Bernard Smith with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote
Australian Painting 1788-2000
OUP, $89.95

Gary Catalano
The Solitary Watcher – Rick Amor and his Art
MUP, $

Bernard Smith’s Australian 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.

Although 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 happened.

Smith 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 theorisers.

Bernard 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.

One 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.

What 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.

One 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?

The 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. 

The 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.

This 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.

Heathcote 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 Levi-Strauss’s bricolage 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.

Heathcote 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.

Heathcote 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.

Gary 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.

Amor 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 Critical Realism.

Catalano 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 Solitary Watcher.

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.

Although 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”?

Humphrey McQueen