A Marathon for Australian Art

An art historian’s position is quite different from that of an art critic—or an art connoisseur for that matter. Pinned to the art historian’s cerebral butterfly-board are specimens which are all quite dead, while on the critic’s board they are very much alive and still fluttering. The connoisseur, on the other hand, is probably looking out of the window for a hitherto unrecognised species, and will take off in hot pursuit of it. Or to find another analogy, the critic regularly partakes of the hundred-metre sprint, while the art historian undertakes the marathon—perhaps just once.

With Volume One of his projected three-volume history of Australian art recently released, John McDonald joins the ranks of those writers who have previously embarked on the same journey: William Moore (in 1934), Professor Bernard Smith (1962), Robert Hughes (1970), Christopher Allen (1997) and Andrew Sayers (2001).

John McDonald became the full-time art critic on the Sydney Morning Herald after returning from England in 1994. With a sharp sense of the ridiculous and a taste for controversy, he took a razor blade to the pretensions of the remnants of the avant-garde and the young postmodernist art culture around him. He enjoyed the scrapes and the distemper, and he developed a reputation for mimicking his adversaries, not to mention friends, art dealers, bureaucrats and politicians.

When he became the curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia in 2000 the bureaucratic art world was incandescent. A letter and petition to members of the gallery’s council insinuated that McDonald’s appeal to a “general readership” diminished the virtues of his writing. He was accused of building his career on “calculated populism, only made plausible by the ruthlessness he brought to his work as an art reviewer” and had “demonstrated an intolerant attitude to Australian art with strong ideological overtones”. There was more in this vein, and the letter called upon the council to encourage a “climate of accountability”—which had the unhappy whiff of Stalin’s party-room debates. A number of institutional inmates around Australia who were jealous of McDonald’s appointment decried his lack of curatorial experience.

McDonald had always spoken his mind:

It is career profile, not art, that preoccupies today’s avant-garde artists. They are the spoilt brats of the cultural welfare state—brash, greedy, narcissistic and opportunistic. As a reward for their careerism, such artists are mollycoddled by State funding bodies, museums and art magazines …

In the museums our curators are so terrified of repeating the philistine mistakes of their predecessors, who ignored the works of the great modernists, that they have become fixated on trivial innovations.

For these reasons alone, McDonald may have found the process of writing this immense book (it weighs as much as a Christmas turkey) a rewarding marathon and certainly less fraught than the cut-and-thrust activity of weekly reporting on exhibitions.

The one exhibition he curated for the National Gallery in Canberra, Federation: Australian Art and Society 1901–2001, which opened in December 2000 provided, in retrospect, something of a template for his imperative in this first volume of Art of Australia. Giles Auty, then art critic on the Australian, noted McDonald’s special commitment to “show wrongly neglected artists among household names”, a democratic stance which meant that “famous images rubbed shoulders with easily overlooked gems”. Michael Fitzgerald suggested that Federation was “Australian history through art, rather than the history of Australian art”.

McDonald makes it clear in his preface that he intends to resuscitate the reputations of such artists as Eugène von Guérard (although the auction rooms have gone a long way towards this), S.T. Gill (once trivialised by Robert Hughes and reprimanded for it by Professor Bernard Smith) and sculptor Bertram McKennal (who in earlier times had been the most celebrated Australian artist in London’s Royal Academy rooms).

McDonald has scrupulously credited those whose early scholarship in the arena of Australian art writing has given him a scaffolding for his own construction, and he has made some interesting departures from the familiar formula of beginning Australian art at the time of the arrival of Governor Phillip’s vessels in 1788. Introducing his first chapter with a reference to Aboriginal rock art, he says: “Australia has claims to being the rock art capital of the world”, and he may well be right, when one takes into account the extraordinary number of sites across this continent still being revealed. The trademark McDonald astringency is immediately evident, when he describes Erich von Daniken (who suggested that some rock imagery depicted spacemen) as a “best-selling quack”.

The early colonial period is dealt with in a sprightly fashion which belies a wealth of careful research, and is seeded with exhausted and disillusioned artists who live out their last days with less recognition than they are entitled to—collectively they seem like a subliminal projection of the writer himself. By page 182, it is still an unremitting tale of evaporating hopes, sorrow-drowning, eked-out existences, fatal accidents, bankruptcies and anonymous departures from this earth, all of it interesting and perhaps necessary because there is only so much you can say about the art produced during those years. Indeed the generous page space devoted to large-scale images, in particular portraits, demonstrates conclusively that the scaffolding of a rigorous and traditional training could supply only so much support to essentially mediocre practitioners. In any number of cases, the self-taught seemed to have fared better.

Surprisingly for a writer whose offerings are usually taut and expressive, there are some lazy sentences (“Melbourne’s sense of destiny was heading for the stratosphere”) and some casual dismissals and hasty assumptions: “Sydney was a dull place in the mid-nineteenth century”, and by 1851, Australia was still an island “which … seemed no more than a distant refuge for sheep and convicts”, a comment which dramatically diminishes what was going on in the colony at that time. He also suggests that by the 1860s, Australians “still felt uneasy about their lack of spiritual and cultural depth” and “In the 1890s, when the bubble of prosperity burst, Australians were forced to re-assess some of their swaggering aspirations.” In fact it is hard to imagine who was swaggering. Life and livelihood were tenuous matters. There were no pensions, no health funds, no antibiotics, vast distances, and rural work was backbreaking.

As a champion of Eugène von Guérard, who he suggests was “easily the best romantic landscapist to ever work in Australia”, McDonald has introduced fourteen plates into the narrative. A pity then that these include a number of luridly coloured canvases which do not add lustre to von Guérard’s oeuvre, while subtracting much. He notes that Bernard Smith devoted merely “two grudging paragraphs” to von Guérard, which undoubtedly influenced Hughes, who dismissed von Guérard “in half a sentence as a hack”. Thus if Robert Hughes’ The Art of Australia all but ignores von Guérard, McDonald intends to rub out the snub, but may have overestimated von Guérard’s case in doing so. He enlarges on the neglect by suggesting that von Guérard’s contribution was obscured by the ascendancy of the Heidelberg School, which is undoubtedly true.

Nonetheless, von Guérard’s most ambitious works, with their plunging ravines, canyons and mountain ranges (which paid homage to the sublime intentions of their creator and were intended to create a state of wonder in the viewer) are his most overblown offerings. His best canvases by far are the smaller-scale pastoral scenes, with their fresh lime- and pine-coloured fields, indigo hills and cerulean skies laced with cotton wool clouds. These are seeded with tiny figures or homesteads to create a comfortable scale of viewing. The crystalline clarity of these works may be a little less surprising to us once we read that his father Bernhard was a painter of miniatures for Emperor Franz I of Austria. Perhaps McDonald’s most percipient comment about the Romantic painters such as von Guérard is this: “The Romantic artists had painted the world as though it were God’s private property, with human ants shown trespassing in some small corner of the picture.”

Apart from the sheer lavishness of its production and unprecedented number of images—all colour—one of the features which distinguishes this book from previous publications is that relatively unknown figures are raised up, such as Isaac Walter Jenner from Brighton who would serve in the Crimean war, and the Portuguese artist Arthur Loureiro, who McDonald feels is “overdue for reassessment”. McDonald gives a tantalising glimpse into the life and art of this unusual man, and the reader senses through him and others of his ilk, that no matter how far away Australia may have been from the rest of the world, it was still a part of the matrix of destinations, stopping-off points, or a springboard, for that seething, largely unnamed mass of restless individuals whose circumstances and adventurousness led them backwards and forwards, traversing the globe—now a cloud of vanished wanderers. McDonald often cites less-than-robust health as a reason for these journeys. What is inescapable, but not too mysterious, is that the paintings from the Australian colonial period differ not at all from the bulk of paintings produced in other colonial cultures around the world—from Africa to the Americas. Many are mediocre, some are outstanding.

There are so many pleasing vistas, so much golden light, so many well-fed faces, that to turn the page to 277 is to receive a visceral shock. Here a ragged and delirious Burke and Wills make an appearance in Longstaff’s painting of 1907. McDonald thinks the depiction of the explorers has a perfunctory air, as if it has been completed in a hurry, and yet its raddled paint surface saves it from mawkishness.

If any painter could be buttonholed for a certain distilled sentimentality it would be Frederick McCubbin, whose canvases of children lost in the bush and luckless swagmen lose something in the literalness of the narrative. However, one quite memorable McCubbin which McDonald includes only to dismiss, called Home Again, has a limpid perfection in its design and paint application. If one were to detach the left half of the composition and examine it alone, one might even go so far as to suggest it evokes a memory of Vermeer’s interiors.

Excellence, like a fast-moving virus, is catching, and certainly there was a moment in the history of Australian painting when a rash of the finest paintings ever produced here broke out. It was around 1885 to 1895. One need only recall Tom Roberts’ Bourke Street, The Breakaway, and Bailed Up, Conder’s Departure of the S.S. Orient—Circular Quay, Streeton’s “Fire’s On”, Lapstone Tunnel and Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his Luck to recognise this conspicuous efflorescence.

As McDonald enters the well-traversed and well-signposted terrain of the Heidelberg School years, he has some fresh observations to make. As earlier, these point to the diligent research he has undertaken and which is lightly worn. He gives an excellent account of the notorious 9 x 5 exhibition in Melbourne, both the critics’ verbal spasms and the retorts of the artists themselves. The camaraderie of Conder, Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton is examined and the scenes they painted together are placed in delightful proximity on the book’s pages. There are some rewarding thumbnail biographies, especially of artists like Charles Conder, whose art career straddled Australia and England, and whose louche times in Paris and London give McDonald the opportunity to dwell luxuriantly on the downward spiral of a raft of pleasure-seeking, reckless beau-monde—or decadents—which included Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. The careful reader might detect a small frisson of the judgmental in McDonald’s account of these adventures. There are further polished accounts of the careers of John Peter Russell, John Longstaff and Bertram McKennal.

All sorts of surprises are thrown up, including three extraordinarily precise narrative paintings of the Flemington racetrack by the socially well-connected Austrian Carl Kahler, and three works by Arthur Collingridge, who had fought against Garibaldi, received knighthoods from the Portuguese and Spanish governments, and who persuaded Camille Corot to give him painting lessons. Another is Conder’s painting Hot Wind, which seems to have blown in from another book—or another world—so curious and hallucinatory is it. A gauze-clad girl lies on shimmering pale peach sand, and blows into a three-legged brazier as a serpent approaches her.

And while some paintings are so lacklustre that only an accurate historical narrative can explain their presence, McDonald reminds us that art was not only a matter of oils and watercolours, but of murals, miniatures, plaques and architectural ornament. He has discussed the ascendant years of the Bulletin, with its group of talented illustrators such as Phil May, and he has included commemorative medals, stained-glass windows and statues. McDonald also discusses the contributions of a number of Aboriginal painters, such as William Barak, Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, who all add their observations of colonial life unfolding (or perhaps collapsing) around them. As the decades progress towards Federation, the book both concludes with it and offers it as a template for the opening scenes of Volume Two.

The book has the inevitable typographical errors, and as a writer who has allowed plenty to slip through in her own offerings, I would not seek to dwell on this. However, McDonald’s editors should certainly have picked up the misspelling of the celebrated war correspondent and novelist Alan Moorehead’s name, the incorrect title of Huysman’s 1884 novel—it should read À Rebours, not A Rebour—and the correct title of Conder’s 1888 painting Departure of the S.S. Orient—Circular Quay.

The prospect of individual artists’ reputations, even whole art movements, being dismantled and refashioned, according to the preoccupations of the writer, is part of what makes a new offering in this arena compelling reading. Further, when years stand between one publication and another, there is the inevitable subliminal ebb and flow of aesthetic tides as well as socio-political high grounds. Thus one can read a book such as this with a view to how art writing itself has mutated through the decades.

McDonald is convinced that both Bernard Smith and Robert Hughes gave too much praise to Louis Buvelot, but if that is so, McDonald gives too little, and he has certainly missed a contribution made by Buvelot which no other painter did so successfully—he captured the essential unruliness, the untidiness of the bush, and set it down without garnish, and with a faultless colour sense. He refers to the “comfortable mediocrity” of Buvelot’s works, and is mystified by the fact that he was so admired by his contemporaries. McDonald reluctantly nominates Waterpool near Coleraine as Buvelot’s “masterpiece”, but this is an odd choice. Its tobacco-stained sky and water pool are lurid and essentially untypical of Buvelot’s signature works.

As wave after wave of artists and their offerings are examined and woven into the narrative, it becomes clear, as ANU Professor Sasha Grishin pointed out in his steady and focused Sydney Morning Herald review, that the book is a series of interlocking biographies, and in many respects this is one of its strongest suits. A review in the Australian, by Chris McAuliffe, the Director of the Ian Potter Museum, was the stiff-necked offering one comes to expect from Melbourne’s self-conscious ivory tower academics. There was plenty of damning with faint praise and some gratuitous criticisms. McAuliffe suggests that while McDonald exhibits something of Robert Hughes’ iconoclasm, he “only rarely delivers Hughes’ killer punch: sheer unbridled enthusiasm for art”. But Hughes wrote his book The Art of Australia at the age of thirty-two and was always more galvanised by artists whose work he loathed, such as William Dobell. Thus his most scintillating writing is usually a string of excoriations. His publisher, Geoffrey Dutton, encouraged him to remove the most damaging passages on the hapless David Boyd, and this editorial oil on troubled waters ultimately added to the stature of the book.

In a typical Melburnian reflex, McAuliffe defends Bernard Smith, who has always been more than capable of looking after himself, and who McDonald has always expressed admiration for. In fact defending Bernard Smith has become a shorthand reflex for proclaiming a left-wing solidarity among Melbourne’s art world intelligentsia—admirable in a way, but all but redundant in the postmodern world.

We can probably anticipate some real fireworks from McDonald as he approaches his own generation of artists in his third and final volume. One has only to recall the scuffles between McDonald and artists Mike Parr and John Nixon, which ignited like a magnesium taper and provided much of the bright flare in the art world in the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s, to see there will be much opportunity for McDonald’s customary acerbity. McDonald’s suggestion that “Parr’s penchant for dressing in women’s underwear and bridal gowns … had the unmistakable echoes of The Footy Show” was hugely enjoyed by some sections of the art world, and treated as abominable heresy by others, and gives us a clue to future provocations.

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