'New Australian' - Identity in Australian Landscape Art
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
The pursuit of characterising an Australian identity has been the preoccupation, even obsession, of many artists, designers, writers, critics and historians throughout every generation (Willis 1993; Kaiser 2012; Craik 2009b). The conflation of Australian identity and nationalism with landscape art has been discussed at length by many scholars and writers (Thomas 2017, Smith 2002; Riopelle et al. 2017; Willis 1993; Radford2007; Broinowski 1992; Butel 1985); however, it is important to recognise that negotiating what it means to identify the art and design identity of a nation is complex, involving intersections of ethnicity,
immigration, reconciliation, gender, class, religion and other subject positions.
Whether in the arena of mainstream culture or scholarly literature, the depiction of the landscape has been a central theme in Australian high culture, an idea ‘which few would dispute its central significance or attempt to counter its centrality’ (Willis 1993, 61). That ‘nation is a context and a site of ongoing formation’ (Kaiser 2012, 54) and a site where an assemblage of identity can occur are also crucial factors to consider.
Defining nation is a highly contested topic within the backdrop of a globalised world where societies have become intensely multi-cultural and are ‘persistently mutating’ (Papastergiadis 2005, 62).
The desire to express a sense of place or belonging in a world divided by the black border lines on a world map is one of the difficulties faced by artists interested in hybridity and identity because in modern society, artists,like all people, are highly mobile international citizens, moving across and between multiple geographies and nations.
The defining of nation in Australia has been predominantly confined to the large roughly asymmetrical geographical landmass of Terra Australis22 (Willis 1993, 15). In cultural studies terms, a nation is not a thing or an essence that necessarily has a culture wholly distinct from other nations. Rather a nation is a context and a site of ongoing formation; one that does not always neatly coincide with one’s ethnic or ‘other’ subject positions. (Kaiser 2012, 52)
This statement acknowledges that a space for new developments or depictions of national identity, particularly in relation to other cultural influences can occur within a defined territory. Subjective positions intersect in complex ways with embedded cultural discourses; individuals ‘mix and match different elements to formulate temporary expressions about who they are … or are becoming’ (Kaiser 2012, 5).
The idea that national identity is manufactured and imagined through a combination of our environment and personal subjectivity is outlined by design scholar Anne-Marie Willis (1993) in Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation. Willis takes an interdisciplinary approach to the consideration of visual arts, identity and culture in Australia, and explains in detail how high and low ‘pop’ culture, literature, and philosophy have shaped an Australian identity in the arts which is profoundly associated with landscape. Whilst exploring the question of how imagery constructs versions of national identity from many angles and viewpoints, Willis identifies ‘landscape as nation’ as the prime defining medium. ‘Nation and otherness’, including diversity and assimilation, are also identified as key idiosyncratic aspects of national character depicted through Australian material culture and arts (Willis 1993).
Director of the National Gallery of Australia Ron Radford (2007) refers to ‘the great century’ where the enduring mythology of landscape in Australian art23 became firmly established between 1850-1950 (Radford 2007, 11), a period when landscape was the most artistically successful and most painted subject, reflecting both a fixation with nationalism and a search for identity. In this era of Australian art, artists such as Frederick McCubbin and Walter Withers created works that ‘remain the most iconic and popular paintings in Australian culture’ (Radford 2007, 23).
Whilst Radford’s remarks are located from within Australia itself, when viewed from Europe a similar understanding takes place. In 2016 the National Gallery in London24 held its first-ever exhibition of solely Australian painting, which comprised of the works of Tom Roberts, John Russell, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor. Titled Australia’s Impressionists (2016) the exhibition’s catalogue states, ‘the story is framed by unmistakably Australian subjects and locations, a pre-occupation with light and colour, and in the context of Australian identity and nationhood’ (Riopelle et al. 2016, back cover). These artists and others in their circle such as Walter Withers and Frederick McCubbin adopted the European impressionist
style and ethos of painting from nature en plein air, applying it to distinctively local subject matter that strove for an imagery of united values and symbols most often drawn from the natural environment (Thomas 2017,43). This recent example of an understanding viewed from outside of Australia reveals the persistent conflation of Australian art with its landscape.
Although new themes have of course developed in Australian art, examples of what represents the Australian nation in art such as those outlined above have resulted in a series of motifs and signifiers mythologised as signs of nation – the beach and the bush, idyllic summers, harsh light of the outback, sweeping gum trees and the determined hard-working larrikin being amongst them (Thomas 2017, 49).
It is helpful to look at two examples of nation as landscape art here, first a postmodern example and then a Heidelberg School landscape which has personal significance for me. The contemporary example can be seen in the work of Chinese-born Australian artist Guan Wei. Wei creates images that comment on many aspects of Australian history, including uncomfortable issues of border security, immigration, refugees, Aboriginal dispossession and other political discourses, however the vantage point to behold these issues is often grounded in depictions of landscape (see Figure 23). Wei has been labelled ‘an
identity maker in Australian art’ (McGuire 2018) due to his postmodern visualisation of the Australian continent where symbolic Australian motifs such as parrots, kangaroos and surfers blend with a variety of Chinese Buddhist symbols and stylistic compositions and other universal signs to envisage his new identity as an Australian. He uses iconographical motifs from Australian maps and geographical locations to make what he calls ‘Australian art for an Australian audience’ (Wei, quoted in Guest 2013) albeit through his diasporic eyes. His work reinforces the significant role of Australian landscape motifs as a vantage point
for making comment on Australian and Australasian issues regardless of nationality or cultural background. Wei seeks to depict his vision and understanding of his ‘new home’ (Guest 2013), indicating that the location of identity within landscape also has resonances for migrant communities within Australia.
The Heidelberg example is The Pioneers by Frederick McCubbin (1904) (Figure 22). I encountered the painting afresh whilst visiting the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in January 2018. The very same painting, albeit a reproduction on a much smaller scale, but still grandly framed, hung on my family living room wall for my entire childhood. The gravity of its actual scale, mark marking, content and links to my childhood imagination and memories growing up in the Australian bush reinforced the crucial importance of landscape for the creative production for ‘Imaginary Aesthetic Territories’. Here were the key colours (withered fading greens; greys and damp browns), sensations (crackling eucalypt dryness and earthy decaying leaf litter; spiky branches, hostile but beautiful) and feelings (isolation; nostalgia; sense of time passing; peace and wonder) I hold in relation to the Australian landscape.
McCubbin intended the painting to be read across the panels. First, the pioneers begin with nothing but the natural environment, melancholy and hard work. Second, progress is indicated by fallen trees, a bush cottage and a small family. Third, much time has passed, a forgotten grave is found as a city is seen to emerge in the distance.
McCubbin’s painting is as much about nationalism and mythologising the Australian pioneer as it is about the passing of time and progress. (In a comparable way, when I return to my home in Tasmania, which once sat in dense isolated bushland, land has been cleared, towns have encroached and much time has passed. My home no longer has The Pioneer reproduction hanging on the wall, but a series of Japanese calendars has taken its place. – See Background to a Creative life)
I suggest the idea that the construction of cultural identity by artists in Australia can be grounded in landscape and effectively depicted in landscape motifs; however, this foundation can be built upon, so that previous conceptions can be inflected, altered, challenged and enriched by an artist’s subjectivity.
Terra Australis was the Latin name used for a hypothetical continent in the Southern Hemisphere since ancient times.