Evolutionists and Australian Aboriginal Art: 1885-1915

By Lowish, Susan | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2015 | Go to article overview

Evolutionists and Australian Aboriginal Art: 1885-1915


Lowish, Susan, Journal of Art Historiography


...savage art, as of the Australians, develops into barbarous art, as of the New Zealanders; while the arts of strange civilisations, like those of Peru and Mexico, advance one step further...

Andrew Lang, 18851

The Idea of Progress2 and the Chain of Being3 greatly influenced the writing about art from 'other' countries at the turn of the twentieth century. Together these ideas stood for 'evolution', which bore little resemblance to the theories originally propounded by Charles Darwin.4 According to the historian Russell McGregor, 'Human evolution was...cast into an altogether different shape from organic evolution ... Parallel lines of progress, of unequal length, rather than an ever-ramifying tree, best illustrate the later nineteenth-century conception of human evolution.'5 Several prominent late nineteenth-century anthropologists employed a similar schema in determining theories of the evolution of art. This kind of theorising had a fundamental influence on shaping European perceptions of Aboriginal art from Australia.

In 1888, Chambers's Encyclopaedia began its entry for 'Art' with the following: 'A man in the savage state is one whose whole time is of necessity occupied in getting and retaining the things barely needed to keep him alive.'6 'Savages', as we know through the discourse of 'hard primitivism',7 had no time for art, yet the same entry goes on to reveal that 'Prehistoric man is known to have developed several kinds of decoration.'8 The five-page entry in the Chambers Encyclopaedia provides a very general sense of how the evolution of art may have been understood from a nineteenth-century perspective. The evolution of art begins with the impulse to decorate.

The impulse to decorate a useful object is one common to all mankind. It is merely to continue a little further the labour of simple manufacture. With this instinct is involved the equally natural impulse which drives men to imitate the objects seen about them, and by which they are chiefly interested. Landscape-painting, for example, is suggested by the desire to fix upon some portable surface the image of a view which pleases or interests the draughtsman. But out of this effort at imitation arises a new desire - that of creation. The artist is not satisfied merely with attempting to copy what he sees.9

Constructing the evolution of art as a progression from decorative, to imitative, to creative co-incides with the rise of the survey text for art history.10 Survey texts were a useful tool in the early days of teaching the history of art, but are limited in their ability to present complex narratives of the story of art. Such evolutionist views are also evident in art historical writing from this period, which positioned either the art of ancient Egypt or Greece at the origin and Italian Renaissance art at the apogee, and have since been criticised for their limited (Eurocentric) vision.11 While acknowledging that recent alternatives to reading art history as a linear narrative have been offered,12 this paper is concerned with critcally evaluating scholarship on the art of Australian Aboriginal peoples produced during the latter part of the nineteenth century in relation to the dominant beliefs and attitudes of the time.

Evaluating the impact of evolution on the perception of Aboriginal art requires familiarity with specific works of Australian ethnology and their place within the wider history of anthropology, combined with an understanding of what 'art' meant in that realm. In order to provide focus and limiting scope for this paper, analysis of these topics is filtered through the catalyst of Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), the major figure for Australian anthropology and Aboriginal art in the period 1885-1915. With early ambitions to be an artist, he became an enthusiatic art collector and museum director, developing the first museum displays of Aboriginal art in Melbourne from a suite of specifically commissioned bark paintings (Figure 1). …

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