ART - AUSTRALIAN - AUSTRALIAN PAINTING TO 2001 - REVIEW
Smith with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote
Australian Painting 1788-2000
Painting first appeared in 1961, close by H. M. Green’s two
volumes on our literature, Manning Clark’s first volume of A
History and Smith’s own European
Vision in the South Pacific. All three authors placed the Antipodean
at the center of debates about civilization. White Australia was no
longer to be treated as an appendix.
it is essential to keep Smith’s account of our painting up to 1970
available in its original form, there are enough copies in libraries to
fulfil that need without the expense of this facsimile. What is required
is a revised edition in light of subsequent scholarship. Smith has an
ambivalent attitude towards improving his work. In 1978, he added two
pages of “Notes” to a reprint of Place,
Taste and Tradition, from 1945, amending facts and opinions. He went
somewhat further when Yale republished European
Vision in 1984. But, apart from correcting some details for the
second edition, the finger that wrote Australian
Painting has not been lured “back to cancel half a line … nor
… wash out a word of it”. The monographs, essays, retrospectives,
catalogues and concepts about pre-1960 painting from the past three
decades – including Smith’s own –might just as well as never
accepted that, for the post-1970 decades, he needed scholars who were as
in touch with those times as he had been with the previous forty years.
Thus, for the third edition in 1991 Terry Smith supplied three chapters
on the 1970s and 1980s, attending to Aborigines, women and their
Smith’s contributions ended with his chapter on the “Colour
Painting” of the late 1960s, providing another of his elegant surveys,
bristling with dissent from fashion. Yet it is remarkable that someone
who praises Marx as a technological determinist should have expatiated
on colour painting with no more attention to the revolution in paint and
its applications - plastics and airbrushes - than a passing reference to
acrylics. du Pont was as important a US influence as James Doolin.
can sympathise with Smith’s reluctance to revise because the increase
in full-time academics in art history and criticism was not matched by a
quantity of research to match his own, still less of quality. Most of
the tenured staff have difficulty in producing more than a chapter every
few years. One can also sympathise with the temporary staff who are
over-burdened with teaching duties yet must produce one refereed piece a
year to have their contracts renewed. Under those circumstances, it has
been easier to deconstruct a chapter from Smith than to research one of
their own from scratch.
is unforgivable is that OUP should produce a fourth edition which
repeats even typographical errors. The dates of The
Australian Builder and
Contractors’ News were correct in 1962, slipped into error in
1971, and remain there. The Index has been adjusted but the chapter
bibliographies remain almost where they was in 1970 so that readers are
not made aware of materials about the pre-1970 years published since the
second edition. This failing is significant because, at $90 a copy, Australian
Painting is a reference work for libraries and dealers.
exception to this refusal to look backwards is the inclusion of a colour
illustration of Bernard Smith’s 1940 canvas “Pompeii”
in Christopher Heathcote’s chapter on the 1990s. Heathcote, moreover,
delivers an unintentional backhander to the artist-scholar by concluding
his description of Pompeii
with the assertion: “Clearly, there was a more complex history to the
evolution of modern Australian art than was previously believed”. If
so, how much of the blame rests with Smith’s received version?
strengths and weaknesses of the first three editions remain where they
were when reviewed on publication. A list of those commentaries would
have been a useful appendix to this latest addition. The focus of this
commentary will fall on the thirty-five pages about the 1990s,
Heathcote’s “An Embattled Medium”. The assault on painting did not
begin in the 1990s, and not all of the attacks have come from without.
From at least the 1960s, painting, etching, sculpture, performance,
still and movie photography have interacted so that the story of
painting is harder than ever to present in isolation. If the
two-dimensional is embattled, so are the assumptions on which Smith had
conceived Australian Painting as an interaction of European heritage with
local achievement, but overlooking the indigenous. Painting itself
remains embattled, as Heathcote observes, because, in representing
contemporary Australian art, curators favour the ephemeral and
multi-media. The tricksy triumphs over the thoughtful.
appeal of Heathcote’s chapter will depend on whether you agree that
Drysdale’s editing out of vegetation was “untrue” but a later
generation of landscape abstractionists are to be congratulated for
doing the same; whether your connoisseurship is improved by lists of
names; whether you equate Reg Mombassa with Ken Done; and how you rate
the sincerity of John Wolseley against Tim Storrier’s.
final point is vital because the impulse connecting Heathcote’s
commentaries is the desirability of a moral starting point for artists.
Thus, he is torn between deploring the commercial pressures on
Aboriignal art and welcoming a sacral inspiration for what he dares to
call “Tribal Painting”. In making his case, he is novel and
conventional in his errors. He believes that Elizabeth Durack painted
her “Eddie Burrups” as an “‘Ern Malley’-like prank”.
Heathcote’s accusation that Margaret Preston was “patronizing”
when she encouraged settler artists to learn from the indigenous is true
– she was patronizing the Europeans, an irony which Heathcote will not
be the last to miss.
criticizes some artists for the “idle pretension” of including
“snippets from theoretical texts” on their canvases, yet does much
the same with his analysis. For instance, his understanding of
came from a 1992 catalogue essay rather than acquaintance with La
Pensee sauvage. From there, he stumbles across post-colonialism and
magic realism, which he discovers are “almost synonymous”. This
insight allows him to lavish cliché upon banality: “magic realist
works were pregnant with symbolism”. He suspects that magic realism
“can evolve in New World nations as they shrug off a colonial
outlook”. More than a shrug is necessary to de-dominionise the
mentalities even of white settler societies such as Australia, let alone
those of non-Caucasian subjugated peoples. Because he accepts the
applicability of post-colonial speculation to Australia, as if our
situation was indistinguishable from that of India, he misses the chance
to explore our specifics – including how Australian Aborigines fit
into the dynamics of imperialism.
concludes with praise for certain strands of graffiti
as a renewal of painting. Certainly, they do less to vandalise our
visual environment than do the architectural horrors they are alleged to
deface or the advertisements on the sides of public transport.
discusses Rick Amor at paragraph length on the sixth last page of the
newest Australian Painting,
although he had been exhibiting for thirty years before 1990. Inclusion
in the standard history remains a matter of propinquity.
Catalano’s book on Amor is far from the vanity monographs backed by
dealers to convince novices that they are investing in Fort Knox.
Despite some gaps in detail, such as the late 1970s, Catalano’s method
is chronological, weaving a biographical account with technical analyses
of particular works. Catalano builds his storylines from interviews and
the diary kept by Amor’s first wife. He devotes himself to explicating
the phases in Amor’s career, from being encouraged by John Brack at
the Gallery School; through the chase after cash in commissioned
portraiture once he becomes a parent; to his plunge into radical
politics after the Whitlam sacking. We also follow Amor to Barcelona,
New York and Timor. This sweep introduces diverse characters who did not
make it to the Smith-Smith-Heathcote history: the dealer Joseph Brown
and the union official turned community arts guru, George Seelaf.
came to Catalano’s attention when the author was critic for the Age in the 1980s. In 1992, Catalano dedicated a prose poem to Amor
and his first wife, Tina, which the painter then illustrated.
Catalano’s judgments benefit from this long acquaintance. He is
discriminating in his praise and not afraid to say when Amor has failed
to meet his own or the writer’s standards. If Catalano occasionally
wishes that Amor had been a different kind of painter - more abstract,
more expressionist – he allows his subject to make his own path. He is
happy when Amor moves away from Social Realism, though that term applies
to his Timor series while the rest of his output remains close to
has advanced the evaluation of Amor’s output far beyond the
relationship between his cartooning and his painting. Amor wants them
judged separately, yet is scornful of cartoonists who can only scribble.
His own newspaper cartoons were enriched by his tonal mastery and
spatial sense, bringing them close to his drawings and etchings, notably
in the attack on R. J. Hawke’s candidature for Wills in 1980. Amor’s
1960s paintings began at a time when POP had made cartooning on canvas
acceptable in some quarters. The overlap between cartooning and painting
recurred whenever Amor treated space through a sequence of stage-like
flats, or outlined his figures with black. More recently, he has
surrendered three-dimensionality to a film of misty paint. Architectural
depth establishes the mood that Amor now pursues, an ambience which
supplied Catalano with the title for this study – The
large-format volume includes thirty-two colour reproductions and twice
as many black-and-whites. The gloom of the latter paintings has not made
their tones and covert details easy to discern in reproduction. All the
scholarly apparatuses are in tact.
Catalano emphasizes the autobiographical impulse in Amor’s imagery, no
matter how often disguised, one thread that is not pursued is the
relationship between Amor and animals. He named his daughter Zoe, after
the cat he had had as a child. Catalano does let us know what a
difficult character Amor had been for a long time, associating the
arrival of a billy-goat in the Amor’s rural domesticity with the
breakup of his marriage, an aspect confirmed by a number of paintings in
which the creature menaces the children and dominates the land. Was Amor
Billy Goat Gruff? Similarly, the painting of a docile black bull in a
field with a grazing white horse was based on a scene he had driven past
every day. Moreover, their poses on his canvas derived from art history.
Yet the reconciliation of these beasts with each other and with their
environment came as Amor gave up the grog which, he recognized, had made
him so difficult to be with. Are these animal paintings another case of
an Australian artist’s fulfilling T. S. Eliot’s injunction to
express personal emotion through an “objective correlative”?