In Australia I attempted, as I always do, to live as fully immersed in where I was as possible. I painted the view from my veranda, partook in barbeques, read books on Australian painting, drove a big, powerful car, spent time contemplating the Lamberts, drank flat whites and talked until a reasonable hour about what it means to be Australian, went to bed on time and got up early for work. Something in this sweltering cocktail of true blue experiences sparked a new awareness in me of an Australian myth. I realised that though I had failed to be taken in by this myth, most of those around me embraced it heartily, and it stirs in them a genuine and deep love for that sizzling, sun-drenched rock.
Bernard Smith’s book Australian painting: 1788-1960 filled many gaps in my patchy understanding of Australian history, by the more engaging route of chronologically tracing the history of painting. Beginning with dry accounts of botanical artists (including, freilich, Austrians much praised by Goethe) and topographical depictions of early settlements, and warming up with the moderate efforts of trained European artists on extended antipodean sojourns, Smith finds the germ of Australian culture in this beginning afresh on a wild frontier. Our painting reveals all: awkwardly transplanted into a hostile terrain, without a folk tradition, without peasantry to romanticise, the Australian attitude and Australian painting grew from similar stony soil. As convicts became stockmen, their brutal, hardworking, authority-shunning attitudes set the tone for the Australia we have built today. The bushman, writes Smith (1962: 28), ‘became the new representative, the new symbol, of a life freed from the restricting conventions of civilized life. His was a life lived close to nature, dangerous, adventurous and often heroic.’ By the time Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor came along to forge a homegrown visual homage to this myth, this unpretentious, full-throttle attitude was firmly fixed.
On warm winter afternoons I would sit back and think how remarkable and improbable it is that we managed to build anything at all—so isolated, so set upon by an inhuman climate, so ill-educated and insolent. This is indeed no place for theatres and galleries or any other ostentatious show of good breeding. For well-bred we are not, and embarrassingly proudly so: ‘The rich an’ educated shall be educated down,’ as our highly-regarded poet Henry Lawson wrote in 1893 (Smith, 1962: 131). I suppose it is the worship of physical labour for the sake of physical labour (‘hard yakka,’ in Australian) that has permitted us to achieve what we have, and undoubtedly a healthy dose of vitamin D; but I can’t help but wonder: at what cost?
As my eyes opened to this patriotic pride, the pride that glories in levelling the field, in making us all equals, in pressing a giant ‘reset’ button on the European class system, I began to really listen to my countrymen’s convictions. They would say to me things like, ‘Of course, it’s very beautiful in Europe. But the standard of living there is disgustingly low. I would never stoop so low.’ Or, ‘Sure, the food is nice in Europe, but what about progress? We can’t just maintain a comfortable level; there must be improvement.’ And upon hearing that people my age regularly work a twenty-five-hour week rather than forty, they burst out in disgust, ‘Lazy fuckers!’
I returned to Vienna as autumn gently settled over the city: the air became crisper and the leaves began to fade and fall, spiralling lazily like a steady golden snow in the ancient city streets. I went to the Volkstheater, built on the blood and sweat of the workers who themselves believed in the power of dramatic storytelling, and I drank beers and philosophized in the lavish red velvet upholstered bar glinting with chandeliers, contemplating the seasons and the importance of cycles. And yes—perhaps the key lies in these cycles, wholly natural in Europe, contrasting starkly with the fierce linear progression of single-seasoned Australia. For while Australia provides day after day of blinding sunshine, demanding day after day of (preferably unpleasant manual) labour, urging us on to greater and greater material success, Europe caps the height of summer with a frosty turn and invites a melancholy introspection. Dark times will come, and perhaps there is beauty in this natural regression.
Australia prides itself on a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, friendly disposition, but this lightness hides a danger I am not willing to overlook. Perhaps hard work alone will not allow us to build ourselves up to where we dream of being. Perhaps progress is an illusory goal. When I return to Europe and I find that people take pleasure in simple things—in locally-grown food, in starting the day later, in bicycling in the fresh air, in putting human well-being ahead of economic gain—I have the sense that I have circled back to an earlier time and picked up afresh something important. And I think we must do this again and again—reawaken, and bask in the frenzy of summer, but allow ourselves to wilt and fade a little, to retreat and reflect, and prepare ourselves to sprout anew. It’s difficult to explain precisely what it is about Australia that feels so foreign to me, but perhaps this begins to illuminate it.
And so I join the exodus of Australian painters that began even at the dawn of colonial Australia, and my departure itself signals a ‘challenge [to] the values of Australian society’ (Smith, 1962: 332). Along with many of my fellow Australian painters over the last two hundred years, I must ‘come to terms with it, or else spend [my life] abroad until old age or death.’ Smith’s (1962: 332) summary of Australia is tough, but, I think, accurate: Australia is no place for the artist, because
‘the uneducated Australian is indifferent to art; and the educated Australian, upon whom the role of patronage normally falls, is, as often as not, a second-rate European with such a strong feeling of inferiority that he is embarrassed by the voices of his own countrymen. Lacking a folk-tradition of long standing from one section of society, or a well-informed aristocratic patronage of the arts from the other, Australian artists have constructed what is national and distinctive in their art in the face of the anti-art values of their society. That is why good Australian art is so often tough-minded and sardonic: not because of the desert but because of the people.’
Smith, Bernard. 1962. Australian painting: 1788-1960. Oxford: Melbourne.