Warning: Cannot modify header information - headers already sent by (output started at /clientdata/zeus-dynamic-1/j/o/johnmcdonald.net.au/www/index.php:44) in /clientdata/zeus-dynamic-1/j/o/johnmcdonald.net.au/www/wp-config.php on line 53
Colony | John McDonald

Colony

May 4, 2018
Augustus Earle, 'Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales', c.1826
Augustus Earle, 'Portrait of Bungaree, a native of New South Wales', c.1826

If I seem to be constantly writing in praise of the National Gallery of Victoria this isn’t because the grass is always greener interstate. It’s because the NGV has been attending so well to the fundamental business of what a gallery should be doing. Arguably the most important task is to provide a vibrant program of temporary exhibitions. This is the engine that drives repeat visitations, generates public programs, boosts publicity and revenue.

With their inaugural Triennial the NGV made a comprehensive commitment to contemporary art that drew an astonishing 1.2 million visitors. Major works were commissioned for the show and acquired for the collection. Such successes allow the gallery to fund a wide range of surveys and artist retrospectives not intended as blockbusters. In comparison the Art Gallery of NSW has been immersed in an opium dream of a new building while allowing the exhibition program to stagnate.

And so it is that I’m back in Melbourne this week, looking at Colony, a provocative show that puts work from the NGV collection alongside judicious loans from public and private sources to create a fascinating picture of early Australian art and life. The full title is Colony: Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars, which reflects our current, near-universal conviction that British colonisation was actually an invasion. It’s a strange mixture of an exhibition, filled with marvellous displays boasting all the trappings of scholarship, but – to my mind – fundamentally flawed in the way it relates the work of the colonial past to the activist art of the present-day.

Having said that, one can still appreciate the boldness of this gambit and the many questions it raises. Such a project will never approach perfection but it’s important that the results generate thought, discussion and argument.

Christian Thompson gives Captain Cook the postmodern treatment

Christian Thompson gives Captain Cook the postmodern treatment

I remember how at primary school in 1970 we were all given kits commemorating the Bicentenary of Captain Cook’s “discovery” of Australia. Such handouts would be unthinkable today, when Cook’s role is so hotly disputed. Yet it could also be argued that in our eagerness to question the myth of great white explorer we are danger of belittling Cook’s achievements, which were extraordinary by any measure.

While Aboriginal issues have proven intractable for successive governments, official policies have blossomed with tokenistic demonstrations of affection. No event is complete without the ‘acknowledgement of the first owners of the land’, a specious incantation that seems to grow more elaborate by the week.

This little ceremony, and the equally dodgy ‘welcome to country’, serve only one useful purpose: to remind us that Australian history is not merely a tale of white colonists triumphing over adversity. In our pathetic tokenism we acknowledge a great truth: history is a contested field that needs to take account of both triumphs and tragedies, winners and losers.

For the original inhabitants of this country there is every reason to view the colonisation that began in 1788 as a declaration of war. Their land was forcibly appropriated, they were put under the jurisidiction of a foreign power. When they resisted or interfered with the invaders’ self-proclaimed property, rough justice was meted out.

Today the narrow, imperial acounts of Australian history have been largely supplanted by a version that emphasies the crimes of the colonial masters and the sufferings of the Aboriginal people. Colony is an addition to this bitter tale, although it also manages to celebrate the cultural achievements of the early settlers, who had to construct an entire society from scratch in a wildly unfamiliar environment.

One may feel for the indigenous people who rapidly became outcasts in their own country, but also for the convicts who were sent to Australia against their will; and even for the soldiers and officials who were expected to carve a facsimile of England from the wilderness.

Unknown, after Thomas Watling, 'View of the town of Sydney in the colony of New South Wales', (c. 1799)

Unknown, after Thomas Watling, ‘View of the town of Sydney in the colony of New South Wales’, (c. 1799)

Among the convicts there were talented artists such as Thomas Watling and Joseph Lycett, whose early views of the settlement have ensured them a place in local art history. As the penal colony was joined by new settlers in search of a better life, crude outposts began to dream of being great cities. By holding fast to ideals of British culture and civilisation the colonists gave themselves a raison d’etre in a new land, which became a home rather than a place of exile.

This show includes many items that testify to the acclimatisation process: books, maps, furniture, pottery, daguerrotypes, elaborate records of natural history, paintings that show the growth of cities and prosperous estates. We range from John Lewin’s early studies of birds and fish to John Glover’s painting of his house and garden in Van Diemen’s Land, to Eugene von Guérard’s resplendent views of rural homesteads.

John Glover, 'A view of the artist's house and garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen's Land', (1835)

John Glover, ‘A view of the artist’s house and garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land’, (1835)

The colonists were not united in an all-out assault on the Aborigines. Many settlers, and a disproportionate number of artists, were sympathetic observers of indigenous life. Some saw only noble savages, but Augustus Earle dissipated the Romantic mists when he portrayed the Sydney natives dressed in cast-off clothes, puffing pipes. His famous portrait of Bungaree is a study in ambiguity. Dressed in an old naval uniform, Bungaree play-acts a dignified, western gesture of welcome. He may be seen as a tragic dupe or a sly satirist poking fun at the British and their little rituals. He would have relished the contemporary ‘welcome to country’.

What this exhibition reveals, perhaps more clearly than any other survey of the colonial era, is the complexity of cultural expressions at the time. Although there is a clear curatorial slant towards viewing colonisation as a process of tragic dispossession, the early works and artefacts are palpably more engaging than the contemporary pieces in the Frontier Wars display.

While the historical pieces are full of insights into a time and a place, the contemporary work is often ideologically motivated and frankly propagandistic. Where the colonial works allow for a political interpretation the contemporary ones are unambiguous political statements. The juxtaposition must have seemed like a brilliant idea in theory, but in practice it adds a negative overtone to the historical display and exposes the superficiality of much of the contemporary work.

One indisputably impressive part of Colony is the catalogue – another thumping brick of a book packed with original essays. This publication supplies all the detail, all the arguments that can’t be easily contained within a one-off display. It demonstrates that Australian history has to be portrayed in full colour, not simple tones of black-and-white.

Colony: Australia 1770-1861 /Frontier Wars
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
15 March – 15 July, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May, 2018