The Antipodes & I / by Laurence Fuller

by Peter Fuller, taken from The Australian Scapegoat 1985

The Australian Scapegoat, by Arthur Boyd 1987

The Australian Scapegoat, by Arthur Boyd 1987

 

In 1947 — as it happens, the year in which I was born — Kenneth dark made a trip to Australia. On the boat to Sydney, he put the finishing touches to what was, perhaps, his finest book, Landscape into Art. This had started as a series of lectures and dark spent much of his time on board, 'painfully turning the spoken word into the printed text'. 

In The Other Half, a volume of autobiography, dark recalled how he had to fight off the attentions of young women who wanted to interfere with this creative process. 'I am fond of young ladies' he wrote, 'but I am even fonder of work and independence.' A recent biography reveals that his priorities were not necessarily always the same, and I have sometimes wondered whether Landscape into Art might not have been an even better book if dark had allowed himself a little dalliance on his outward journey and left those final corrections until the return voyage. For we know that when he got home, dark began to tell his incredulous friends 'that Australia was about to add something entirely fresh to contemporary painting'. And, as Clark well knew, what Australia was adding had everything to do with landscape into art.


I made my first trip to Australia in 1982, and I went again in 1984, and 1985. These journeys have had deep and still continuing effects on my attitudes to art, landscape, and indeed nature itself. They have also changed my life in more personal ways. In one sense, at least, these Australian lectures chronicle my antipodean transformations.


In 1981, Terry Smith, of Sydney University's Power Institute of Fine Arts, wrote and asked if I would be prepared to give the John Power Lecture in Contemporary Art, the following year. (The series had been inaugurated in 1968, as Bernard Smith has described, with a lecture by Clement Greenberg, a leading American critic; it was intended to bring to the people of Australia, 'the latest ideas and theories'.) I must confess that at this time I knew very little about Australia, and less still about Australian art. I had no particular desire to go there. Nonetheless, this interest in my work emanating from the other side of the globe was gratifying and irresistible: I accepted without hesitation.


The main thrust of my paper, 'Aesthetics after Modernism', was the critique of the modernist tradition. I believed then-as I still do - that John Ruskin and William Morris, two of modernism's earliest and most trenchant critics, still much to contribute to the emergence of a genuine post-modern aesthetic. These two Victorians spoke prophetically about the failure of modernism in art, architecture and cultural life.

 

I have never advocated nostalgic revival. Rather, in my Power Lecture, I called for a new aesthetics: if these are to be rooted neither in God, nor in historical progress, they must spring, it seems to me, from some new, imaginative response to nature. I have long been sympathetic to what Gregory Bateson the anthropologist", described as 'an ecology of mind' - or the recognition that, if nature is not~the product of mind, then mind itself is in some sense the product of nature and is therefore immanent within the evolutionary structure, and objectively discernible outside of ourselves.
'Aesthetics after Modernism' contains passing references to things Australian: I mention the Sydney Opera House; William Butterfield, the English architect of the Anglican cathedrals in Melbourne and Adelaide; Aboriginal art; and Eureka — a pathetic exhibition of very recent Australian art which I had seen in London just before I left. But these were all used simply as pegs upon which to hang an aesthetic position which I had arrived at before ever I set foot on the Antipodes. My Power Lecture contains no suggestion that Australia might have anything to contribute to the emergence of this new and post-modern art.


I do not know what response I expected when I went to Australia to propagate these views. Bernard Smith may well be right when he implies that my grumpy and embattled manner was what might have been expected from 'a comparatively young man who had just arrived from a society experiencing a prolonged state of crisis'. I think I also probably suffered from some vague intuition that since there was no Gothic architecture in Australia, it would be even harder to point to alternatives to modernism than it was in Britain. Even so, I warmed to Australia immediately. I had never previously encountered such a passionate enthusiasm for ideas—even if, more often than not, this took the form of animated rejection. Australian hospitality, I had been warned, was unstinting: this proved to be the case; I could not remember having enjoyed myself so well for years. I went from Sydney, to Newcastle, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Perth, Brisbane, and back to Sydney, within a month. Sometimes I delivered as many as three lectures or seminars in a single day. Certainly it felt as if, as far as intellectual experience was concerned, I was giving out rather more than I was taking in. The Power Lecture schedule just did not allow much time for receptive sight-seeing, or the exploration of Australian culture and traditions. I used to say that I would be well-equipped to write a fascinating paper on Australian lecterns or airport departure lounges. Nonetheless, I was also very much aware that Australia was begmning to affect me deeply, and to change the way I saw and thought.


At first, it was very hard to put my finger on how this was working. But there's no doubt that the youthfulness' of Australia had something to do with it. I am no crude determinist. Nonetheless, the comparative openness of Australian academic, intellectual, and artistic life did seem to me to have something to do with the explosive expansionism, the evidence of which was to be seen in the fabric of the great and growing Australian cities. Australia had quite a different 'feel' from contemporary Britain where it is impossible to avoid a sense of being in a country where the old machineries of government and industry alike are creaking, shaking, and gradually running down. 

 

But the distinction I found myself wanting to make was not primarily social or historical. I am sure that Australians must be bored beyond tears with descriptions of 'first time' responses to their continent by Europeans. Nonetheless, it is impossible for someone born and bred in Europe to enter Australia and not be overwhelmed by its geography: books and images cannot prepare one for its terrible vastness. I had become used to the cabined, cribbed, confined spaces of crumbling London, and the neatly manicured fields, and trim Gothic churches of rural Suffolk. As I write these words, straining to recapture my first impressions of Australia, I am sitting at the desk where I wrote most of the Power Lecture before ever I went there. From time to time, I glance out of the window across Kiln Lane. Every 'natural' and architectural detail, each hedgerow, field, patch of woodland, cottage, or church, has a known human history - often stretching back for century upon century. Once John Berger, the art critic, visited me here. 'I might have known you would end up here,' he said. 'It is like every English landscape painting rolled into one.' And so, indeed, it is. I remember how four years ago, with the opening phrases of my Power Lecture formulating in my mind, I walked down the lane towards Street Farm. That afternoon, I borrowed the key, as I often do, to inspect the village church dedicated to St George, which stands on a Roman double entrenchment. Inside. there are some of the most beautiful carved wood bench backs and ends dating back to the fourteenth century. This was the land I was living in as I prepared for my first trip to Australia, and even though I received no more than a succession of momentary glimpses of the terrain outside the great cities, I could not evade an intuition of the dreadful otherness of Australia. I formed a flickering image of a second creation of strange flowers, trees, birds, and marsupial beasts, clinging to a habitable, coastal ribbon which fringed vast, uncultivated expanses of desert dust, emptiness, and natural dereliction. I recognised that the symbol and image of nature which this intractable land presented would inevitably require a revision of preconceptions based on my so very different European experiences.
Despite what Bernard Smith says about Kenneth Clark, there are indications that he, too, grasped this about the time that I was literally in my cradle. For example, Clark wrote about a Hight he made from Adelaide to Perth 'over the interminable red desert, which increases one's already enormous admiration for the pioneer explorers like Burke and Wills', dark commented that everywhere else in the world discoverers have penetrated to places where there have been people, or the remains of human habitanon. In Australia he continued, 'there was nobody and nothing'.


As Clark had just described his discovery of aboriginal art, and remarked upon the cruelty and injustice with which the aboriginals had been treated, he must have known that this statement was not strictly historically true. But dark had glimpsed something of the stark natural symbolism which this alien land proposes. Indeed. elsewhere he was to comment that in Australian landscape painting, as in all great landscape painting, 'the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as the background of a legend and a reflection of human values'. 

 

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different...


Clark never proved quite able to incorporate his Australian experiences into his understanding of art and landscape. He once reported that when asked to account for his belief that Australian painters were about to make a major contribution he could, 'only mumble something about the light, and the dead white trees and the feeling of an Australian myth'. Before I left Australia, I had already decided I wanted to get closer than that: I knew I would be returning.
Indeed, over the next two years, back in England, I found my thoughts kept tracking back to what I had begun to see there. In my Power Lecture, I had drawn heavily on imagery taken from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach; I had tried to evoke the way in which the long withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith reveals naked shingles and a darkling plain. As I dug deeper into the writings of John Ruskin, and the rise and fall of a 'Higher Landscape' painting in Britain in the 19th century, I found myself repeatedly returning to the imagery of the desert.


From the middle of the last century, even those born in England's green and pleasant land had to face up to what it meant to be blown about the desert dust, or sealed within the iron hills. The old imagery of a God-given garden became less and less appropriate. Perhaps this helps to account for the vogue for Middle Eastern desert painting which captured so many British and Parisian painters in the 19th century. But, in the absence of any new and compelling models of nature closer to home, 'Higher Landscape' was evacuated; depiction of the natural world became sentimental or topographic. The scenery, in other words, was either painted for its own sake, or as a reflection of trivial, inconsequential, or 'unearned' values. This, I came to feel, was the tragedy of British landscape until the wars of the 20th century, paradoxically, enthused it with new imagery, meanings, and life. Henry Moore, Paul John Nash, John Piper and Graham Sutherland were able to bring about a 'redemp^tion through form' upon a scarred and injured terrain, and thereby propose a vision of man, and his relationship to nature, of a terrible and awe-inspiring beauty.
This was the context within which I began to become fascinated by the recent history of Australian landscape painting - especially the works of Russell Drysdale, Sydney Nolan, and Arthur Boyd. But the circumstances of my second trip to Australia were tinged with a sense of deep personal sadness. On my 1982 visit to Perth, I had stayed with Jill Bradshaw, who taught art history at WAIT, the Western Australian Institute of Technology, and her husband, Don, who was Zoology at the University of Western Australia. As I recount at the beginning of the second lecture collected here, the three of us quickly became friends. In 1983, I was shocked to learn of Jill's sudden death in a car accident in North Africa. Don rang me and asked me to return to Perth to deliver the first Jill Bradshaw Memorial Lecture. (I was also invited to spend some time as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Fine Arts at the University of Western Australia, and to take part in a conference on the visual arts organized in connection with the Perth Festival.) And so, with something of a heavy heart, I Hew out to Australia again in February 1984.


'Art in 1984', the lecture I gave in memory of Jill, was probably the first text I had written which manifested the deep effects my previous Australian experience was having on my thinking. I contrasted George Orwell's negative vision of an anaesthetic future with William Morris's dream of a decorative Utopia. I was also concerned to elaborate a theme I had hinted at in 1982 in my comments on the 'Eureka' exhibition of Australian art which I had seen in London that year. That kind of Late Modernism which dabbled with mass media techniques, and aped the new technologies, seemed to me to be profoundly regressive and potentially deeply destructive. This sort of anti-art, though favored by the 'international' institutions and magazines of art, colluded, in my view, with the destruction of aesthetic potentialities, and the advent of a world such as that which Orwell had described in 1984. But it seemed to me that Nolan, Boyd, and in a rather different and special way, Fred Williams, had all begun to propose a new aesthetic, involving a new vision of the natural world, and man's place within it, which could lead to a discovery of a way out of and beyond the modernist impasse. 

It was not difficult for me to recognise what these artists had learned from European painting. And yet I had come to feel that they had used what they had learned to speak of an experience of nature which we Europeans could only glimpse occasionally through the savage ecological brutalities of war. They seemed to me to have done this with a freshness and originality of vision which sprang out of their perception of that nature which Australia proposed, a nature in which the great memento mori, the skull, or knob of bone, is never far beneath the soil skin. I came to the view that this vision was of far greater potency, and not only to Australians, in the 20th century, than a cottage garden decked with dog-roses. Tragically, however, it seemed to me that the development of this great vision had been stunted and oceluded by the enthusiasm since the late 1960s in Australia for the latest fads and fancies of the late modernist 'international' art.
It was, I think, appropriate to make this intervention in Perth. Again, it was interesting for me subsequently to read Kenneth dark's reminiscences about the visit he had made to the city in 1947. dark pointed out that the sight of the 'terrible desert' had made it all the more of an 'enchantment' to arrive in Perth—a city which he declared to be 'arcadian' and 'completely Victorian'. To stay there, he says, was 'like a journey in time'. Perth seemed to him to be an earthly paradise, full of green sward, the most beautiful Hower gardens he had ever seen, and blessed with an inexhaustible supply of fresh water and the best climate in the world. Perth, as he pictured it, was a garden city, surrounded by 'huge fields of gladioli' and nourishing vineyards.

 

Of course, pockets of the old Perth still remain: but the city has long since lost any resemblance it once had to News from Nowhere. Most (but not quite all) of the beautiful Victorian decorative architecture has been demolished to make way for rows of the most tawdry and unimpressive 'international style' skyscrapers to be found anywhere in the world. Perth has not lost its fascination as an oasis of human habitation poised on the edge of a lonely ocean, and the almost limitless emptiness of the Great Western Desert. But what it offers the visitor now is less arcadian than Orwellian: for Perth is a great city which has been brought to the brink of architectural and environmental ruin by precisely those destructive and philistine modernist credos which so many of its artists still wish to defend. I am sure that if Kenneth dark had stood in the middle of the odiously 'brutalist' 1960s campus buildings of WAIT, where I delivered my memorial lecture for Jill, he would not have written, as he does in his autobiography, 'I felt I could have stayed in Perth for a long time'.


Not long after I had delivered the lecture for Jill I went to the north west of Australia with Don Bradhsaw, who was leading a field trip one of the principal aims of which was to further his study of desert reptiles. This journey confirmed the sentiments which had been welling up within me concerning Australia and its landscape. I was later to set these down in an article about the Pilbara paintings of Fred Williams, which I was lucky enough to see in Sydney just a few days after my own visit to the region. (This piece was collected in my volume, Images of God.} I found the Pilbara a land of extraordinary beauty, and yet of terrifying inhospitality, a region where, after the worst cyclone for more than a decade, everything, it seemed, was leaping up and scrabbling for life. I found the deceit of the bush strange too: the dark red sand, glistening with 'desert varnish', looked moist and fertile. In fact, it could not have been more arid. The harsh, serrated spinifex grass, which tears the skin, could also appear almost lush. In his paintings of this gorgeous wilderness it seemed to me that Williams had brought about a 'redemption through form'.
The zoological work which Don was doing also affected my thinking at this time. Some of his energies were devoted to the study of two very closely related reptile species, and I sometimes went out in the bush with him when he trapped these lizards with a rod and line. Intriguingly, the work he was doing on the ecophysiology of

these modest creatures was knocking another nail into what Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Could, American biologists, have described as the 'adaptionist programme' and its 'panglossian' excesses. According to the vision of nature, which has dominated European biology this century, natural selection is so important that adaptation tends to be seen as the necessary outcome of its operation and the sole legitimate explanation of diversity in organic form and function.


But Don's lizards pointed towards rather different conclusions. For example, the two species were not only very closely related: they shared the same rocks and foods. And yet their breeding habits varied considerably. One bred like a tropical creature, after the summer rains; the cyclone that had swept through the region before our visit had set these ring-tailed dragon lizards off. But the other breeds in October and November, the Australian spring. This is a completely inappropriate pattern for this region; but it is remarkably successful as a species—although this is as far north as it ever gets. In north western Australia, natural selection has not decided between these two species: both co-exist and prosper. As Don puts it, such evidence implies a need for a reappraisal of our ideas concerning the nature of adaptation in biology and the role of modalities other than simple natural selection in procuring evolutionary change. The more that one looks at these reptiles, the more one comes to realise that they have no very specific adaptedness to their desert milieu: or, put another way, reptiles which live in regions where water is never scarce are physiologically very similar to lizards which inhabit the arid world of the Australian outback. I found I was beginning to wonder whether reptiles, perhaps like Hies and men, owed their evolutionary success not to any 'fine tuning' with the environment, but rather to the development of equipment which enabled them, as organisms, to cope with whatever environment arose. 

 

Could the 'panglossian excesses' of the adaptionist programme have arisen from a desire to rehabilitate an old religious idea into the stark and alien soil of nineteenth century Darwinism? The classical Darwinian view had swept away the static grandeur of a divinely ordained 'Great Chain of Being', and replaced it with a fallen nature, governed by chance, incessant competition, and a struggle for survival. But the panglossian elaborations of adaptionist ideas re-affirmed a new sort of 'natural, harmony' between existing (successful) species and their environment. It seemed to me that there was an aesthetic equivalent to all this in the desire, despite all the insights of the 19th and 20th centuries, to conceive of nature still as a garden, divinely ordained for the enjoyment and nurture of man.


One certainly encounters panglossian fallacies in, say, thinking about traditional aboriginal societies. Among artists, in particular, I frequently come across the myth that traditional aboriginal societies existed in some sort of state of grace with nature, i.e. they enjoyed some sort of 'natural' harmony which we have lost through advanced technology. In fact, the hunter-gathering techniques of the aboriginals involved almost 'scorched earth' policies as a way of life: they would pillage a particular patch of land in search of food, and then move on. Whatever traditional aboriginal societies have to offer us, the way in which they related to nature constituted no kind of balanced, reciprocal 'ideal', or model, for the future. Indeed, their techniques differed in scale, rather than quality, from contemporary Australian agribusiness, which is currently mining the top-soil of the narrow, fertile, coastal fringe seemingly without a thought for future generations.


And so, when I Hew back to Perth from Port Hedland, I was beginning to realise that the path beyond the modernist impasse would involve the elaboration of an aesthetic, imaginative, and ethical relationship to nature of a far more radical and disturbing kind than I had previously supposed. But these were not the only thoughts preoccupying me. Just before I set off to the north west with Don I met Stephanie Burns, an art student, from Claremont School of Art in Perth, who attended most of the talks and lectures I gave at the University of Western Australia as part of my work as a visiting Fellow at the Centre for Fine Arts. Over the next few days, before I left for Sydney, Stephanie and I saw a good deal of each other. After I returned to England, she came out to join me there. We decided to get married, and returned to Australia in order to do so in February 1985. 

Stephanie Burns Crampton Island, Lake Tabourie 2015 Oil on canvas 61 x 92 cm

Stephanie Burns Crampton Island, Lake Tabourie 2015

Oil on canvas

61 x 92 cm

 

Once again, I was invited to take part in a conference about the visual arts organised in connection with the Perth Festival. The talk I gave was called, 'Art and PostIndustrialism', and in it I pressed more strongly than ever my views about the failure of tacky 'internationalism' in the arts. I had been provoked by a mediocre exhibition, 'The British Show', which was on exhibition in Perth at that time. With the exception of paintings by Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, and Lean Kossoff, this consisted of the most banal and depressing art officiel preferred by the Arts Council of Great Britain and the British Council. I dismissed this stuff, and its Australian equivalents, as BICCA, or Biennale International Club Class Art—and I used the festival as an opportunity to celebrate the value of an informed provincial vision, and of conservationist aesthetics.


I argued more strongly than before that Australian artists were in a unique position to make a major contribution to the emergence of a genuine post-modern aesthetic, if only they attended to the 'natural symbols' with which the land presented them. I recalled how at one point, as we drove north in the Zoology Department's landrover, Don and I had glanced out of the window at the same time. A mangy sheep stood in a landscape of skulls and dry red sand. Don said exactly what I was thinking, 'The Scapegoat'; and the point was forcefully brought home to me that Australian painters were in a unique position to pick up the threads at exactly the point where British 'Higher Landscape' had become evacuated, and failed, in the mid-19th century. For the Australian landscape painter is compelled to begin with a conspicuously godless, intractable, terrain. This incident, and the insight that stemmed from it, have given this collection its title.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that despite its great achievements, the Australian aesthetic which began to emerge in the 1940s was only a beginning—but one which was tragically over-grown by the proliferation of the arid, anti-aesthetic, imported spinifex weeds of BICCA. Such pseudo-internationalism cannot be opposed by a blinkered nationalism. There were important continuities between the best Australian landscape paintings of Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and Fred Williams, and the highest achievements of European art: indeed, these great Australian painters could not have achieved what they did if they had not steeped themselves in the great traditions of Western art. That is as things should be: the cultural roots of white Australia are European, and will always remain so.
Even so, the informed provincialism, and aesthetic conservationism, which I am advocating no longer imply a subordinate status in relation to a strong, distant metropolitan culture. It is legitimate to question the degree to which Australian culture was ever simply a pale renection. For example, on my own visit to Melbourne, I became convinced that William Wardell's St Patrick's Cathedral was one of the finest buildings of the 19th century Gothic Revival to be found anywhere in the world. (Kenneth dark and Nikolaus Pevsner held similar views about Wardell's masterpiece. Yet what Australian art historian has ever made a serious study of the building?)

 

Today, of course, there is no longer a strong aesthetic tradition in Europe, or come to that in America, within which Australian artists and architects can work to greater or lesser effect. Modernism is dying. In this situation, what is happening on the periphery becomes central: or rather, it may begin to create a new centre. In this book,I argue that the image and symbol of nature which Australia proposes has a significance which extends far beyond the shores of the antipodes. For the legend and human values proclaimed through the attempt by painters to come to terms with the Australian landscape may eventually be seen to have a universal relevance in the closing years of the 20th century. Afterall, it is not only Australians who are struggling to live at peace in an alien world of finite resources, which constantly threatens to disintegrate into a desert of sand and charred bones. Perhaps that is what dark dimly intuited when he felt he could only 'mumble something about the light, and the dead white trees and the feeling of an Australian myth'. If this book does anything at all to stimulate contempt for BICCA, and enthusiasm for the revival and development of a true antipodean aesthetic, then it will have served its purpose. Europeans may yet feel compelled, quite literally, to look to Australia.


PETER FULLER


Stowlangtoft, Suffolk, December 1985