Ian Burn, Dialogue Writings in Art History, (Allen & Unwin) – a book review
Art Monthly, March 1992, pp. 5-7.

By reading Ian Burn’s selected essays in the order of their first publication, I perceived a strand through his thinking which may not be so clear if you accept the author’s arrangement, which begins in 1985, goes back to 1968 and concludes with 1988. Since the seventeen essays are not grouped, any rationale for Burn’s pattern was not obvious enough to convince me to follow it.

What I discovered instead is that one way by which semiotics entered the domains of art criticism and art history had been through reactions against Greenberg’s Formalism, and a simultaneous extension of this doctrine into Conceptual Art. In a 1975 account of “The art market: Affluence and degradation”, Burn writes of artists confronted with “the impossibility of content, of saying anything whatsoever.” In the 1960s, part of that void was filled by criticism, though less from Greenberg than from his parochial epigones, such as Patrick McCaughey.

Ian Burn and his colleagues took one step further when they promoted Art & Language in which artists wrote and spoke instead of pursuing the material practices of painting or moulding. In reaction against not being supposed to say anything, Burn and friends fell victim to logorrhea. As first cousins to the Art & Language crowd, the Conceptualists collapsed into a more extreme philosophical Idealism by implying (‘saying” what they meant would have been self-contradictory) that it was enough for the artist to think an idea/image for the effort of creation to be complete. Thus had god made the world out of nothing. Artists were back to playing god.

Burn did not tumble down the bunny-hole of semi-idiotics. Anti-imperialist politics turned him along a tracks towards cultural regionalism, even nationalism. His commentaries on landscapes by Nolan and Williams are a way of bonding himself to Australia. Burn criticises Dorothea Mackellar’s claim that those who do not love Australia cannot understand why she preferred a sunburnt country. He has failed to appreciate that her intuition grew not from mystical contemplation but from the labours of changing the environment. [I would now rephrase that sentence: He has failed to appreciate that such intuition could grow from the labours of changing the environment, and not from mystical contemplation.]

Is that why I cannot recognise the imagery of Fred Williams in Burn’s claim that “Williams excluded virtually all explicit reference to the impact of modernization, or even human presence I the landscape”? To my mind’s eye, the reverse is true. Williams’s iconic canvases are constructed around tree stumps, fences, clear-felling, roads and power lines as the funeral posts in our national development.

A friend’s Introduction extols Burn’s “pictography”m in other words, his attention to recurrent devices in paintings. The essays display less of this knack than that praise promises. When Burn does interrogate the internal workings of a canvas, his interpretations are a good more intrusive than historians allow ourselves.

The title of the opening essay asks the important question: “Is Art History Any Use to Artists?”, which Burn made no attempt to answer, though a companion piece “Artists in the Labour Movement” provides handy tips.

One aspect of that question deserving our notice is the extent to which an art history-theory curriculum which takes painting as its reference point is useful students of ceramics, or the other crafts. There are a priori reasons for suspecting that such a pedagogy must alienate those conscripts. One solution is to make art history a workshop practice, in which silversmiths, sculptors or photographers – as well as painters and print-makers – impart their skills in alliance with a conceptual, not just a chronological, history of their art form.

Art historians, as much as artists, need to learn how to see the present as history by considering its dynamics. Dates and slide tests about Rubens or Marion Mahony are of limited worth.

Burn’s question is worth inverting: “Are artists any us to Art History?” Since most of our leading artists and craftspeople have been eager for historical information, reading widely and looking hard, being fine pictographers, they are as likely to talk as knowledgeably about Mannerism or the interchange between Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji as is any tenured academic. Whether they are better able to convey their knowledge through tutorials or conference papers will be a matter of temperament and experience, as it is for the amateur pedagogues tethered to our tertiary classrooms. Where the artists’ contribution to art historical knowledge is disputable is in regard to their own times and practices. Scholars should interview artists only after they have worked through all the other sources. Better than most of us, artists create legends along with their other works. The least convincing explanation is “But that is what the painter said himself.”

Even when artists can find no factual errors in an account of their working lives, they will respond to texts about themselves by muttering: “Well, it didn’t feel like that at the time!” I never does. What they felt at the time were a thousand-and-one daily tasks. Painters can remain convinced of their genius without appreciating how the grind of stretching, priming, dining out, scrimping money and squandering Chinese White are proof of their talent, or more. Retrospectives unnerve artists, which goes to explain why Burn has not presented his writing in their order of composition.

Burn’s writings present a different difficulty because he is the artist presenting himself as car critic/historian. Just as every work of art is a critique of previous art, so analysis by an artist manqué can become a way of painting with words instead of by numbers. Burn’s practical experience of making art allows him to see some aspect more readily than I, who has not drawn since primary school. James MacDonald growled in the 1930s that the scholars knew everything about Art with a capital-A, but nothing about the techniques of painting. True. But Burn’s hand-on expertise brings its own impediments. He is reluctant to keep his hands off other people’s canvases, just as I am always tempted to edit any text as if it were one of my own drafts. Hence, the “Dialogue” in Burn’s title is often little more than a debate between his achievements and his ambitions.

Confronted with the task of writing a catalogue essay about a collection of inter-war Australian paintings by nonentities such as William Rowell and W. D. Knox, Burn attempted to compensate for their insipidness with his own ideas. The result is a pale reflection of Greenberg’s achievement for the Formalists, for whom he supplied a flattened history and a philosophy in depth. As the man said: if you stare at a blank wall long enough, you will begin to see patterns, go mad, or both.

That there was more to our Aryan Pastoralism that the mechanical reproduction of gum trees can be seen from Gruner and Heysen. Yet Burn mentions Heysen only in a quotation and Gruner not at all, although one of his paintings has managed to get itself reproduced. Would one by W, B. McInnes have been too appalling? Or had Bur thought up these notions in relation to Gruner and varnished them over Rowell, Knox and co.?

The question that Burn wanted to explore is far more significant than the artists about who he had been asked to write. Even with Heysen, Meldrum and Gruner as your case studies, a Chinese wall exists between informed taste and any upward re-evaluation of non-Modernist Australian art from the first quarter of the twentieth century.

In the draft of The Black Swan of Trespass, I referred to Heysen as a Modernist because he reacted to the same set of political and cultural problems as did Preston when she applied Cubism to our landscape. That late Graeme Sturgeon advised me to delete that appellation because to call Heysen a Modernist would so confuse most readers that they would not be able to deal withy the rest of the book. I followed that suggestion and still think it was the right course to take, at that time. Alvin Toffler observed that if a book contains more than 20 per cent new information it cannot expect a readership.

When Burn does write about artists who are accepted as significant his use of evidence is as troubling as are his aesthetic judgements about Rowell or Knox. For example, to support his claim that Heidelberg School painters shared the mentality of “urban upper mille class “visitors” towards the bush, he quoted the caption to an illustration from Federated Australia – its Sceneries and Splendours. The first problem is that this source appeared in 1901, fifteen years after what he identifies as the two “key” works for his case were painted. Between 1886 and 1900, big changes overtook Victorian life with the boom, the crash, strikes and drought. After those experiences, the passage cited could be more idealizing of the bush than would have been common opinion in the mid-Eighties. Enough 1880s tourist guides are available for citation if you ask the reader’s advisor.

More disconcerting is Burn’s failure to transcribe a crucial qualifier – “Tasmanian”: in the caption. Although photograph and caption are reproduced over the page, Burn’s analysis never adverted to the specific locale being described. Late last century, Tasmania (like New Zealand) was the summer retreat for Vice-Regals and those who could afford not to work for several weeks. Turn-of-the-century attitudes towards Tasmania’s splendid scenery can no more be taken as typical for colonial Victoria than a 1991 commentary about honeymooning at Port Douglas would give a fair representation of environmental consciousness in suburban Kew.

Burn begins his argument in “Beating about the Bush” by excluding images that do not fit. Thus, we are told that the key early examples were Roberts’s The Artists’ Camp (1886) and McCubbin’s Lost (1886).

Burn cannot avoid seeing that Streeton’s Fire’s On! “includes a scene showing the body of a worker killed by an explosion.” The convolution in his treatment of this painting suggest that he has not been able to convince even himself of the admission rules he has laid down.

Relations between working life and the Heidelberg men and women were more fluid than Burn allows. At McCubbin’s prompting, the Australian Artists’ Association donated paintings to be sold on behalf of the 83 coalminers killed in the 1887 disaster at Bulli (NSW). That attempt cannot transform the Heidelberg school into proletarians, but it complicated Burn’s placement of them at so great a distance from working lives.

The way forward requires not only “a closer analysis of the pictures” (pictography), but also strenuous archival research located within wider and deeper historical sensibilities shaped by a view of the relations between intellectuals and social classes such as the one proposed by Marx:

What makes them representatives … is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. (“The Eighteenth Brumaire”)

Social theory, historical scholarship and visual acuity are equal partners in the difficult business of seeing what is in front of our eyes.

The absence of this combination, especially a want of evidence, corners Burn into a rhetorical device which becomes more transparent at each repetition. A paragraph will open typically with a negative suggestion:

            Nolan seems to have learned much from Fernand Leger …

Before closing, without benefit of evidence, upon the assertion that

This and other aspects of Leger’s cubism made their appearance in a number of works by Nolan in the 1940s. (p. 68)

If they did, we await proof that Nolan thought about Leger in these ways. Nolan’s pastel sketches from that period seem to incline as often towards Klee as Leger.

Burn might reply that his evidence is in the structure of the paintings, which pictography makes accessible. Even if we accept that Burn has identified parallels between Leger and Nolan, that correspondence need not depend on direct influence. (If Burn is anxious to find a Leger influence, he might compare Nolan with Michael Shannon who studied with Leger in 1949.)

In an attempt to find implements of modernisation in Nolan’s landscape equivalent to the ballet mechanique in Leger’s art, Burn fell back on the train – that nineteenth-century means for tethering our bush to a wider world. At one point he even manages to imagine one of those stream trains “speeding” – something never achieved by any train I have waited for at a level crossing in the country. He makes a better case for the modernity of silos, the shape of which carry over into the Kelly helmets. [Building silos was also the way that engineers learnt to use the reinforced concrete that became the material for Modernist urban architecture.]

When Burn does attend to a painting, he is often telling us what it would have meant if only he had got around to painting it himself- a restatement of Art/Language? He informs us that Nolan’s Wimmera landscapes

confronted me with some of my own sources of ideas and intuition about art here and about the relations of a certain kind of image-making to a particular intellectual and geographical environment. (p. 10)

Did the pictures “confront” Burn? Or did he attach them to his own  pre-existing concerns, allowing what he supposes to be art history to replace art criticism as a new way of performing his threadbare Conceptual games?