The victory of earth over sky
[Once again this has been typed quickly in an internet cafe. Apologies for the inevitable infelicities...]
Australia has been a hard homeland for modernist writers, artists, and architects. In 1944 two determinedly neo-Augustan poets submtted a slew of hurriedly composed, 'deliberately nonsensical' verses to Angry Penguins, an Adelaide-based journal which had been defying the dominant tastes in Aussie culture by flying the flag for modernist art and literary movements like Surrealism, Expressionism, and the New Apocalypse. Penguin-in-chief Max Harris hailed Ern Malley - the ghostly man James McAuley and Harold Stewart had credited with their scribblings - as a genius, and dedicated a special issue of his journal to him. When the hoaxers revealed Harris' 'mistake', Angry Penguins folded, and modernism was mocked on the front pages of Australia's newspapers.
Today, the sixteen poems that were published in Angry Penguins under Ern Malley's name are better-known and more highly regarded than anything McAuley or Stewart published under their own names. At the Heide Museum of Modern Art, a series of boxy galleries built on a north Melbourne artists' commune that once harboured Max Harris as well as key Aussie modernist painters like Sidney Nolan and Alfred Tucker, a new exhibition is honouring Malley, and adumbrating the more absurd details of the controversy he ignited. Manuscript pages, old copies of Angry Penguins, correspondence between Harris and the hoaxers, and paintings by Nolan and half a dozen other Aussie artists inspired by Malley all adorn the limestone walls of the Heide.
Why did the Malley oeuvre constitute such a collection of sins and blunders, for McCauley and Stewart and their many backers in the Aussie literary establishment?Malley, and the modernist movements whose strenghts and excesses he embodied, represented a creative response to the breakdown of traditional social forms and traditional belief systems in an era of crisis and war. Modernism was eclectic, fragmentary, and multiperspectival. With their abrupt shifts of view and tone, their leaps from Australia to Europe and back again, their mockery of traditional rules of meter and argument, and their pervasive sense of space and potential, the Malley poems were modernist masterpieces that mocked their authors' intentions.
McAuley and Stewart wanted to take poetry back to the eighteenth century, the pre-industrial era when men like Pope pronounced confidently on the world in limpid couplets. Both of the hoaxers had a desire for order and tradition which was political and personal, as well as literary - McAuley was tormented by agnosticism until he converted to Catholicism and became a leader of the furiously anti-communist Democratic Labor Party; Stewart's search for order in his writing and his life led him to the austerities of the haiku and Zen Buddhism, and ultimately to exile in Japan.
Many of the supporters of McCauley and Stewart shared their mania for order. AD Hope, the poet and critic who helped to get the Malley 'scandal' into the papers, earned notoreity in the literary community for his brutal reviews of modernist fiction and poetry. In one particularly infamous piece, Hope decided that Patrick White's classic novel of the Australian backblocks The Tree of Man was nothing more than 'preliterate verbal sludge'. Hope's own scrupulously metered poems are his alternative to the free-falling images and stream of conscious monologues which White learned from the great modernist writers.
The problem of the Australian landscape has obsessed many of the contintent's reactionary writers. In an interview he gave near the end of his life, Stewart remembered screaming and crying and begging to go home when his parents took him on holiday out of the city into the Australian bush. For much of his life AD Hope was tormented by a nightmare in which he found himself in a barren part of the Ausdtralian outback, surrounded by wild animals, with only a cage for protection. In his most famous poem, Hope raged against the vastness and apparent lifelessness of Australia:
A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.
They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry...
The desire for the order of foreign, pre-modernist culture which is evident in the work of Australia's anti-modernists is a reflection of their horrified response to the size and perceived physical and cultural barreness of Australia. The same sort of response can be seen in many aspects of white Australian society - in the grid-like streets of towns set on huge plains, in the English names of hot streets where tumbleweed blows, and in the faux-Oxbridge exteriors of the country's oldest universities.
Australia set its colonists unusual challenges. In New Zealand, which was manageably sized, lush, and exceptionally fertile, their counterparts could present their new society as a 'better Britain'. The Australian landscape would not allow such reassuring comparisons. The Treaty of Waitangi, the relative dignity which many Maori iwi retained after the wars of the nineteenth century, and the lip service which Pakeha politicians gave to Maori aspirations, meant that Pakeha intellectuals could legitimise their own presence in Aotearoa by appealing to biculturalism. In Australia, where Aboriginals only became citizens in 1967, such a manoeuvre was not available.
Australia presented its writers and artists with an intellectual challenge as great as the physical challenge nineteenth century 'explorers' like Burke and Wills faced. Like Burke and Wills, who perished because they were unable to reconcile European dogma with the realities of Australian's landscape and with the behaviour of its indigenous peoples, many Aussie writers and artists have failed. McAuley and Stewart are merely the most pathetic examples of a more general default.
At first glance, the Melbourne of 2009 might seem to have rid itself of the old Aussie aversion to modernism. The streets of the city's central business district are festooned with bright red banners advertising a massive exhibition of Salvador Dali's work at the National Gallery of Victoria's International Gallery. Inside the gallery, which is an almost windowless fortress of black bricks, punters queue for a hundred metres to see the canvases and sculptures of the man whose shocking behaviour and images might seem to make him the epitome of the Bohemian modernist artist.
Yet the 'mad Salvador Dali' that the National Gallery promotes was an essentially conservative artist. His imagery is provocative, in the way the lyrics of Ozzy Osborne and Alice Cooper are provocative, but he always insisted on very bourgeois standards of 'good draughtsmanship'. His canvases are far easier on the anti-modernist eye than those of Cezanne or Van Gogh, let alone those of Malevich or Mondrian. Dali's Bohemianism was so self-consciously exaggerated, and his public statements were so infantile and inconsistent, that he appeared to middlebrow audiences like a delightful clown.
Like the museum that throws together an exhibition on ancient Egypt, complete with bad-taste mummies and fake hieroglyphs, an art gallery which adorns its walls with Dali is likely to be thinking about filty lucre. Just as the cliches of Egyptology supply a part of the public with a satisfying simulacrum of a 'historical experience', so the canvases and anecdotes that Dali provides in such quantities provide a simulacrum of 'subversive' avant-gardism. Over the last fifty years the very word 'surreal' has degenerated from a revolutionary slogan into a pretentious synonmym for 'way out, man'.
If the patrons of the International Gallery are not satisfied with Dali's well-packaged weirdness, they can always peruse the building's collection of European art,
which includes an entire room of Rembrandts, a selection of Italian Old Masters, and a very mediocre sampling of 'Twentieth Century Modernism'. Perhaps the gallery has spent so freely on pre-modernist art that it is content to show the history of modern art through the work of second-string members of movements like Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Wyndham Lewis does poor service for Picasso, Seignac is no match for an absent Seurat, and an isolated, relatively small Rothko canvas stands in for Pollock.
Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept 1964-65 is unimpressive visually - imagine a field of gold metal covered in the sort of wounds that the slugs of a low-powered air rifle might inflict - but its intent resonates with the best work of the Australian modernist painters interned up the road and over the Yarra River, in the National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre. A half-reluctant heir to the Italian Futurists, Fontana created his own art movement, which he called Spatialism, and which he charged with 'exposing and exploring the infinte nature of space'. Fontana blasted holes in his canvases not to protest against the 'bourgeois' nature of traditional art or to valourise industry and war, but to allow 'infinite dimensionless space' into his work. There is a refusal of limiting notions of order and a lust for vastness at work in paintings like Spatial Concept 1964-64.
If the National Gallery's International Gallery is like a fortress, securing the Old Masters of Europe against the barbarian hordes of Oz, then the fragmented, self-consciously postmodernist Potter Centre, which resembles nothing so much as a series of corrugated iron sheds, is an expression of a lack of confidence in the work it holds. There are no crowds, let alone queues, at the Centre, even though it sits on Federation Square, in the centre of Melbourne. Skyler and I are almost unaccompanied, as we move from floor to floor and room to room, observing the struggles and victories of Aussie modernism.
The development of a mature Australian art can be considered as a struggle between the sky and the earth. In the work of hack colonial painters, not to mention genteel faux-nationalists like Hans Heysen, the horizon marks the point where the artist's imagination ceases to function. All too often, the sky is painted with more energy and flair than the landscape it looms over: sunsets and storms become exercises in Turneresque abstraction, opportunities for the artist frustrated by the flatness and dull colours of the Aussie countryside to indulge him or herself.
In the work of the great Australian modernists, though, the horizon begins to retreat, as the surface of the earth becomes more important than the sky. In the paintings of Fred Williams the landscape is tilted against the picture frame, so that detail seems to pile up in front of the viewer. The horizon retreats, and once or twice disappears altogether. In Brett Whiteley's huge studies of the flux and flow of Sydney harbour on sunny afternoons in the 1970s, the sky has vanished, except as reflections on the water's surface. Whiteley's harbour paintings have the same luminous mystery as Monet's studies of waterlilies, and they show an absorption in place which is passionate and unselfconscious, but they are still portraits of the edge of a continent.
It is in the work of the Aboriginal artists of central Australia that we find the final triumph of earth over sky, of Australian reality over European ideas of order. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's canvases are at once maps of vast landscapes and half-painted close-up photographs of the earth of Australia's red centre. When I look at Tjapaltjarri's massive paintings I might be a crow riding a thermal vent high above the desert, or a snake inspecting the few square feet of dirt around me. There is no horizon to give the painting a definite scale, and thereby allow the viewer an escape. Space is infinte, because it cannot be quantified.
Tjapaltjarri's absorption by the landscape he paints is the realisation of the dream of generations of Australian modernist artists and writers, yet it is also the achievement of the world's oldest living culture. Perhaps Hope, McAuley, and Stewart should have looked for inspiration to the Outback, rather than the eighteenth century.