Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

1 Genre Memory: Australian Historical Novels in Context

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

1 Genre Memory: Australian Historical Novels in Context

Article excerpt

In the Australian setting, tropes of romantic landscape in colonial art and colonial fiction have commonly offered identical significations. Colonial art has often provided writers with rich resources in relation to their imaginative critical reflections on terra nullius and those discourses of colonial power underpinning idealized European scenographies. The Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan (see Chapter 6) is one high-profile Australian writer who has been deeply influenced by colonial paintings and the colonial visual archives for the development of his novels Wanting and Gould's Book of Fish. Tropes of the land can be mapped across time to show how writers and artists have shifted away from creating celebratory colonial images of terra Australis to generate complex, contested images of land and country that subvert optimistic colonial progress narratives and Europeanist cultural inscriptions of 'landscape'.

In early colonial paintings, for example, theatrical scenographies of 'natural wonders' were counterpointed by views that showed aspects of the countryside or bush as partially tamed, as if to suggest perpetual settler imbroglios with terrifying natural forces. Such views (one thinks of Australian colonial painters such as Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier, and William Strutt) were advanced in the name of an almost (Christian-sanctioned) godly control of the frontier. In tandem with heroic visual images of having pushed the frontier 'back', colonial paintings reveal that other significant aspect of what is really a composite image of territorial possession: images of the gentleman's park-in-progress. Pastoral commissions commonly featured landscapes of speed-built homesteads and fastfenced holdings. In many respects, they formed a dominant colonial landscape sub-genre of their own. One might describe these kinds of 'Australian' paintings as exemplifying the enlightenment neo-pastoral. Such visuals aestheticized the uneasy and often bloody task of rolling back the wooded frontier for anticipated economic gains. In a classless society, these visuals, with their appeal to aristocra- tic leisure pursuits and images of gentrified holdings, were also treated in a painterly language that belonged to the past (that is, they were redolent of modes of aristocratic eighteenth-century landscape painting in the manner of Repton and Gainsborough). The colonial painters took no account of systematic Aboriginal land-management practices that had persisted for millennia. Documented by many early settlers and scientists, these ecological practices included burning and firing to clear land and encourage animal grazing as sources of ready, seasonal food supplies.1 Drawing on the pictorial language of the past endowed colonial holdings with an aura of value, class, and timelessness that could never be true to reality. But when the viewer looked at these elegant pictures, the idea of settlement receded to a distant white past, some remote Avalon in which dispossession and criminality had not figured. These images seemed to suggest that the white landowner, like landscape, had always been.

Romanticized nature pageants and their composite pictorial techniques were taken on board by colonial landscape makers. With such an arsenal of spectacular genre effects, landscapists like von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier, Louis Buvelot and others could shore up messages of righteous dominion in their colonial documentations; these pictorial forms of painterly public relations were of great use to pastoralists, surveyors, and colonial authorities.

This snapshot of the function of colonial art draws attention to the fact that compositional genre effects were the colonial painter's equivalent of the strategies adopted by the historical novelist to envisage 'true history' as Arcadian nationalist myth, romanticized and patriotic. Novels such as David Maloufs Harland's Half Acre (1984) and Hugh Atkinson's Grey's Valley: The Legend (1986)2 may be modern works emboldened by imaginative use of literary techniques, but they rush to meet the oil-painted past head on, remaining cousinly close to the nostalgic populist traditions embodied in novels by Nancy Cato and Colleen McCullough. …

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