Romanticised degeneracy

I’m gadding about Sydney, where I’ve signed up to several workshops, agreed to meet several people, am planning a leisurely lunch with my grandparents, and am generally trying to take it easy / soak up the excess culture and abundance of magazines. The place of my birth–though I feel no true attachment to it, having only lived here as a baby.

I spent some time the other day in a library at the University of Sydney, where my friend Robyn works, and found myself reading up on my artistic heritage in a book titled ‘Painting The Rocks.’ The Rocks is the bit of Sydney that’s smack-bang on the water, under the Harbour Bridge, looking out at the Opera House. Traditionally slums, disreputable, haphazard and considered a den of debauchery, it’s now a little bit swanky, and also home to the art school—Julian Ashton’s—that my present atelier teachers attended. Julian Ashton himself, thus my painterly great (multiple greats?) grandfather, was, it seems, particularly enamoured of The Rocks, and in 1902 arranged an exhibition of romanticised paintings of the area.

The government had decided, on the basis of the outbreak of the bubonic plague (what?) in Sydney at that time, had decided once and for all to clean up the area and purge it of all degeneracy. (This is despite the fact that only three deaths ensued in The Rocks, and only one thousand people out of the entire city were infected). Ashton, in a sudden flood of nostalgia, rallied his artist friends—including Sydney Long—to ‘document’ the area for posterity, with a good dose of romance in the form of street goats and street chickens and cute wives sweeping under flapping white laundry.

What motivated this exhibition? Some Howard-esque urge to fabricate a national identity steeped in old-world charm? An outright fear of progress? Ashton’s school still teaches in the traditional manner—one that I adore—replete with raw umber underpaintings, tonal studies and intentional rendering of form around the contours of a figure. Perhaps this traditionalism played itself out in a simple love of the historical, the true—the government could whitewash all it liked, but the fledgling city had a life of its own, more authentic and more descriptive of our origins.


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