Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Modern Australian Painting |
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Modern Australian Painting

One big advantage of having your name attached for long enough to Australia’s inexorably spreading wave of cultural world conquest is that you eventually get to meet everyone else. Throw another launch ceremony on the barbie! Prizes are awarded, exhibitions are opened, movies and plays are premiered, and sooner or later even the most dedicated creative loner is flushed out of hiding to loom within reach of your extended hand. A characteristic sight at any big-time Australian cultural get-together is two life-long recluses falling into each other’s arms. Last time I looked, I was personally acquainted with at least three of the most illustrious Australian painters of the post-war generation, the gang who really and undeniably put the Australian branch of their art-form on an international level.

Admittedly I had met Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman only once, and Russell Drysdale and Arthur Boyd not at all. But Margaret Olley? Jeffrey Smart? Not only mates of each other, but mates, to a certain extent, of mine. John Olsen? Last had a drink with him at a big fund-raiser at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney when Margaret Olley was making it surreptitiously clear, with some well-aimed muttering from the side of her mouth, that she thought her dear friend Edmund Capon’s curatorial campaign to buy a triptych by Cy Twombley was three kinds of a mistake. Actually I’ve been in John Olsen’s delightful company for a total of about five minutes, and although I’ve been invited to lunch at Margaret Olley’s house in Paddington a gratifying number of times, my only extended time in the company of Jeffrey Smart was when he was doing the preparatory drawings for his Portrait of Clive James which now hangs in that same Art Gallery of NSW. During the sittings Jeffrey did quite a lot of sotto voce complaining about how hard it is to draw someone who has one ear far higher on his head than the other, while possessing eyes almost invisibly small.

I could have wished that there was rather more sotto and rather less voce, in fact. But I was to discover that in the finished portrait none of these personal details would matter very much. The main study drawing was done in the painter’s studio in Tuscany. I thought the drawing of my head rather heroic, with something of a Roman senator about the proportions of the skull, although he would have had to be a Roman senator with an ear-alignment problem. But I didn’t see the finished portrait until some time after it arrived in Sydney. I visited the gallery expecting to see a larger version of the drawing, and indeed it was: far larger, as big as a small Paolo Veronese. The actual figure representing myself, however, was extremely small, a dot in an urban landscape, and obviously present only to give scale to the vast buildings. Bending close, I saw with some compensatory benefit to my self-esteem that there was now nothing at all anomalous about the ears: which meant I could have been just about any man my age with small eyes and a neck thicker than his head. And that — on the face of it, as it were — is the evidence of our acquaintance. But if journalists like to conclude that Jeffrey Smart and I must be bosom buddies, who am I to say them nay?

Yes, me and the painters: you can imagine the group photograph. But what’s wrong with this picture? Me. I shouldn’t be there. I not only never shared their struggle over the long decades, but for most of that time I knew next to nothing about them. The whole upsurge happened without my knowledge. Though the painters eventually changed the way I saw them and have even changed the way I see life, they didn’t do it by appealing to my sensitivity. They did it by overcoming my lack of it. And although there were many writers who were less obtuse on the subject than I was, not many of them were in a position to change the general perception of Australian painting by what they wrote. The painters changed it by what they painted.

In retrospect, that was always the main guarantee of the strength of Australian painting: it didn’t really need writers to say how good it was. Though the painters cared a lot about what critics said, they cared mainly because critical opinion might affect the sale of their pictures to the public. The law of supply and demand was the measure that mattered. Since the pictures were bought by people who loved them — and that was especially true in the days when the prices were low, because it always takes a real appreciator to buy an artist’s pictures before there is an established market for them — the question of where those buyers lived becomes vitally interesting in relation to the larger story of how Australian post-colonial culture relates to the culture of the old imperial world from which it emerged.

But before we start discussing that subject on a large scale, it might be more fruitful to discuss it in the much more restricted terms dictated by my own knowledge of the visual arts in the late 1950s, when I was first a student at the University of Sydney. If only I had been a student of painting. Like students of music, students of painting had to learn something. From the life stories of the Australian painters up until very recent times, it emerges that they all had to submit to the hard disciplines of the craft that underlay the art: they can all prepare canvases, mix colours, apply a glaze. Above all, they can all draw. And those many hours in the life class they all share. If only writers had a shared experience with the same objective standards: they would know their own true ranking much better, and perhaps hate each other much less.

As a student of literature I had to submit to no disciplines at all, and spent an unforgivable amount of time fooling around. But it is, or should be, in the nature of a great university to provide an unwritten charter by which a no-hoper may fool around more constructively than he realises, largely by keeping company with fellow students who are working harder than he is. One of my fellow students was Robert Hughes. A bit older than I, a lot better looking, and much more gifted in every respect, Hughes in those days was doing as much of drawing and painting as he was of writing. Nominally he was an architecture student, but he spent most of his time drawing for the student newspaper honi soit, for all the other student publications, and, enviably soon, for the first examples of a new wave of serious periodicals that dealt with the whole of culture all at once. Hughes’s draughtsmanship was dazzling. He could draw anything and anyone in about ten seconds, like one of those autistic children who can draw whole cities in perspective without lifting the pencil point from the paper. But Hughes’s version of autism involved reciting large chunks of Four Quartets from memory, and his flying line had mentality and character in every inch. He painted with what seemed to me equal authority, although I was no judge. Hughes was, and the time soon came when he decided he was not original enough, and ought to quit.

He might have been premature in that judgment. Quite often, an original artist starts off looking like every artist he admires, and then his own uniqueness emerges after everyone else’s has been absorbed. The future critic might have criticised himself too much. Another reason he might have stopped was that I shot a hole in one of his pictures. At the family house in Rose Bay, he and I were diving around the garden with an air-pistol, making life difficult for the sparrows. When my turn came I tried a deflection shot on a passing spag and the pellet went past the target and on into the garage, where Hughes’s latest painting was leaning against a wall. It was a painting of a sad, rather Eliotesque broken king and when we held it up to the light it became evident that the disconsolate monarch now had a hole in one eye. My suggestion that the defeated central figure had thus acquired an interesting new connection with infinity did not go down well. Hughes was as put out as the eye was but he was a generous soul and soon forgave me.

I like to think it was a coincidence that he left for Europe shortly afterwards. Probably his real reason for heading out was a belief that the action in the art of painting, as in the arts generally, was elsewhere, in that distant place we called Overseas. I can remember taking that belief for gospel, even when it came to an art-form that I knew next to nothing about. The first art books with more of their reproductions in colour than in black and white were reaching Australia about then, and I thought I could see from my imported books about Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec that the so-called ‘Australian Impressionists’ in the Art Gallery of NSW were a secondary event by comparison. Much later on, Hughes the world-famous art critic talked about the effect on Australia’s would-be painters of what he called ‘the tyranny of the unseen masterpiece’. He took it for granted that for the painters to actually see Europe’s heritage of great paintings was crucial. But a loose interpretation of his principle — and a journalistic interpretation, the interpretation that sets the agenda, is almost always loose — tends to neglect the fact that Australia’s post-war wave of painters already knew quite a lot about the European heritage before they went abroad. And they all went. As Hughes himself would now be the first to point out, Margaret Olley, John Olsen and Jeffrey Smart had already made their first trips to Europe while we were still shooting sparrows. But Hughes might not have known that then, and as for me, I didn’t even know their names. I had heard of Russell Drysdale because some of his outback scenes had been reproduced in the Women’s Weekly. Sidney Nolan I knew to be associated in some way with Ned Kelley. But I didn’t meet an actual Australian painter until I got to London and found myself living in the same house as Brett Whiteley.

The house, in Melbury Road, Kensington, had once belonged to the pre-Raphaelite crowd-pleaser Holman Hunt. The bunch of recent arrivals that I was with all moved into the ground floor of the house and started being poor. Brett lived in the studio out in the back yard. Brett had obviously already left poverty behind. He had all the signs of success including a blindingly beautiful wife, Wendy. Forty years on, now that my elder daughter is an up and coming painter, I know enough about the harsh economics of the painter’s life to realise that Brett might not have been that well off after all. But he certainly got invited out.

It was a tough moment for the rest of us when Brett and Wendy emerged from the studio one spring evening on their way to dinner with Sir Kenneth Clark. Brett, whose tightly curled tea-cosy of a hairstyle was bright blond in those days, a kind of golden helmet, was almost as lovely as his wife. The two of them made us feel very downmarket. But Brett was no snob and seemed not to mind when I spent hours drinking his beer while explaining to him that technique in the arts was a side issue. Brett countered with the argument that one of the reasons Matisse could leave out so much was that he knew exactly how to put everything in. This was a perfectly true statement but I was years away from realising how true it was, because I had never had to sit down and keep reshaping a sentence while the light changed on the verb.

One of the things I most regret about my acquaintanceship with Brett Whiteley was that when he carried out his plan to visit the National Gallery before dawn — he had been given special permission after Sir Kenneth Clark had made the right phone call — I was too hung over to join him on his expedition to watch the sun come up on the Piero della Francescas. (Youth is the time of opportunities neglected: who would want to live through all that waste again?) One of the things I least regret is that I agreed he should do a triptych of nude lovers based on one of my poems. I thought I recognised Wendy in the complicated and lascivious flourish of black ink on the white paper. Anyway the bits that I thought were her were a lot more interesting than my words. After the pictures were framed at Brett’s expense (Wendy looked at me very darkly about that, and she was right) he made me a present of them, and I lugged them around for years until I finally left them with a startled landlady in Cambridge as part compensation for being late with my rent. Unless she burned them, I suppose they will turn up one day and fetch a huge price, not because of my lines but because of Brett’s line: and that’s just how it should be.

British critics were already writing about how Brett had brought his blue sky with him from Australia. I had seen for myself that he got some of his blue sky from Piero della Francesca, but it didn’t occur to me that there was a potentially interesting aesthetic question here about memory, perception and inspiration. Nothing about painting occurred to me for some time. At Cambridge I made regular visits to the Fitzwilliam to admire the Rembrandt. The Rembrandt subsequently turned out to be a fake but by then I could tell it was a pretty good one. With my future wife I spent a lot of time in Florence and in the Low Countries, doing the grand tour of the Renaissance. What a busy bunch of guys the Renaissance had been, I joked to myself, but in truth I was duly overwhelmed. I didn’t see how anything could compete with that, or even add to it. I liked quite a lot of the new art that was then invading London from America but apart from a few unarguable stand-outs like Larry Rivers I didn’t see much that could convince me it was as hard to do as, say, painting the Portinari altarpiece.

Then something big happened, and, as so often happens when something big happens, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was; I just felt the thump. There was girl at Girton who wore pop-socks and had that strange, rare, Zuleika Dobson-like gift of being followed around by a troop of prattling young men wherever she went even though she never said anything. One night she invited us all to a party at her father’s flat in London. It was in St James’s, as I remember, possibly overlooking St James Street itself. I was more than slightly smashed when we all arrived out of the night, but after guessing from the scale of the place that Miss Pop-Socks’s father must be loaded, the first thing I specifically noticed was that the walls were covered with paintings which had to be Australian. I guessed this about the Arthur Boyd paintings, and I was certain of it about the Drysdales, which were so numerous that they sometimes hung one above the other.

Overcoming a rush of nostalgia about the Women’s Weekly, I proceeded to instruct the young company about the rise of Australian culture. Miss Pop-Socks seemed unimpressed, perhaps because she needed no instruction. Her father had backed his appreciation with his money. Or to put it in a less vulgar and ultimately much more useful way, he had backed it with his love. This is an aspect we should note. It wasn’t just a case of a pundit-cum-merchant like Sir Kenneth Clark investing in futures as he stocked up on the Nolans and the Whiteleys. It was a case of British art-lovers seeing something that delighted them, and wanting to live with it. That night I got no further than realising that Drysdale delighted me. Yes, that was what a red dirt road looked like, and a town with one pub. Taking it for granted that an Australian painting should have an Australian subject, I could have cried with homesickness.

Homesickness was unrelieved for another ten years at least, until finally the Observer sent me back to Sydney on assignment. Until then, I hadn’t been able to afford a ticket home. That was the reason, incidentally, why the first trips of the Australian painters to Europe tended to last for years rather than months: it was so expensive getting there that you would have been wasting the money if you didn’t stay. I wonder if, nowadays, easy travel really has brought the other side of the world any closer: if you arrive ready to leave again, how much do you learn? How much do you submit, which is the big secret of learning anything?

Anyway, I had been away a long time: long enough for the Opera House to be finished. When I left, it was just a set of foundations. When I got back, it was Sydney’s most famous thing since the Harbour Bridge. Before the war, Grace Cossington Smith had painted daringly pointilliste pictures of the Bridge when it was being built, but that was as close as art got to engineering. Now the Opera House was there, and it had its own art inside it, including John Olsen’s huge painting Five Bells inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s poem about Sydney Harbour, out onto which the painting looked through the glass: a virtual image observing its reality. The painting knocked me sideways. For a while I thought it was an abstract, until I began to notice that it was composed of natural details. But the natural details were dotted through coloured space, in roughly the proportion of space to object that obtains in a Japanese screen, and with the same touch of quietly ecstatic wit that I had learned to look for in Paul Klee. You will notice that my range of reference had expanded.

Some of these guesses about the kind of art that Olsen has been looking at I was able later to check up on, because with Olsen, as with the other major Australian painters, a useful tradition began of publishing sumptuous monographs in which the reproductions not only got better and better, the text got more and more learned. To the row of Olsen books there has recently been added one called John Olsen: Teeming with Life, His Complete Graphics 1957—2005. This book is an education: an education about the artist’s education.

In Olsen’s prints you get down to the basics of where his big, seemingly boundless paintings such as Five Bells and The You-Beaut Country got their centripetal strength: detailed drawing. In all the prints of the 1980s that carried images of the now-famous Olsen frog, you can see how he caught the wildlife in motion through letting his line run as fast as it would flow: the frog dives from a branch like a blob of spit. You can also see that all this lyrical freedom must have been the product of a discipline. And so it was. In the early 1950s Olsen worked long hours in the drawing classes of three art schools in Sydney. Two of them were in sight of the Harbour and the third was the fabled East Sydney Tech, where Margaret Olley had already put in what Australians call the hard yakka.

But the extra thing to grasp is that Olsen knew quite a lot about Klee and Kandinsky before he left on the Orion in 1956 for his first three years away. He might not have seen many originals, but he saw all the reproductions there were. And the visiting exhibition ‘French Painting Today’ had taught him a lot, as it taught all the painters a lot, when it toured the Australian cities in 1953. It could teach them so much because they were looking with instructed eyes. And indeed common sense tells us that the Australian painters had never been cut off from the old world, but had been in a constant state of interchange with it, and all the more so because the actual pictures they had seen were so few, and thus so precious. Waiting for a long time under the balcony is not necessarily the worst start to a love affair. But the big difference between Romeo wooing Juliet and an Australian painter saving up for his first European trip was that the Australian painter already had a good idea of what he was going to get.

He, or, of course, she. Before the war, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith had always had the European heritage on their minds, if not before their eyes. After the war, Margaret Olley might have preferred to have it on her mind for longer. She has always said that she was exposed to the European impact too early in her career. Meg Stewart’s excellent biography Margaret Olley: Far From a Still Life is a lot better than its title. The book gives us a richly nuanced account of how the girl from Banyan Creek grew up in artless houses but had already seen her first Medici prints while she was at school in Brisbane in the late thirties. We should pause here to remind ourselves, and to inform the incredulous young, of what a Medici print was: it was a very good colour reproduction. What the Australian painters couldn’t see of the European masterpieces was the texture. They could see the colour, which meant that they could see almost all of the form. And they saw more of the European modern painters than you might think because there were well-off and cultivated Australians who collected modern art and brought it home, and the same spirit that made the collectors want to own foreign paintings made them want to know young Australian painters. It’s the story that’s so often left out: the story of the appreciators.

Margaret Olley’s real life as a painter began in Sydney towards the end of the war. At East Sydney Tech the young Margaret was soon famous among the artists for her talent and Renoir-pure pulchritude. Drysdale, Donald Friend and William Dobell all painted her, and in 1949 Dobell’s Archibald Prize-winning portrait of her, in her white dress of unrationed parachute silk, made her famous throughout Australia: Women’s Weekly famous, famous in a way that a shy girl didn’t really want to be. The journalists, in both senses of the phrase, chased her onto the ship. In Europe, she was overwhelmed by the galleries. We might tend to think that it was because she had no idea. A better interpretation is that she had a very good idea, but when she saw the reality it was too much of what she wanted all at once.

In Paris, all the Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings that are now coldly housed in the Musée d’Orsay were still splendidly concentrated in the natural warmth of the Jeu de Paume, where, dare one say it, they belong. We can safely deduce that she was thrown for a loop, because a large part of her subsequent career has been devoted to searching through that concentration for its essence. She came back to Australia in 1957 and for twenty years didn’t sail again. Nowadays she travels all the time — she doesn’t miss a major exhibition anywhere in the world — but for those two decades her journeys were in the mind: for any kind of artist, the journeys that matter most. And just as, when in Europe, she had maintained a presence in Australia — she sent a whole exhibition back to Brisbane from the south of France — she never, when she came back to Australia, ceased to live in Europe. That indeed, was what her journey in the mind was about.

It was conspicuously a journey away from the specifically Australian subject. In her early days, off in the bush at Hill End with Donald Friend, she had painted what was in front of her. Recently there was a rich little exhibition at the National Trust’s Samuel Henry Ervin gallery on Sydney’s Observatory Hill to prove that Olley and Friend got results a long way beyond the merely decorative. Robert Hughes said that they were two members of the ‘Charm School’ but the term is dismissive only if you underestimate just how charming charm can be. But now that she was back where she started, Olley painted as if she was still in the Jeu de Paume and the doors had been nailed closed, leaving her there unaccompanied except perhaps by Morandi and Ivon Hitchens. By the time I got to know about her she had been in there for almost forty years.

As I started flying back and forth to Australia more and more often, the question of the duty of the arts to the Australian Identity was taking more and more space in the media. One look at a roomful of Margaret Olley’s pictures was enough to prove that the question was a mare’s nest. This wasn’t Australia being painted, nor was it French pictures being echoed: this was the deep, layered memory of colour and balance being analysed for its coherent force. Mainly the objects in the pictures were items from the flea market that Olley is still running in the Hat Factory, the old name for the annexe of her Paddington house: a flea market where none of the brocante is for sale. (The lucky lunch guests, who amount to a long-running tertulia of everyone prominent in the Australian arts world, have to get used to being surrounded by knick-knacks recognisable from pictures they have seen and might even own.) But it’s doubtful if we should talk about objects at all. Imploding nebulae of colour, her pictures, Australian only in the sense that it’s an Australian who paints them, continue to raise the question of whether she is a figurative painter leaving the people out or an abstract painter putting objects in. I tend to the latter view. I think that with her, as with Olsen, there is constant and deliberate adventure into the territory where the subject yields its full material glory by ceasing to matter. But the question, with both those painters, will always remain moot.

With Jeffrey Smart it was settled from the start. There has to be representation, because form is his mainspring. The literature on him is already rich but Barry Pearce’s recent Jeffrey Smart is the best thing yet, a truly beautiful book. As we have come to expect from the Beagle Press, which is by now setting world standards and not just matching them, the colour reproductions are sumptuous, and because Smart works hard to achieve perfectly flat planes of colour — there has been no impasto for sixty years — every major picture can be not only present but pretty well correct.

The first thing you notice is that hardly any of them are about Australia. Very early on, before he made his first trip abroad in 1948, he painted local subjects, but even then they tended towards the uniquely personal international landscape that his pictures live in now. Blessed like his friend Barry Humphries with original taste, Smart already knew an awful lot about what had happened overseas before he left for Europe via America. Initially, like Margaret Olley, he was stymied by London’s National Gallery. But we have to remember that the process of absorbing influence is highly complex. Smart was in search of stillness and proportion. He was already at home with Mondrian, Ben Nicholson, Balthus and Edward Hopper. In Paris, the personal teaching of Léger took him further into a conceptual range of ideal proportion and geometric balance. So when he says that a single ancient mosaic he saw in Naples has had fifty years of influence, he might only be saying that it confirmed what he had already worked out.

In 1951 he came back to Sydney for twelve years, during which time he made a hit as Phidias on the radio show The Argonauts. Phidias knew all there was to know about art, both Australian and foreign. Characteristically I managed to miss his every appearance: he might have woken me up a lot earlier. He might have told me in advance that those Australian Impressionists — Streeton, McCubbin, Tom Roberts — were really something. Smart was helping to educate the next generation of art-lovers in the true principle that painting has no nationalism, only painters in different places. But all that time he was getting ready to leave again. One of the reasons is revealed in his autobiography Not Quite Straight: Australia was not yet ready for its gay artists.

But another reason can only be called destiny. He was destined not to be caught up in the question of how or what an Australian should paint. He had another country in mind. It wasn’t even Italy. He loved Italy, and after a crucial move from Rome to Tuscany he settled down and lived in Italy. He is still there, at the Posticcia Nuova, which must be one of the most beautiful houses any artist has ever inhabited. The exiled Victor Hugo lived in more splendour, but not with such taste. Thus lodged within driving distance of Arezzo, Smart painted Italy, or seemed to. But what he was really painting was a new world; a really new world; the world of Europe’s post-war reconstruction, when the colours came out on the sign-systems of the highways and on the cranes above the white buildings. It was a look destined to take over the planet. Whoever said that eventually everyone will live in the Smart country was exactly right.

What he painted was a vision. ‘The world’, he said, ‘has never been so beautiful.’ It was the deepest kind of aesthetic perception talking: the kind that can see the formal music of a pre-pyramid Egyptian bas relief and a Giotto Madonna in a late-night diner by Edward Hopper, and see all three in a row of modern apartment blocks half hidden by a hill. But it was a view of the world so contemporary that it was prescient, and he might have gone broke if he hadn’t been hard-headed about business. It’s a characteristic he shares with Olley, who realised early on that she should put her earnings into houses if she wanted to go on painting. Smart did the same, and his ability to put the painter’s inherently boom-and-bust finances on to a stable basis meant that he was able to ward off more than one great danger.

He was never tempted into painting sequences just to fill a too-hastily scheduled exhibition: one of the temptations which, for Brett Whiteley, might have been almost as fatal as heroin. Every Smart picture was, and is, an individual construction. He was also able to ward off the temptation posed by nationalist pressure. Nolan, in my view, fell for both temptations at once when he churned out too many desert landscapes. Smart was not to be forced home, even by his home culture’s increasing gravity. Always favoured by discerning Australian collectors who could see that its internationalism was what made the Australian culture boom formidable, he comes home of his own free will, and that’s what has made his career a triumph. One of his biggest and greatest pictures, The Container Train, now hanging in the Victorian Arts Institute, started to roll in Yugoslavia two years before it reached a forest in Gippsland. There could be no neater way of saying that the old world and its new country are continuous.

You can’t read one book about any of these people without running into stories about all the others. Painters have more fun than poets. It seems unfair. Even in the rare cases when they don’t get on, the painters are in a club, and quarrels are either settled or become a recognised axis for gossip. (While working on my left ear, Jeffrey Smart told me a scarcely believable story about Dobell and the man in charge of Wiseman’s Ferry.) This feeling of fraternity has certainly helped the Australian painters keep the courage of their convictions, the chief conviction being that a painting should be a thing in itself, and not a fleck in a trend. When all else fails, they’ve got each other, even beyond death. Olsen drew Brett Whiteley in his last years, when the golden helmet had gone dark. After Whiteley died, Olsen made a set of prints acknowledging the everlasting beauty of those early pictures of Wendy in the bath. He drew only the bath, because she was gone, too.

The same feeling extends even further back through time, to foreign painters long gone, whom they might never have met. Margaret Olley, who has always been shy about naming her lucky lovers, is flagrant about her love for Bonnard. A real live Bonnard is one of her many bequests to the Art Gallery of NSW, and there are other, smaller galleries that benefit from her munificence. And, standing out among her many still-lifes, what else is a figurative painting like Homage to Manet, with its scrumptiously creamy depiction of Berthe Morrisot, except a cheeky reminder that Margaret Olley, too, had once been painted in white by a great man, and had still managed to lead her own creative life?

Well, it’s also a nice picture. And people want pictures. They want poems, too, but they want them in another way, and it’s all too easy for poets to get depressed when they discover the deal is never done, the fait is never accompli, and the thing is never taken home to hang cherished on the wall while its creator banks the cheque and the critics shut up. We who push a pen had just better face it. Pushing a brush is in every way more satisfactory. But as long as the results matter, pushing a brush is also a lot harder. Any tribute to the Australian painters should begin with our gratitude for their belief that the results do matter. While the writers complained about being either shut out from the old world or else unable to get free of it — and there was reason for both complaints — the painters quietly enjoyed their privilege of helping to build an Australian cultural identity that the world could not resist. Always separate yet always together, they created an achievement so exciting for the eyes that it can make the blind see. I stand here as testimony to the truth of that.

Delivered as a National Trust Lecture at the State Theatre in Sydney on June 27, 2006,
and later published in a shortened version entitled “Out From Under the Balcony”
by the TLS, September 1, 2006


This lecture could easily have become a book if time had permitted. I barely mentioned Charles Blackman, whose accumulated work is one of the glories of post-war Australian painting. There could be a whole chapter just on the importance of East Sydney Technical College, where Rayner Hoff was the tutelary sprit. Hoff’s origins were in England, but after a long spell in the trenches of World War I, and a period of study in Rome afterwards, he carried a whole continental heritage with him when he set out for Australia. After he arrived there in the 1920s, he made a little statue of a lion, which you can still see in the Art Gallery of NSW. Hoff ’s lion became the bonnet ornament of the cars produced by General Motors Holden, and a version of it is still the logo for Holden today. The cultural interchange between Australia and Europe began in the nineteenth century. But then, when you think about it, it began with the First Fleet. National compartmentalization is a marketable fad in the minds of commentators who draw a salary for shuffling clichés. There were Chinese lacquer boxes on sale in the markets of Imperial Rome. Art travels faster now, but it has always travelled.