NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – ABORIGINAL ART
6 October 2013
My last post ended with us driving up King’s Highway towards Canberra. The only reason we were going there was to visit a couple of museums to look at their collections of indigenous art. There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the last thirty years about the new indigenous, aboriginal art coming out of Australia and I was curious to see what I would find in situ. I’ll say straight out that on the basis of what I’d seen before coming to Australia I was not a huge fan of indigenous Australian art. But I was willing to be persuaded.
Our first port of call on this voyage of discovery was the New South Wales Gallery of Art in Sydney, one of those Worthy Civic Buildings which I referred to in my first Australian post. We started by visiting the exhibition Sydney Moderns, whose poster picture was this painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I had a few things to say about in that same post).
Nice, but really this was just an outpost of European art. So then, after a quick salad on the terrace of the Gallery’s cafeteria, we headed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art collection.
And I found myself having the same problem I’ve always had with aboriginal art.
It’s the dot thing. The dense array of dots and lines which make up the paintings leave me cold. It’s just … too much. My eyes wander over all those dots, and wavy lines, and circles, and what-have-you, and … that’s it, they just wander, and eventually slide off the painting. My appreciation is not helped by the often dull pigments which are used. Here’s a number of this type of painting, from the 1970s onwards (when it seems that this style burst onto the art scene) in the National Gallery’s collection in Canberra.
Woman’s fire Dreaming, by David Corby Tjapaltjarri (1971):
Untitled, by Timmy Payungka Tjapangarti (1989):
Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald), by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrayi (1997):
Tupun Nguranguru, by Harry Brown and others (2012):
I can’t even get comfort out of the paintings’ spiritual content. There is a lot of talk of these paintings representing the spiritual dreamings of the artist, and we are invited to see in all those dots, wavy lines, and geometrical figures, dreams of rivers, hills, rocks, pools, and other elements of the landscape, or to see real or imagined animals, spirits, or ancestors, the whole sometimes representing tribal myths. But this is not my spiritual language. Give me a Virgin Mary and some saints and I can “read” the spiritual message. Aboriginal spirituality, alas, is a closed book for me, and will always be.
But all is not lost for me. There is Rover Thomas.
The first time I came across Thomas was a few years ago in Paris. My wife and I were there on our way to somewhere else, but we took a few days off to visit some new things which had been sprung up in the city since our last visit. One of these was the new Musée du Quai Branly, a museum which focuses on indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from all over the world (as one might guess, the core of the collection is a couple of colonial-era collections, but we’ll skip over that). Great museum, by the way, well worth a visit.
The museum has a section on aboriginal art from Australia. To be honest, it is not the most interesting part of the collection. But it did have a painting by Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.
Now that is a style which I can relate to! Clean, simple lines, on which my eyes can fasten and linger.
This is another Rover Thomas in the National Gallery in Canberra, Ruby Plains killing 1 (1990)
One of the things I learned in Australia is that Thomas is part of a group of like-minded painters from the Kimberley region. Here are a couple of paintings by Paddy Jampin Jaminji.
In passing, I should say that the first of Thomas’s painting, a bird’s-eye view of rivers in a landscape, brought a memory back to the surface, of a visit which my wife and I made a few years ago (maybe the same summer we visited the Musée du Quai Branly) to the Tate Modern in London. They were showing a painting from their collection by the Australian painter Fred Williams. I show it here.
Same idea, different approach.
Anyway, coming back to aboriginal art, in Sydney my wife and I came across another style of aboriginal art which we found quite congenial. These are paintings on bark. Here are a couple of examples from another museum we visited in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art, from the period 1960-80.
So like I say, there is hope for me. I just have to ignore the dot paintings, even though they seem to dominate the market.
By the way, in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we stumbled across these wonderful objects:
These are made by an aboriginal group called the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Here’s a couple of photos of the artists making these objects.
Those last pictures of the desert part of Australia move me to finish with this coda. During my web surfing for this post, I discovered another school of aboriginal painting, from the 1950s, the so-called Hermannsburg School. The primary artist from this school was Albert Namatjira. Here is what seems to be a typical example of his style:
When I looked at this and other of Namatjira paintings – watercolours, actually, for the most part – I had a shock of recognition. My parents had a small painting in exactly this style! I have already mentioned that my father was really into genealogy. As part of his work, he discovered that a long-distant cousin had emigrated to Australia during the Gold Rush. Not from my father’s English side of the family, by the way, but from the French side! He then tracked down some of the man’s descendants, got into correspondence with them, and finally, when he had retired, visited Australia with my mother to meet them. One of them gave him the painting, which she had painted (she said; who knows, though, maybe it was an Albert Namatjira!)
painting Sydney Harbour Bridge: http://media2.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/thumbnails/uploads/rotator_images/SYDMOD_980x400_SID50819.jpg.770x314_q85_crop.jpg
“Woman’s fire Dreaming”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/167747.jpg
“Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald)”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/227909.jpg
“Tupun Nguranguru” : http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/223919.jpg
“River Ord, River Bow, River Denham”: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
“Ruby Plains killing 1”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/147688.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-1: http://img.aasd.com.au/30313805.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-2: http://img.aasd.com.au/05502896.jpg
Fred Williams: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Bark paintings: my pictures
Tjanpi Desert Weavers: my pictures
Albert Namatjira: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/16/Namatjira_Landscape.jpg