Art History

The cover assembles the book’s title and author’s name (writ very large) with a photograph of him, in an art gallery, before a wide yellow landscape by Fred Williams. Turning to the viewer, Patrick McCaughey is about to launch into a story that will satisfy the curiosity teased by the name of the book, Strange Country: Why Australian Painting Matters.

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There was something of the alchemist in Albert Namatjira. Using the most liquescent of media, he created impressions of the driest terrain. Painting in watercolour involves the fluid dispersal of pigment. Yet in Namatjira we find colours distilled in such a way that each landscape glows with a quiet intensity. This evocation of light reveals the influence of Rex Battarbee, who, long before he began to tutor his famous protégé, voiced dissatisfaction with ‘traditional methods’. He developed a painting technique of his own, specifically designed to ‘achieve luminosity’. Like many an inventor, he was cautious about sharing his discovery, in part because he believed that artists should develop on their own terms. But Namatjira was so keen an observer of his then master that he would have realised if Battarbee had withheld information. So Rex decided to teach him everything he knew, both for the sake of Namatjira, whom he clearly adored, and more generally and altruistically ‘for the sake of the Aborigines’.

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The Bard Graduate Center, long known for its ground-breaking studies in the decorative arts, has taken the ambitious leap of presenting a comprehensive history of decorative arts and design from 1400 to 2000, covering Asia, the Islamic world, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. (Coverage of Australia and Oceania is planned for future editions.) At over 700 pages, this is a most impressive achievement. For once, instead of being relegated to occasional paragraphs in major survey texts of art history, the decorative arts are presented centre stage. I wish it had been around when I was a student. Weber has assembled a team of scholars to cover this vast territory and it is not surprising to read that the book was almost ten years in the making. This volume does for the decorative arts what those standard university textbooks, Gardner’s Art through the Ages and Janson’s History of Art, did for the fine arts.

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Not many substantial private collections of art and decorative arts in Australia have remained intact from the nineteenth century. John Twycross (1819–89) was one of Melbourne’s early art collectors, and his collection has proved to be an exception. Twycross, lured there by the gold rush, made his money as a merchant in Melbourne in the middle of the nineteenth century. He began collecting art during the 1860s and became a major lender to the National Gallery of Victoria’s historic 1869 loan exhibition. He also spent heavily at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 and even made a few purchases from the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888, the year before he died. He was also a lender to the 1888 exhibition. Some 200 of the works that Twycross purchased at these exhibitions have remained together. In 2009 a descendant donated them to Museum Victoria, which is custodian of the Royal Exhibition Building.

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Behind the Doors: An art history from Yuendumu by Philip Jones with Warlukurlangu Artists

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August 2014, no. 363

The painting of the Yuendumu doors in 1984 by Warlpiri artists, whose country is north-west of Alice Springs, represented an extraordinary moment in Australian art and modern art generally. In the 1980s some Aboriginal elders painted the doors in the Yuendumu School building to prompt students to show respect for their school and as a marker of their culture. It was the first time that they had painted using acrylics (not ochres), in colours never before used, to record the major stories of their community.

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When the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the Renaissance sought a theoretical basis for the new styles they were developing – at a time when the new meant all’antica and the term modern was still coloured by associations with the Middle Ages – they found that ancient sources were relatively abundant in some areas and scarce or non-existent in others. Poets could find inspiration in Horace’s Ars Poetica, and later in Aristotle’s Poetics. And there was a wealth of material on rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus – in fact an abundance out of all proportion to the practice of the art in an age when public speaking was represented by sermons and university lectures rather than by the deliberative and forensic oratory that were the lifeblood of Greece and Rome.

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The opening chapter of Robert Hughes’s memoir, Things I Didn’t Know (2006), may have persuaded readers that Australians are a mercenary, uncouth and ungrateful lot who love nothing more than a glistening athlete on a podium. Hughes had reason to be sensitive at this time, having eluded the ‘feather-foot’ on that desolate Western Australian highway in May 1999 and endured the trials that followed. He names two writers, Peter Craven and Catharine Lumby, who have stood by him, whereas others, he says, have sought to further their careers by denouncing him. To the former small but faithful posse can be added Patricia Anderson, who defies that great Australian tradition of ‘cutting down the tall poppy’ to celebrate Hughes’s achievements in this biography of his ‘Australian years’: from Hughes’s birth in 1938 until 1970, when Time magazine afforded him the opportunity at last to leave our shores.

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Australian Painting 1788–2000 by Bernard Smith, with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote

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April 2002, no. 240

Bernard Smith gave us Australian art. Before him, the subject was not part of our cultural discourse. We knew and could place the work of Michelangelo and Monet but not that of Eugene von Guérard, Tom Roberts or Grace Cossington Smith.

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This book, a tale of Stephen Scheding’s search for the artist of ‘a small unsigned painting’ he was unable to resist buying at an art auction, has already been warmly reviewed by others as an excellent read, a sleuth story that captures the frustrations and joys of research while holding its reader in a state of suspense worthy of the best whodunnit. I heartily agree and warmly recommend the book to anyone, amateur or art professional, looking to while away a pleasurable and interesting few hours.

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The landscape has been seen (and continues to be seen) as a potent ingredient (the most potent?) in the construction of a national myth, in the determination of an identity which we can call ‘Australian’. The question of identity is a difficult area in which to delve but it is one which has elicited much critical debate and as many views as there are voices. Lying About the Landscape is exemplary of this.

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