colour, landscape, nature

beyond the pastoral mode

January 20, 2016

With the opening of the Fleurieuscapes exhibition at Magpie Springs done and dusted  I have had bit of  time to set up the various project  galleries on the website  properly. They  now need to have  more images added to the projects and  I have started working on the Adelaide galleries, which  are   here, here and here. 

I have also had time to begin to think about the Fleurieuscapes project and how I have been approach the work to date and where it needs to go. I have  avoided the pastoral and the picturesque modes of  the nineteenth century  by concentrating on the  formal aspects of the landscape. It is difficult to avoid the reduction of the landscape to a stereotype of bright sunshine and scattered gum trees in the high summer.

grass tree + pink gum


Admittedly, bright sunshine and scattered gum trees does break with the English pastoral of the Heidelberg School –the homestead paddocks with milking cows casting long shadows in early morning or twilight, as they grazed in cool temperate pasture of the Heidelberg School.   The land had been  successfully tamed by the settlers,  and at Federation, they  were celebrating their British moorings and  their Anglo-Saxon heritage.

The picturesque mode relishes light and shadow, texture of grass, antiquated fences, dappled shaded cows.  The picturesque was a European (English) aesthetic and Australian art was  non-European and  ‘unpicturesque’. This European  landscape art is predicated on a widespread desire for disinterested enjoyment that precludes the direct lived engagement  premised on an understanding  of the actual ecology of places. It is predicted on an ‘outsider’s perspective’, rather than  the experience of someone who lives in that particular place.

 Australian modernism’s response to the landscape is a strange one considering that  European modernism is all about the machine aesthetic, cubism,  dislocations,  the rejection of naturalism/realism and flattened abstraction.  In terms of  the Australian landscape  the landscapes of Sidney Nolan and  Russell Drysdale (Central Australia),   the late Hans Heysen (Flinders  Ranges) and Fred Williams (Pilbara) represent  a return to the frontier paradigm and the  dry landscape  that functioned as a  counter to  the imperialism of the pastoral. What was presented  was the centre of the desert as the badlands, or the existential void of the modernist heartland.

The landscapes of Nolan and Williams were those  from  an aerial perspective (not so  for Drysdale and Heysen) and both addressed the pictorial problem of an elevated horizon.  They become a painting of everywhere – and nowhere – at the same time;  a painting of the pure space between places. Modernism’s  universalising abstract is apart from any specific realisation of time and place,  and it ignores  the particularities of place.  This  is replaced by the transcendent, which is  a realm beyond the here and now and the everyday. The landscape is to be grasped only by moving through it.

In the 1970’s  Fred Williams was held to  have painted the definitive, quintessential Australian landscape using the pictorial language of modernist abstraction. He was seen to have represented  the ‘essentials’ of the Australian landscape  and painted  the generalised and universalised experience in an abstract language. In the 1970s  visual  artists peers avoided engaging with the Australian landscape tradition – they found it conservative and stifling and conceptual art in contrast, offered a compelling alternative. They weren’t then that aware of the way that Aboriginal artists were reinterpreting the landscape tradition from their own perspective and artistic traditions.

This suggests that Australian photography, which is a regional photography with its  regional history,   is centred around  the historical reality of  the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of modernity in Australia and the history of the relationships between  between Indigenous and settler Australians.  Contemporary art is now concerned with  the romantic, the sublime with its melancholy mood  and the transcendent,  particularly where the landscape is concerned.

creeper + gum, Waitpinga

creeper + gum, Waitpinga

From an ecological perspective you don’t need to go to central Australia to see the dry landscape—the tamed land of the settlers is a stripped landscape.  The consequence of a landscape  devoid of vegetation  is that  it allows the  gusting winds  to erode the top soil. A landscape  devoid of vegetation is also susceptible to rising salty underground water.  Ecological concerns open a door beyond the way that  the modernist and post modernist landscapes   has has largely ignored or evaded ecological  concerns or an ecological engagement with the landscape.

This ecological concern  enables us to start photographing particular environments at particular times—intimate landscapes— without embracing the pastoral or the picturesque modes.

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