Australian writers pick their favourite artworks from the homeland

Thomas Keneally, Christos Tsiolkas, Carmen Callil and others choose the works that most strongly capture the spirit of their home country

Rosemary Valadon’s Germaine Greer as Artemis, 1992.
Larissa Behrendt (Home and Legacy)

Rosemary Valadon is an underappreciated Australian artist. I see her in the tradition of Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston, Australian women artists who reimagined the domestic Australian aesthetic. This is particularly so with Valadon’s vibrant still-life paintings. Her palate is fresh, modern and sensual. My favourite part of her body of work is her “goddess series” and one of the standout pieces of that is Germaine Greer as Artemis (the Greek goddess of the hunt). The series, and this portrait in particular, evokes an Australian femininity and feminism – bold statements in a country where misogyny is still so prevalent in public discourse. I love the interpretation of Greer, an iconic feminist, in the role of Diana. She stands against lush foliage but at the same time, as she holds a cat, we see a nurturing side of the female warrior.

Sidney Nolan’s Quilting the Armour, 1947.
By Carmen Callil (Founder of Virago Press, author of Bad Faith)

In this painting Ned Kelly‘s sister, Margaret, is sewing satin into his helmet. There is a demented look in her eye, as well there might be. A man is prowling behind her – it could be Ned without his armour, but he is chopping wood, so that is unlikely. There are a windmill and a water tank on stilts, a rabbit proof fence and a shack with a woman at the door. It could be Margaret and Ned’s mother, Ellen, or her sister. It is a very Australian 19th-century scene, and I love it. Julia Gillard might love this painting too. Twiddling her thumbs while the boys went out to attack policemen was the lot of girls in those days. These days Australian men let their sisters stand for parliament, but truly, they are still as antediluvian as the brothers who gave Margaret that needle. The colours of this painting take me immediately to the land of my birth: that blue, that yellow, though the vast sky is overcast and dark. Ned will be hanged, and Margaret and her descendants will bore themselves to death sewing satin into helmets. This painting reminds me why I left Australia and why I miss it. Such a beautiful country.

Harold Cazneaux Arch of Steel, 1933.
Peter Conrad (Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the 20th Century)

I’ve always had a giddy infatuation with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. During my Tasmanian boyhood, long before I set eyes on it, this cobweb of suspended steel, flung into mid-air from a stony anchorage, summed up the tense, tenuous excitement of urban life. Here was my route to the future, which would begin, I hoped, exactly at the vanishing point in Harold Cazneaux’s photograph, on the spot where the arch curves back to the ground. I wasn’t alone in feeling almost worshipful about it. The bridge’s opening in 1932 symbolised Australia’s coming of age: according to a dotty clergyman called Frank Cash, who wrote an allegorical exegesis of its span, it was evidence of a “Divine Mind” and would serve as a “spiritual Ark”, rehabilitating the former penal colony and lifting it into the sky. Painters and photographers used the bridge as an abstracting device, a quirky container for light or an exercise in distorted optics, and competed to find new ways of looking at it. Max Dupain thought the bridge’s mechanical form made it “blood brother to the camera”; Cazneaux saw it as a geometrical diagram, a conundrum of piled-up quadrilaterals. Fifty years ago, I was thrilled by the modernity of images like this, because they were attempting to modernise Australia. Now, noticing those antique cars, I realise that the mnemonic tunnel is pulling me backwards not ahead. The bridge has two lanes for traffic, which travel in opposite directions; life, unfortunately, is a one-way street.

The Bradshaws.
By Richard Flanagan
(Gould’s Book of Fish, The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

The Bradshaws is the appropriately inappropriate English title given to an enigma – some hundreds of thousands of mysterious rock art paintings scattered through the wilds of the Kimberley, an area larger than Germany in the remote, scarcely populated north west of Australia. The Bradshaws suggests an extraordinary civilisation that existed long before modern man reached the British Isles. Often remarkably clear and vivid, these vertical rock wall paintings – preserved in overhangs and caves – are sophisticated, stylised pictures of people in boats, antlered animals, horse-like creatures, men and women in elaborate costumes taking part in dances and ceremonies. Who were they? What did they think? Everything about The Bradshaws is controversial, fluid, uncertain: their age – perhaps 30,000 years old, perhaps older, perhaps more recent – who painted them, what they mean. To gaze up at some of these cliff paintings as I did five years ago in a red rock gorge on the side of the cataracts of the Fitzroy River flooded with monsoonal rain, the world a dazzle of greens and reds, the land and water fat with life, with some Bunaba men – who still lived in the Dreaming, whose tribal land this was, men with whom I had travelled five days on a raft to get here and who had never seen these particular paintings before either and who found the paintings as mysterious as I did– was to know a strange abandonment. It was to feel every perspective I had on life and history, the supposed new world and the supposed old, civilisation and barbarity, on what it is to be human, turned wildly and thrillingly on its head – an overwhelming feeling, a liberation at once vertiginous and terrifying. What more can one ask of art?

Rover Thomas’s Cyclone Tracy.
By Anna Funder (Stasiland, All That I Am)

To look at a Rover Thomas painting is to experience awe: how can a thing of such apparent simplicity be so powerful, so complicated, so mesmerizingly beautiful? How can it carry so many meanings in ochre and black, in wayward line and dot? To look at a Rover Thomas is to see a map of specific country and a map of the human spirit. It is to witness an event at the same time as to feel its effect (Cyclone Tracy). It is to see the world from above, in aerial view, but to be absolutely of it and in it (Uluru). When I look at Rover Thomas paintings I see the anarchic movements of a psyche, a Rorschach of the soul. If I had had any say in what went into the tinny space shuttle destined for other, possible, planetary life, I would have put in a Rover Thomas. Because they are beyond language; they communicate in a way that says: this is what it is to be here on this planet, and this is what it is to be human, on the inside.

Gulumbu Yunupingu’s Garak: The Universe.
Chloe Hooper (A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man)

Gulumbu Yunupingu came to painting relatively late, one day finding herself compelled to retell her family’s traditional stories of the Milky Way. Before creating these luminous works on stringy bark, she’d spent 26 years translating the Bible into her first language, Gumatj, a dialect of the Yolngu people of North-Eastern Arnhem Land, and her art, in part, encapsulates the uneasy, often contradictory relationship between an earlier generation of missionaries and indigenous Australians. Their attempts at conversion turned her vision pantheistic: within Yunupingu’s detailed, shimmering patterns one can make out the simplest crucifix co-opted and transformed into countless abstracted stars. She remembered as a child seeing rain on a cloudless day, which her mother explained as the stars weeping. Later Yunupingu painted her own stars with tiny abstracted eyes. Her work is about metamorphoses. The sinuous bark surface is itself still in the process of bending and twisting even as one stares at it on the wall. I met Yunupingu once briefly, a few months after she’d won a major national art prize, and she was strikingly regal and humble. She tried to paint infinity, and wanted us to see in the heavens both sorrow and harmony. “We can all look at these stars,” she said, “whichever sky we are looking at.”

Charles Conder’s Impressionists’ Camp, 1889.
By MJ Hyland
(Carry Me Down and This Is How)

Charles “K” Conder was born and died in London, but spent most of his life in Australia. His painting, the Impressionists’ Camp, is part of a body of work known as open-air realism. I first saw the painting in 1995, in the Heidelberg Gallery – known as “Heidi” to Melbournians – and I gave Conder’s painting a new name: “The men in the mud-lit room”. I loved it then, and still love it now.

Like the best fiction and film-making, Conder’s painting insinuates missing parts, suggests a longer story, off-stage stuff that we don’t get to see. Conder doesn’t tell us what these men are doing, what’s in the brown bottle, or what’s on that sheet of paper. The painting drops us into the active middle, right inside the movement (hand on hip) and incident (paper signed or perhaps refused) and the painting’s mysteries compel us to fill in the gaps. Conder removes the fourth wall and paints what’s inside without first tidying up or moving the actors out of the dust or manipulating the exposed. We see into a world that’s bent-out-of-shape, but by what? It’s not poverty alone feeding the mood in this work.

Conder lived in a derelict weatherboard farmhouse on the Mount Eagle estate with the artists Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. He slept on a corn sack and used boxes for chairs. Impressionists’ Camp shows one of the rooms in the farmhouse. Roberts is sitting on one of the old boxes and Streeton is standing. But Conder knew, surely knew, stranger facts would be imported by the viewer. Influenced by Whistler and Japanese art, Conder stood alone. Although he was a member of the “Heidelberg School”, his painted air wasn’t bright or fluffed up by the palette of spring. Conder used browns and greens, and his paintings catch the mean light of Australia like no other artist before him. Impressionists’ Camp seems as if it is made of clay. The mood is of the end of the day, and the day’s awful mood is trapped in the darkening wooden room. It feels exactly like it is: too dry, too hard: oil on paper, stuck to cardboard.

Sidney Nolan’s Burke, c1962.
By Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s Ark, The Daughters of Mars)

I was always fascinated in Nolan’s Ned Kelly series that, although the outlaw family of Kellys lived in a region of Victoria heavy in vegetation, of wooded valleys and august mountains (after all, a terrain that contributed to the Kelly boys’ success), in his renowned paintings Nolan narrated the story as if it had occurred in semi-desert. In one of the most magnificent of the Kelly series, Ned rides off over a flat clay pan towards a distant fringe of scrubby trees, in a landscape that seems more marginal than the one that in strict truth he inhabited. The town of Mansfield is rendered in the same spirit, as if it were in dusty plains, which is not the geographic truth. In his series on the explorers Burke and Wills, Nolan paints each as he envisages them to have been before they embarked on their lethal, continent-crossing endeavours. In Nolan’s version. Burke is ultimately rendered naked, his nakedness blending with the body of the camel he rides, and all around an abominable desolation varying, in some of the paintings, only in changes in elevation.

This vision of Nolan’s made sense when I heard the eminent Australian curator Patrick McCaughey argue that to the European sensibility Australia was the netherworld, and the seeking Orpheus, whether Ned Kelly or Burke, is meant to be the central and sole figure in a landscape of bewilderment, a Hades.

What I said about Nolan is not to accuse him of a flaw – for I, like all Australians, revere his work – but it is a matter of the time he inhabited. His painting still delights new generations and strikes to the heart because of the potency of imagery. It fills the Australian landscape with legends, and so it is fitting that the Australia he paints is not an egregiously pretty one. In any case, when it’s a choice between verisimilitude and a divine lie that cuts to the heart of truth, we prefer the lie every time.

Frederick McCubbin’s Lost, 1886.
Hannah Kent (Burial Rites)

I first saw Frederick McCubbin’s Lost when I was a child, no older than the girl in the painting. It frightened me. As the daughter of two country-born parents, I had grown up knowing the bush and its dangers. I knew what it was like to walk in the dry air, blistered grass cracking underfoot, the horizon disappearing behind stretches of saplings and the smell of eucalypt lifting with every footfall. I knew how thirsty you could become when the shadows lay thin on the ground, and how the scrub could rise around you – grey, scorched and watching – until you were afraid you would never get out. “If you become lost,” my parents would tell me, “don’t go anywhere. Stay in the shade. If you wander, it will be difficult to find you.” When I first saw McCubbin’s painting of a young girl, alone and straying, I feared for her. The artist’s impression of the bush captured, in its detail of peeling bark and yellowed grass, the menace I sensed from this landscape as a child. McCubbin captures its beauty – its extraordinary quality of light – but also its deadliness. The little girl is insignificant in the bush’s expanse. The sky is disappearing. Lost is said to be inspired by the 1885 case of Clara Crosbie, a young girl who was miraculously found alive in dense bush after having gone missing three weeks earlier. I’m drawn to McCubbin’s paintings for the way they suggest a deeper narrative. I see the Australia I know: lyrical, singular and unsettling.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty [Big Yam Dreaming], 1995.
By Alex Miller
(Conditions of Faith, Lovesong)

Until quite late in the 20th century, landscape art made in Australia was essentially derivative of British and European art in its ways of seeing and its methods of production. The truth of this is evident in the almost total absence of the reverse influence of Australia’s art on British and European art. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Anwerlarr Anganenty, 1995, and its predecessors, is as challenging for Australian artists’ ways of seeing the landscape as Jackson Pollock‘s Blue Poles, 1952, was when it was bought for the National Gallery of Australia by the Whitlam government in 1973. The difference is that indigenous Australian art is the first source of imaginative energy to challenge art in general that derives immediately from Australia and nowhere else. It requires a rare degree of genius for artists to respond to the challenge of indigenous art and to access it as an authentic source of imaginative energy for their own work. Fred Williams, Rosalie Gascoigne and John Olsen, in particular, have been painting the Australian landscape for decades in ways that would not have been possible before the emergence of the work of Kngwarreye and her kinsmen and women. These three artists have shown the way to Australia’s non-indigenous artists in the sensitive project of referring in their art to a uniquely Australian way of seeing. It is still too early for us to fully grasp the challenges set by such paintings as Anwerlarr Anganenty.

Carol Jerrems’s Mark and Flappers, 1975.
Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap, Barracuda)

A woman with a camera captures something that we are not often privileged to see: that the larrikins and the blokes, for all their teasing and macho posturing, between them there is also tenderness and affection, there is also love.

A woman with a camera reminds us that working-class white men can be beautiful. A photograph fixes place and time. These were the boys that I went to school with, the boys that I feared and the boys that I desired. The boys I too once loved. I used to believe that they possessed the Australian face; that Australia belonged to these boys and this belonging was written on the planes and contours of their mien. This is no longer true. Our faces have altered and changed and morphed and mutated; and so these boys, they have become history.

A photograph transcends place and time. A woman points a camera at two friends and finds a vision beyond fear and loathing, panic and despair. These boys still exist, on the bloated and bereft outskirts of every Australian city. They have a ferocious appetite, to devour and tear apart a global world that has for so long ignored them.

The woman with the camera has captured the future. But in that photograph, the boys, they are no longer smiling.

Fred Williams’s Yellow Landscape, 1968-9.
Tim Winton (The Riders and Dirt Music)

I was a teenager when I first saw reproductions of works by Fred Williams. As a young man I sought out his work in museums but he was not ubiquitous like [Sidney] Nolan or as hyped as [Brett] Whiteley, so encounters were relatively scarce, even in the 1980s. There was a kind of humility and seriousness in Williams that appealed to me then, and only grew on me as I aged. He was confident enough to approach the landforms of our country without feeling the need to plaster them with borrowed mythology or naff symbolism. In the works he painted around Lysterfield in Victoria in the mid-1960s he renders the scale and mystery of the physical world by tiny marks. The forms and figures are like scars in the hide of a beast too big to properly conceive of, let alone see entire. All these wens and divots are without pattern and yet they bring to mind calligraphy. These are the marks, the messy, chaotic texture that even the practised eye struggles to contend with in the Australian landscape. Whether you’re seeing it from the air or at ground level, this is what your senses struggle with in the open country, such flat planes worked over with hieroglyphics born of fire, erosion, meteor showers, drought and epochal passages of time. Here humans might seem incidental.

Williams’s great restraint in Yellow Landscape (1968-9) is the sign of a painter properly humbled by scale and time. Australia is a very old continent. Its ancient topsoils are meagre and fragile and the marks we make upon it are deeply consequential even if they still seem as opaque as those that predate human time. In the 1980s Williams used this austere maturity of vision to paint the Pilbara region of Western Australia, and the works from this period are perhaps his greatest achievement. I remember standing in the Art Gallery of Western Australia when The Pilbara Series, 1979-81, toured and feeling awed by what the painter had achieved without the bombast and branding that had overtaken the work of his more lauded contemporaries. To anyone who’d lived or travelled in that vast red and yellow region these paintings feel shockingly authentic, even to viewers with little exposure to contemporary art. Williams’s authority in these paintings crosses borders of class, culture and region as few others can. Here was an artist who worked hard to simply get out of the way and let us see the strange and unforthcoming place in which we locals found ourselves. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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