How do we know what we see? How can we know what others once saw? Viewing a retrospective of Emily Kngawarreye (d. 1996) and an exhibition of nineteenth-century Australian and American Landscapes brought Humphrey McQueen back to these fundamentals in philosophy.

To see or to know?
A pair of Emily's paintings pose profound questions about how to approach her works.  When she treated the frames and the canvases as if they were a single surface, was she aware that she had violated the decorum of a border? If she had been, was she sending-up our rituals, or trying her hand at trompe d'oeil?

That puzzle is minor compared with how did Emily come to know what she needed to make her paintings? Some writers are resorting to the notion of innate genius. They compare her with Picasso, that exemplar of protean creativity. He was a genius because of the works he made. His genius could not imbue every one of his efforts with greatness.

When Emily's works hang beside those of other members of her community, it is easy enough to see why Western critics judge her pieces to be superior. That evaluation was not so clear-cut against the Judy Watsons that also went to the Venice Biennale. That Emily was an excellent visualiser of stories we must take on trust from her relations.

Genius is flung about by publicity machines. Brett Whiteley was a genius, according to headlines and the heirs to his estate. The carefree use of that accolade has led a generation of critics to deny the value if not the existence of genius. Geniuses are either as rare as Einstein and Bach, or they are as common as that one human being in 125 000 whose IQ is over 140.

Applying the western concept of genius to Emily might be more of an insult than a accolade. The recent 'Rembrandt: A genius and his Impact' reminded us of how post-Renaissance culture in the West tied genius to the individual. By contrast, Emily's way of working retained its trust in the collective.

Similarly, we need to be cautious in applying the word Art to indigenous imagery. Art with a capital-A is a fairly recent invention in the West. Whatever we call the marks that Aborigines made before contact with Europeans, those drawings were not Art in our sense. To treat them as such is to colonise them afresh.

Appropriation goes deeper than our subsuming their activities within our categories. At the core of our confusion is their concern for story-telling versus our Modernist fascination with painterliness. Abstraction has encouraged us to believe that the medium is the message. Certain elements in Aboriginal image-making, notably dots, fit in with this most contemporary of approaches.

To complicate matters, Aborigines were introduced to painting for the art market by Europeans for whom Abstraction was the highest form of the good, the true and the beautiful. For as long as Aboriginal imagery is seen as pure painterliness, Western critics and dealers can remain in charge of its evaluation.

However, once the Aborigine's concern for narrative is given pride of place, the outsiders are at a disadvantage since not even the initiated can comprehend every nuance of totemic legend. To restore white dominance, commentators fall back on the Dreamtime as a mystery, indeed a mystification.

While Emily is being compared with Picasso, everyone will discover in Emily traces of whichever Modernist painters we know or love. For instance, I discerned ectoplasms like those in the pre-1918 abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky whose paintings had been inspired by Theosophy. That speculation will please those Europeans whose spiritual bankruptcy has turned them into cultural cannibals, eager to devour beliefs. These Westerners invoke the reductionism of Jungian archetypes to paper over why any connection between Kandinsky and Emily can never be more than a flight of our fancies. 

The situation was different when Emily's surfaces reminded me of the shimmering of a Lloyd Rees or the radiance from the later Dick Larter. Although I too might be taming her originality by fitting it in to scholarship that I possess, these links have roots in reality. Long looking with a brush in hand taught the white males to see something about Australian environments towards which she had also worked her way.

Emphasis on Emily's late start is misleading in the extreme. True, she did not work with oils until the final decade of her life, but she had been painting since childhood. Body decoration and silk-screening were two of the ways through which her kin taught her to handle her materials. If we think about Emily having 'a genius for' visualising stories then tat term is reconnected to her practices.

Possible sources for her patterns include the bead necklaces and ceremonial string-ware that she would have made, as well as the feathers, yam roots and palm fronds with which she worked. That she could complete the three-by-eight metre black-and-white canvas, 'Big Yam Dreaming', in two days is believable once her intimacy with the layout of those clusters is recalled. No matter how complicated her lines became, the results give no suggestion of their maker's being lost in the maze.

The shifts in Emily's work from scribbly surfaces to elongated lines and then to all-over splotches were not ruptures. Yam lines persist under patterns, providing a grid. She made some of her vertical bars by overlapping a run of her smaller splotches. One big picture is a series of panels, though on a single canvas. Indeed, it is unlikely that her stories could be contained by a strip of canvas. Her painting on those frames suggests that we should see individual works as contributions of a larger composition.   

Any one intrigued by such issues will benefit from Knowledges, What Different Peoples Make of the World, the latest book by Peter Worsley, one of the Anglo-Saxon world's leading social scientists. Worsley spent several years in Australia as an anthropologist. He has entitled the opening third of his survey 'Green Knowledge: The Living Environment of an Australian Tribe', the people of Groote Eylandt.

 Worsley provides a corrective to the witchcraft of David Suzuki and the arrogance of institutionalised scientists. Worsley's decades of field work made him recognise the complexities and layerings within indigenous understanding without losing sight of its shortcomings. From reading as deep as it is wide, he is alert to the pretensions and paradoxes of Western research methods. One does not need to endorse Michel Foucault's mistreatment of knowledge as little more than control to appreciate how power-sharing and income distribution, and not a rational taxonomy, excluded dentists from the Royal College of ear-nose-and-throat specialists.

Emily understood a lot more English than she spoke. Most of the people who write about her intentions are unable to speak a word of her tongue. Even those who become fluent in Anmatyerre are not necessarily will informed about her views of the world. Hence, few groups are more in need of Worsley's wisdom than commentators on Aboriginal painting. He recounts the experience of a French missionary who had become the Western world's expert on the religion of the Dogon people of West Africa, publishing more than 170 learned papers on their cosmology and rituals. After sixteen years of contact, the high priests of the Dogon decided to share their secrets. The result was that the expert realised that he had remained a novice. Everything he had written was wrong or inadequate. His scholarship had put him at the level of a youth preparing for the first stages of initiation.

The humbling of that researcher was an extreme instance of the problems of knowing how anyone else thinks, The distances between the Dogon and Christianity are vast. However, the difficulties that exist in interpreting our own forebears are not inconsiderable, and become more so when Australians look at our North American cousins. Those tasks now present themselves because the opening of the extensions to the National Gallery in Canberra is being celebrated with an exhibition which compares nineteenth-century landscape paintings from the US and Australia.

No one knows nature in itself. As Goethe remarked, the moment an artist selects a subject it ceases to belong to nature and is absorbed into the painter's culture with its pictorial conventions and ideological presuppositions.

How did the means through which the American artists come to know their land differ from how Australians knew ours?

For the arts of settlement to succeed, the lands must be cleansed of indigenes, as shown in a shoot-out illustrated by Frederick Remington. Knowledge of any landscape comes through working it, that is, by the clearing of forests, farming, the building of roads and dwellings. After that remaking, the environment can be rediscovered as a wilderness. However, if the labours are performed by others, whether slaves or share-croppers, the landscape remains an object for contemplation.

Thus, native Americans and slaves, like Aborigines and convicts, experienced the landscape from angles quite distinct from those displayed in New Worlds from Old. By excluding views from below and from outside, the exhibition proposes a norm which is partial, to put it kindly.

Americans had had almost two hundred years to get to know their eastern and southern lands before artists started to investigate our peculiarities. A literary culture was in place there before the first novel had been written here. This difference in starting places for knowledge is apparent in depictions of Aboriginal corroborees and Indian ceremonies. Joseph Lycett and John Glover represented gatherings that they had witnessed: Thomas Cole illustrated a scene from Finnemore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

Most of the North American artists were native born whereas few of the Australians were. Nonetheless, a cultural cringe towards European standards and training infected North Americans long after they had won independence. As well as the Classicism of a Thomas Cole, the entire culture was infused with  the Biblical. Both those aspects were present in Australia but to a lesser degree. In both societies, the point is that painters could know nature only through their wider cultures.    

Alongside the influence of religion on the painter's eye, was the expansion of science, with geology and botany leading on to evolutionary concepts. Nature appeared more dynamic than static, and spreading over millions of years, not just a few thousand. No work was more influential than  Der Kosmos (1845-62)  by Alexander von Humbolt who, until's Darwin's apotheosis, had been regarded as the modern Aristotle. Humbolt did field work in South America, lands visited by Captains Cook and Phillip, by Charles Darwin as well as by Eugene von Geurard and Louis Buvelot, the two of the most influential immigrant painters of the colonial era. Perhaps more could be learned about Australian painting from a comparison with the arts of Brazil than with those of the United States? 

New Worlds from Old is disquietening because it repeats the identification of Australia with the nineteenth century and with nature. When the exhibition opens in North America, its rationale will reinforce the Crocodile Dundee version of our society as a wilderness for tourists.

In reviewing 1988, a novel by Brisbane author Andrew McGahan, a New York critic began:

Australia is a nice place to live, and probably the worst place in the world to write the harrowing antinovel that exposes your generation as a phalanx of debauched zombies. Where's the nihilism? Where's the gritty banality? Living in Australia, you have no steady Caledonian drizzle to drive you to drugs, no skyrocketing divorce rate to make you veer your mother's Lexus off a cliff; merely kaleidoscopic scenery and a sheltering raft of laid-back, optimistic adults, beerily inclined to support you in your every move. How do you even start to invent a fractured, empty soul for your generation while there are kangaroos and duckbilled platypi boinging past your window? (New York Times Book Review, 23 February 1997, p. 11.)

In praising McGahan for achieving the seemingly impossible, the critic offered a less caricatured view of Australia. Nonetheless, his run of cliches is as predictable as the likelihood of a platypus boinging past our windows is entrancing.

Australians need to unpick such accounts of the typical if we are to understand our own past and its paintings. Nature was not always a consolation. Contrary to prime minister Howard's speech at the launch, art does sometimes shout, as in Roberts's 'A break away!' or Streeton's '"Fire's On!"'. The shout is in the exclamation marks of the title. That he should hope otherwise is inevitable from a man in whose office hangs a landscape of France by Winston Churchill, a work purchased by Robert Menzies.

Painters included broken trees as marks of mourning. The vastness of sky could express the insignificance of human endeavour.  Those attitudes dominated the literature created here last century. 'Weird melancholy' was how the bush was characterised by Marcus Clarke, author of His Natural Life, a novel as bleak as any Russian. Nihilism haunts the stories of Henry Lawson as surely as it does Chekhov's. 'The cry of the crow' was heard through our poetry. That women knew that the horrors did not stop at the garden gate is clear from the brutalities that Barbara Baynton laid out in Squeaker's Mate and in the despair conveyed by Henry Handel Richardson in Ultima Thule.

How knowledges are formed around power appears through the biases determining the selection of images for New Worlds from Old. The first of these preferences relates to media. With the exception of a few works on paper, the landscapes are all oil paintings. Crafts such as quilting are excluded.

That choice reinforces a gender bias made more offensive because the show opened on International Women's Day. Only one canvas in the hundred is by a woman, the Melbourne painter, Clara Southern. Had this collection been assembled thirty years ago, before the second wave of feminism had commenced, would the imbalance have been greater? On this occasion, the failure is so huge that the case for quotas seems overwhelming.

The argument that women view the world differently from men is not dependent on innateness or hormones. As with the slaves, the convicts and the indigenes, women come to their knowledges through the ways they changed nature by their labours. Hence, they were more likely to start from the domestic garden than the rolling pasture, be more attracted to detail than to panorama. Those suppositions deserved to be tested. That investigation also questions the naturalness assumed by any landscape tradition created around the heroics of conquest. 

The exclusion of women from New Worlds from Old raises questions about how knowledge proceeds through the realms of scholarship. Two explanations merit consideration. First, although feminist scholars are nowhere more active than in analysing the visual, their fixation on reading images of the body has left the outdoors to the boys. Academic specialisation thereby imposed its means for regulating research onto a movement that had began with the hope of subverting hierarchies of knowledge.   

Secondly, the ignoring of women's art is a reaction against the successes that women have won since the late 1960s. That a backlash is rampant is obvious from the onslaught on political correctness. To mention the near absence of women painters from New Worlds from Old will provoke that allegation, as if swearwords were any kind of argument.

Meanwhile, the new courtyard at the National Gallery is an installation by Fiona Hall. Very high cement walls surround 200-year old tree ferns planted among concrete fountains and pebbled pathways. That hardness means that the space is not feminine according to any of the usual applications of that term. If that sensibility is present at all,  it is in such personal touches as Hall's emblazoning the names of her friends onto the seats and in the gate. Weird melancholy is an appropriate description for its barrenness. 

Peter Worsley, Knowledges, What different peoples make of the world, Profile, London, 1997.

The Emily Kngawarreye is at the Queensland Art Gallery until ?? May and then goes to the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 15 May to 19 July and the National Gallery of Victoria, from 8 September to 22 November.

New Worlds from Old is in Canberra until 17 May when it goes to the National Gallery of Victoria.