colour-painting at least, had no journalistic side-track to explore, no bumptious proclamation of “Australian” aggressiveness to pervert its intention, or to force it into crude and larrikin channels. Art, in the violent atmosphere of Australian democracy-with-growing-pains, miraculously found a means of remaining aloof and dignified. The painters who have hypothecated Australian landscape have been able to do their work without vulgar brawling, without the discouragements of the criticism-which-sneers, and actually with the encouragements of a market and an adequate réclame.

The preconceived or European hypothesis of Australian landscape is seen clearly in the work of Conrad Martens, who came to Australia, in 1835, at the age of 35 years, and painted here until he died in 1878. It may fairly be said that he never saw Australia except through a European’s eyes. His landscape drawings are astonishingly “European.” They portray a land where (as Adam Lindsay Gordon said) “bright flowers are scentless, and songless bright birds.” Conrad Martens’ colour is murky, his trees droop and spread like English trees; he painted our paddocks as if they were meadows; over his eyes there must have been a European film. His pictures of Australia are as unreal as was Praed’s poem. They are of tremendous significance as showing pictorially what Australia must have seemed like to the first immigrants here, and probably still appears to the first vision of immigrants.

But nowadays we can show the immigrant another interpretation of Australia, an indigenous interpretation, not murky. In the bright yellows and blues of Streeton the murk was cleared away; in the brightness and lyrical colour of Hilder and Heysen a new world is revealed; while in the subtler purples and delicate tints of Gruner all the first garishness of Streeton has vanished, to the picture of a land that is loved, a unique land interpreted by an artist of subtle and delicate mind.

Gruner’s pictures provide an Australian’s hypothesis of Australia. He can show Australians themselves, no less than immigrants, how Australia shall be viewed henceforth. Gruner’s lucent but faint Australian purple and his dry-refracting Australian subtle blue is as distinctive an example of artistic creativeness as was Turner’s misty London blue or flaming Venice sunset red. Gruner, the greatest Australian landscape painter, has shown in his work how the Spirit of a Place creates and is created by the artist. He sees Australia lyrically, the only true realism is his — that which constructs a country as a vision to be attained, as a country that is loved. In proof of this love, there are his pictures, a reality: Australia become real in its own culture and by its own aesthetic. Once you have seen a painting by Gruner, you can never again believe that the Australian landscape is drab or colourless. Here is the ultimate expression of confidence in Australia — the ability and the will to depict it as beautiful and as a desirable land in which to live.

That landscape art should have arrived, from Conrad Martens, through Streeton, to Hilder, Heysen, and Gruner, is a proof that indigenous Australian culture is possible, that the Spirit of the Place will find its own expression, and that that expression will be not only distinctive, but may be beautiful and sophisticated. Gruner is a sophisticated painter. He has travelled to Europe, and absorbed what he needed of European traditions in painting; but no more than he needed. This should be the keynote of our developing culture.

Art in Australia, like literature, has been subject to loss by the export of talent. We have exported quite a number of artists, and there have been Australian R.A.’s. We have imported artists and teachers of art, and works of foreign artists, but not to the extent that we have imported literature, and teachers of literature, from abroad. If we are respectful of foreign criticism of our art, we have nevertheless (thanks to S. Ure Smith, Gayfield Shaw, and a gallant band of dealers here), developed critical standards of our own, which have encouraged the best in indigenous art. As a result, Australian art, instead of being merely imitative of, or repressed by, overseas standards, has arrived at standards of its own.

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 72-77

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