Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia & California 1850-1935

Article excerpt



CALIFORNIA 1850-1935

By Erika Esau (Sydney, Australia:

Power Publications, 2010, 368 pp.,

$59.95 paper)


ERIKA ESAU, with her magisterial Images of the Pacific Rim: Australia & California 1850-1935, has created an extraordinary comparative cultural history of the Golden State and the "land Down Under." The story of how this wonderful book came to be is a delight. Born and raised in California, Dr. Esau lived for a short period in the frigid upper Midwest and happily accepted a position at the Australian National University in Canberra teaching the history of Australian art. While developing her curriculum, she noticed a strong affinity with her California roots and the image-making of both Pacific Rim regions. The genesis of her book occurred when she saw an exhibition of Australian tourist posters that included James Northfield's striking Canberra, Federal Capital & Garden City, Australia. The arches, red-roofed buildings, and enchanting sylvan landscape in the background reminded her not only of home but also of an earlier California citrus box label that incorporated many of the same visual themes. Both Australian poster and California label projected a semitropical paradise.

Ten years in the making, this well-researched and engagingly written large-format volume traces the cultural similarities of these Pacific Rim neighbors from the helter-skelter days of the two gold rushes of the 1850s to the Great Depression and the globalization of cultures and economies in the 1930s. As a native Californian, it was truly illuminating to learn of the profound influence our state had on Australia's art, architecture, and publishing history.

California has long been recognized for her worldwide influence, but her unique impact on her Pacific neighbor has never been so well articulated. As Esau explains, "My own iconography of place--my sense of what is familiar and comfortable in the landscape as rendered through images--has been determined by my experience in these two cultures of the Pacific Rim. The images and the examples presented in this book suggest that this shared visual template is not simply serendipitous, but is the result of prolonged interaction between two peoples whose societies came of age at the same time, and in an environment that had much in common."

This binational scholar neatly divides her book into seven robust chapters arranged in chronological order. Topically, she covers such important visual subjects as the daguerreotype in both gold regions; Francis Brett Harte's famous illustrated poem, The Heathen Chinee, and its inspiration of Joseph C. Johnson's ethnically diverse Australian painting, The Game of Euchre; the influence of sheet music cover art; the making of the monumental large folio publications of the late 1880s, Picturesque Atlas of Australasia and Picturesque California; and magazines such as Sunset, the Pacific Monthly, and the Automobile Club of Southern California's Touring Topics. …