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Down on his Luck

Landscapes in Australian Art and Identity

The landscape is so common in depictions of Australia that it is almost a cliché. Advertisements usually show a picture of the Northern Territory outback, perhaps a forest from Tasmania, a beach from NSW and some snorkelling in Queensland. The aim is to show viewers that Australia has a variety of landscapes. What is lacking is some guidance about how these landscapes have shaped Australians.

The outback is one of the most prominent landscapes in art and movies but also one of the landscapes that is more removed from the lives of Australians, the majority of whom live in coastal catchments. It seems that, on the whole, cultural creative have been intimidated by the outback and in movies like Mad Max, Razorback, Wake in Fright and Wolf Creek, they have used it as a kind of metaphor of societal breakdown or brutality at the heart of Australians. Perhaps some of the negative emotions stem from the discomfort those raised in cities feel when the security of civilisation is absent. Just as someone planning a swim in the ocean could encounter dolphins, whales or turtles but only thinks of the shark lurking below, urban Australians visit the outback but instead of appreciating its beauty, think only that there is no one to hear their scream. The movie Crocodile Dundee was one of the few exceptions in that it incorporated beautiful outback scenes as a metaphor of something positive of Australians.

Emus In Landscape
Russell Drysdale
Emus in the Landscape

The use of the outback as a metaphor of Australia as a mental wasteland, but still a source of inspiration, is perhaps best illustrated in the poem Australia, by AD Hope:

"They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: "we live" but "we survive",
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

 

The coast is less prominent in Australian art even though it is more prominent in Australian lives. Perhaps it is because the beach inspires positive emotions; however, positive emotions tend to be less culturally valid in art than are negative emotions. Iconic artworks based on the coastal experience include the Sunbaker by Max Dupain and beach scenes by Brett Whitely.

Max Dupain

Max Dupain Sunbaker 1937

Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley Balcony 2 - 1975

Australia’s Antarctic Territory is inaccessible to almost all Australians; however, it has still captured the imagination of a few artists lucky enough to experience it. Photographs by Frank Hurely, from Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–14), provide a particularly gratifying lens on the Antarctic explorers. As is very common amongst Australian artists, be they directors, painters or poets, Hurely used the landscape as a lens to interpret human action.

Hurely Penguins

Inspiration for Drysdale’s Emu in the Landscape? Hurely's juxtaposition of human ruins with animals and harsh nature was also a theme common in Russel Drysdale’s outback paintings.  

Hurely

Frank Hurely; such beauty in harshness

More recently, in 2009 printmaker Jorg Schmeisser produced spectacular prints and paintings of Antarctic landscapes. The works were particularly interesting, not only because of what they showed of Antarctica, but because they also show how Antarctica affected Schmeisser. Typically, Smeisser's work was very defined, tight, and detailed, but his Antarctica work revealed a somewhat of a melting of his usual style for something more free.

Jorg Schmeisser - Iceburg Print Antarctica

Jorg Schmeisser; an intaglio print in a series of on an ice burg in transition. The same plate was used for 5 different scenes of the iceberg.

Rainforests in Australia date back more than 100 million years, which is 10 times older than the Amazon, and still contain ferns, conifers and angiosperms that once covered the Gondwana super continent. The most renowned are the cool climate rainforests of the Tarkin in Tasmania and the world heritage listed Daintree in Northern Australia. Like it has with the coast, it seems beauty doesn’t always inspire so art about rainforests is rare. William Robinson is one of the few artists to be inspired and gain a following based on his inspiration.

William Robinson; Afternoon Light Springbrook

William Robinson; Afternoon Light Springbrook (2011).

The Great Dividing Range is a final landscape that has been influential in the lives and art of Australians but is often ignored in promotions for Australia. Stretching more than 3,500 kilometres, it is the third longest mountain range in the world. While it is long, comparing it to the Andes, Rockies, Himalayas and would be like comparing a Rhino to a Kangaroo. The other mountain ranges demand respect because of their size. They rise up sharply and convey a sense of foreboding as the visitor appreciates how difficult they would be to climb or be almost impossible to live in. The Great Diving Range conveys a completely different emotion. For most of its length, the range is high enough to encourage orographic precipitation, but not steep or high enough to prevent rain from reaching the other side or fall only in one area. The wide spread of rain nourishes the forests of Australia and in turn creates a pockets of gorges that are very desirable to get lost in and for animals to find refuge in.

At the time of initial British colonisation, the Great Dividing Range acted as a barrier to westwards expansion. It seems explorers thought that the best way through them was to follow creeks and valleys, which resulted in them getting hopelessly lost. Three explorers, Lawson, Wentworth and Blaxland, eventually got through by following the hill tops. On the whole, it would be fair to say that the attitude of the early colonists has been replicated over countless generations as most Australians have approached its ravines and gorges as something to pass, rather than something to settle in or explore. Only a few have seen its beauty. Perhaps the words of Marcus Clark, written in 1896, explain why:

"The Australian forests are funeral, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the fall leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gum strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depths of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. … All is fear-inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked with the memories of the mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings—Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair. .... In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hierogylphs of haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue. The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the Bush interprets itself, and the Poet of our desolation begins to comprehend why free Esau loved his heritage of desert sand better than all the bountiful richness of Egypt." (Australian Scenery," Australian Tales)

Down on his Luck

Frederick McCubbin, Down on His Luck. It is not only native fauna that have looked at bush as a refuge.

 

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