A new lens to understand Albert Namatjira

A new lens to understand Albert Namatjira

Battarbee and Namatjira

by Martin Edmond

Giramondo Publishing, $29.95 pb, 341 pp, 9781922146687

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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Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas is a cultural historian and broadcaster. As an interviewer, he contributes to the Oral History and Folklore Program of the National Library of Australia. Based in Canberra, he is an Australian Research Council Fellow at the Australian National University, but he spends part of each year in Arnhem Land. He has written or edited six books, including The Many Worlds of R. H. Mathews: In Search of an Australian Anthropologist, winner of the 2012 National Biography Award. Having made documentaries for radio for more than twenty years, he is now working on his first film, an investigation of the removal of human remains from Aboriginal mortuary sites during the American–Australian Scientific Expedition in 1948. He was the winner of the 2013 Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay.

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