The Unknown Art of Australia

By Smith, Bernard | UNESCO Courier, December 1988 | Go to article overview

The Unknown Art of Australia

Smith, Bernard, UNESCO Courier

LIKE the first Australian art created by the Aboriginal people, the highly distinctive art that has developed in Australia since European settlement in 1788 is rarely mentioned in general histories of art. Why is this so?

There are two important reasons. First, most general histories of art are written by European or North American historians. Most of them are convinced that art produced outside of Europe and North America is either folk art or a second-rate imitation of European art. In either case it can safely be ignored.

The second reason why Australian art is not known abroad is related to the first. The art establishment in Australia is well aware of the Eurocentric values that dominate the world of high art, and when preparing collections of Australian art for exhibition abroad it always sets out to show that Australian art is just as up-to-date as that from anywhere else in its knowledge of the latest European fashion. Australians call this approac"the cultural cringe".

Of course good art possesses both a regional and a universal quality: regional in that it evokes the spirit of a place, a time and a people; universal in its appeal to all humankind, and in its links and associations with other cultures and other times. To recognize this basic but paradoxical fact was the greatest achievement of modernism.

Australian art has become, during the past century, a highly important theatre of activity in which this central paradox of modernism, the connection between the regional and the universal, has been continuously enacted and contested.

Again, there are two main reasons for this. The first is environmental. Australia, with its great deserts, rain forests and wide stretches of open Savannah, it scurious plants and animals, presented a major challenge to European taste and perception-just as modernism did. Though determined to go on behaving like Europeans in a strange environment the first settlers were continually challenged by the enduring power of the so-called "primitive" character of the land and the "primitive" character of the people. Though they tried to forget or ignore both, they had to learn to alter their ways, Those who did not accept the challenge created mere imitations, second-order European art.

The second reason is cultural. The early European settlers found themselves clinging to the shores of a great continent the size of the United States, situated between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with south-east Asia to their north. They found themselves surrounded by non-European cultures of great antiquity. This fact has been even more difficult to come to terms with than the natural environment. Nevertheless, under the long-term effects of a radically different environment and surrounding, alien cultures, European conventions in art have been seriously challenged and an excitingly new kind of art is evolving.

Consider architecture. The Aboriginal Australians had no need of permanent buildings. European settlers began building the kinds of houses they had known in their former homelands, but these were found to be unsuitable. The first public building in Australia, Government House in Sydney (1788) was given the form of a Georgian box-like structure-derived ultimately from the fortress-like town house of the Italian Renaissance. But under pressure from the great heat and flooding rains of Australia, the Georgian box transformed itself into a spreading umbrella. The verandah, pioneered by the Portuguese when creating the first European empire in the tropics, became the active principle in the transformation of Australian colonial architecture. It evolved diverse shapes and structures and was found in all tyupes of building, from rural homesteads to city terraces. By the end of the nineteenth century it had given rise to a style of architecture in Australia as distinctive as the rococo. This style, known as the Federation style because it came to maturity around the time of the federation of the Australian States into the Commonwealth of Australla in 1901, soon spread all over the continent. …

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