A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Aboriginalism: White Aborigines and Australian Nationalism

by Ian Mclean

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As in the previous world war, the Second World War produced an upsurge of nationalism, but one which, following the defeat of Singapore, sought a radical independence from Britain. The development of new iconographies of identity in the previous two decades, and especially in the 1930s, provided much of the basis for the nationalisms of the 1940s and 1950s, and their strong Aboriginalist character. One of the first signs was the literary journal Meanjin, founded by Clem Christensen in Brisbane in 1940. While Meanjin was uninterested in Aboriginal culture, it adopted an Aboriginal name to advertise the Australian-ness of its criticism and writing.

In 1941 Christensen published a 'Nationality Number' which 'proclaimed the necessity of "developing here a distinctively-Australian culture"'.1 The achievement of this generation was to transform nativism into a distinctly anti-imperial indigenous consciousness. Vance Palmer saw in the war the chance for Australia to throw off its colonial past:

If Australia had no more character than could be seen on its surface, it would be annihilated as sorely and swiftly as those colonial outposts white men built for their commercial profit in the East -- pretentious facades of stucco that looked imposing as long as the wind kept from blowing. But there is in Australia a different spirit, submerged and not very articulate, that is quite different from these bubbles of old-world imperialism. Born of the lean loins of the country itself, of the dreams of men who came here to form a new society, of hard conflicts in many fields, it has developed a toughness all its own.2
Exemplary of such post-war anti-imperial nativism is Russel Ward's The Australian Legend (1958), in which the origins of nativism are traced to the early years of the colony in the ballads and oral histories of the colonists, before flowering in journals, such as the Bulletin. Ward's account follows the model established in the late nineteenth century by the United States historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who proposed a nativist ideology that flagrantly paraded its anti-colonialism. Ward was particularly interested in Turner's psychological metaphors which emphasised the new consciousness of the colonials, despite their European habits. Ward quotes Turner:
The wilderness masters the colonist ... at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the [European] man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe ... The fact is, that there is a new product that is American.
'Turner's achievement', claimed Ward:
was to show that indigenous, and particularly 'frontier' influences, were not less important for a just understanding of American history. In so far as the American was not just a transplanted European but a different kind of man, the change could only have been brought about by influences met in the new land. And, as we have seen in Australian history these indigenous influences, of necessity, were most potent on the expanding frontier of settlement.3
Ward's nativism is a type of Aboriginalism which, in the manner of the day, displaces Aboriginality within a white indigenity. The convict becomes the prototype of a new person, not the melancholy figure of exile; his/her oceanic origins glossed with a promising future wrought from the fringe of settlement. Not only did the convicts mainly congregate 'on the expanding edge of settlement', but this edge (frontier) redeemed them. 'There is convincing evidence', wrote Ward, 'that convicts and old hands were morally improved, if not entirely made over to the Lord, by up-country conditions'. The 'typical Australian' ethos was, said Ward, developed by the 'convict, working-class, Irish and native born', as they 'coalesced "beyond the Great Divide" where remoteness and the peculiar geographical, economic and social conditions transmuted them into something new'.4

Instead of an imperial history descending on Australia, there was a new frontier communality which worked 'upwards from the lowest strata of society' and outwards from the interior' until, 'towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the occupation of the interior had been virtually completed ... Australians generally became actively conscious, not to say self-conscious, of the distinctive "bush" ethos, and of its value as an expression and symbol of nationalism'.

His new Australian was a white Aborigine sprung from the land itself -- namely, 'the outback ethos' and the 'nomad tribe' of bushmen being formed by 'the struggle to assimilate' to 'the brute facts of Australian geography'.5 While such a prescription could only be written on the presumed extinction of the Aborigines whose land it was, it also incorporated Aboriginality into the new national mythos, and so provided the opportunity for an appreciation of Aboriginal art and culture. In the same vein, Marjorie Barnard proposed a nativist historiology which evaded the historical experience of colonialism for a geographical one: 'If you would read history, and most particularly Australian history, study your atlas, for in the long run geography maketh man'. Against the shadow of empire, argued Barnard, a new local individual identity emerges from the land itself: 'the bush asks other qualities of men than does the English countryside'.6

The white man with his possessions and his ignorance erupted into the close-knit patterns of the last waste and isolated continent in 1788. They had a great deal to learn, but they did not realise that. They believed that they came bearing gifts; in reality, as they adapted themselves, they were to receive ... his [the colonialist's] ways, particularly in the early days, [and] fell into a rough copy of the aboriginal way of life. He became a nomad.7

The leading artist-advocate of Aboriginalism was Margaret Preston, the first artist to find in Aboriginal art the source for a distinctive Australian identity, and the first modernist to take up the cause of Aboriginal art.8 What most distinguished her art was its joining of Aboriginalism and modernism. In this she consciously emulated, and allied herself to, cultural anthropology. The anthropologist A. P. Elkin and Preston, both members of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, were the most effective propagandists for this new Aboriginalism, and laid the groundwork for the reception of Aboriginal art in the 1940s and 1950s.

The alliance between art, anthropology, modernism and nationalism that marks Preston's aesthetic, echoes, as much as it departs from, Spencer's earlier interests. While Spencer's evolutionist paradigms disparaged Aboriginal art, the aesthetic imperatives of modernist primitivism found inspiration in tribal art. When Spencer was collecting his impressionist and Aboriginal art, the English critic Roger Fry, under the influence of the modernism of Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, claimed 'that certain nameless savages have possessed this power [to create expressive plastic form] not only in a higher degree than we at this moment, but than we as a nation have ever possessed it'.9 With such ideas informing her own aesthetic concerns, Preston contributed four articles to Art and Australia between 1925 and 1941, urging that Aboriginal art become the foundation and inspiration of a modern, national Australian art. With other like-minded enthusiasts, such as Alfred Kenyon, Croll and Barrett, she joined with anthropologists to promote and organise several exhibitions of Aboriginal art. The first was at the National Museum of Victoria in 1929 -- organised by Barrett, Croll, Kenyon and D.J. Mahony and opened by Elkin.10

However, Daniel Thomas observed that not until the 1940s did 'Australian Aboriginal art became art, as far as the European-Australian art world was concerned'.11 The Exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art and its Application, organised by Preston's close friend, the anthropologist Frederick McCarthy (with Preston, Elkin and others acting as advisers), opened in the Sydney department store, David Jones, in 1941. At the same time, the first exhibition in which non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal paintings were hung together, travelled to North America.12

Two years later; the National Gallery and National Museum of Victoria held their exhibition of Aboriginal art called Primitive Art. In the introduction to the catalogue Daryl Lindsay, director of the gallery, stressed its 'genuine artistic value' as opposed to its ethnographic interest.13 During the 1940s the Jindyworobak Review, with the help of Meanjin and authors such as Xavier Herbert, Daisy Bates and Katharine Prichard, made Aboriginalism a literary movement. The Australian public had been largely won over by 1950: 'the David 'Jones Art Gallery exhibition in 1949', writes Philip Jones, 'was visited by large numbers of people, and according to Ronald Berndt it provided the turning point in the Australian public's attitude toward Aboriginal art'.14

While populist and amateur enthusiasts such as Croll, Kenyon, Barrett arid Idriess, and to a certain extent Preston, were the evangelists of Aboriginalism and a desert pastoralism, it was the anthropologists who gave professional credibility to the new attitude towards Aboriginal art. At the time, anthropology was undergoing a profound reassessment of its theoretical base. Spencer's evolutionism was rejected for cultural paradigms which not only paid close and sympathetic attention to the complexity and intelligence of traditional Aboriginal art, but also began accepting the cross-cultural cultures of many contemporary Aboriginal communities as worthy of study. Elkin, the most influential and energetic exponent of the new anthropology in Australia, promoted the exhibition of Aboriginal art, and lobbied governments for a radical overhaul of its attitude to Aborigines.

His attention to detail included, from the late 1930s, the capitalising of the word 'Aborigine' -- a practice only recently adopted in Australia, and not yet fully practised elsewhere. In the lower-case, aborigines are 'savage in respect to culture', 'primitive', 'simple', 'unsophisticated' (Funk & Wagnell, 1963) -- a biological rather than cultural existence. Capitalised, Aborigines attain an ethnic status. In the same spirit, Elkin successfully lobbied for an assimilationist Aboriginal policy and the recognition of Aboriginal artefacts as art because, he wrote, 'a people possessing an art ... is much higher in the human scale than had previously been thought' (1938).15 When this was publicly accepted, the basis for an Aboriginal art movement as a means of political empowerment was laid, and Australian art and culture was forever changed.

Radical Modernism
In the midst of the nationalist modernism advocated by Elkin and Preston there emerged a more radical strand of modernism. Inspired by surrealist and existentialist ideologies which developed in the ruins of European civilisation, the radical modernists finally brought to an end the search for a redemptive colonial art. They saw in Aborigines and the desert not a sublime ideology; which might finally redeem Australia, but an emblem of the alienation and ugliness of Australia's colonialist history and identity. Such ideas received their first theoretical exposition in P.R. Stephensen's essay of the mid-1930s -- written as a response to an article in the Melbourne Age (16 February 1935) by Professor G. H. Cowling, one of Australia's many professors imported from England, who had dismissed the very idea of an Australian culture.

According to John Barnes, Stephensen's essay, The Foundations of Culture in Australia is 'probably the most influential piece of critical writing in the period'.16 In part, Stephensen's essay repeated many commonly held views at the time. Like the pastoralists, he believed that 'Race and Pace are the two permanent elements in a culture', and that the work of Gruner , Hilder, Heysen, Streeton and others' had discovered a 'Spirit of Place' that was 'an Australian contribution, to the art of the world'.17 However, Stephenson was contemptuous of the ways in 'Australia' had, to date, been imagined. While a fervent nationalist with fascist tendencies, he questioned the idea that Australia was yet a nation'; and called for a fierce Australian independence: 'Australian nationalism with or without the idea of the British Empire, has a right to exist; and there can be no nation without a national place-idea; a national culture'.18

Even though Stephenson professed his admiration for the conservative pastoralism of Streeton and Gruner, his vision was very different to theirs and more attuned to D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo -- which had been written during a six-week residence outside Sydney in 1922. If Lawrence's descriptions of the bush recall Marcus Clarke's criticism, unlike Clarke, Lawrence had no premonition of redemption. To him the bush was:

so phantom-like, so ghostly ... so deathly still ... the tree trunks like naked pale aborigines among the dark-soaked foliage ... Not a sign of life -- not a vestige. Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! ... there was something among the trees ... a presence. He looked at the weird, white, dead trees, and into the hollow distances of the bush.
For Lawrence 'the spirit of the place' evoked 'the icy sensation of terror':
He felt it was watching, and waiting. Following with certainty, just behind his back. It might have reached a long black arm and gripped him. But no, it wanted to wait. It was not tired of watching its victim. An alien people -- a victim. It was biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, waiting for a far-off end, watching the myriad white men.19
Lawrence's reaction to the bush was not just that of a newcomer, it was also grounded by his comprehension of the psychological import of the Australian experience during the post-war period. The imperial vision which once had orientated newcomers was shattered by the war. On one level, the metaphors Lawrence uses are stereotypical colonial representations. As well as the precedent of Clarke, there is the tradition of what Joan Kirkby called the 'nature unleashed' theme which, in the post-war period, had gained a new lease of life -- as in Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, both novels which evoke the supernatural forces of colonial spaces which the Old World cannot order.20

However, in Kangaroo the demise of Europe is consciously foregrounded as that which stages the story.

Kangaroo is a meditation on what a post-European and so post-colonial world might be: 'In [post-war] Europe, he had made up his mind that everything was done for, played out, finished, and he must go away to a new country. The newest country: young Australia!' But once there 'the vast, uninhabited land frightened him'. 'He understood now that the Romans had preferred death to exile. He could sympathise now with Ovid on the Danube, hungering for Rome and blind to the land around him, blind to the savages'.21

Through Somers, the autobiographical English writer and traveller whom the novel centres on, Lawrence shows how the limits of the colonialist vision, its tropes and prejudices, are exceeded at the periphery of the empire. 'All this hoary space of bush between' garnered his imagination and his intuition for 'the strange, as it were, invisible beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there, but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision'.

You feel you can't see -- as if your eyes hadn't the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape. For the landscape is so unimpressive, like a face with little or no features, a dark face. It is so aboriginal, out of our ken, and it hangs back so aloof. Somers always felt he looked at it through a cleft in the atmosphere; as one looks at one of the ugly-faced, distorted aborigines with his wonderful dark eyes that have such uncomprehensible ancient shine in them, across the gulf of unbridged centuries. And yet, when you don't have the feeling of ugliness or monotony, in landscape of in nigger, you get a sense of subtle, remote, formless beauty more poignant than anything ever experienced before.
To Lawrence the Australian landscape is a place of transgression, 'treated more like a woman they pick up on the streets than a bride'. It has not, says Somers' wife Harriet, been loved: 'England and Germany and Italy and Egypt and India -- they've all been loved so passionately ... if I were an Australian, I should love the very earth of it -- the very sand and dryness of it -- more than anything'. And 'it seemed to Somers as if the people of Australia ought to be dusky'. 22

Stephensen transformed Lawrence's premonition into a type of surrealist primitivism typical of modernist discourses at the time:

Australia is a unique country ... Visitors such as D.H. Lawrence, have discerned a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself. The flora and fauna are primitive, and for the most part harmless to man, but to the visitor there is another element, of terror, in the Spirit of the Place. The blossoming of the waratah, the song of the lyrebird, typify the spirit of primitive loveliness in our continent; but the wail of the dingo, the gauntness of our tall trees by silent moonlight, can provide a shiver of terror to a newcomer. Against a background of strangeness, of strange beasts and birds and plants, in a human emptiness of three million square miles, our six million white people, of immigrant stock, mainly from Europe, are becoming acclimatised in this environment new to them but geologically so old that Time seems to have stood still here for a million years.
If 'Race' was important to Stephensen, 'it is the spirit of a Place which ultimately gives any human culture its distinctiveness';23 and his sense of place was imbued with an existential consciousness that rejected the redemptive imperatives of pastoralism. 'For the first hundred and fifty years of colonising, the immigrants have merely raped the land, or "settled" it, as we say, with unconscious irony in our choice of a word to describe the process of destroying its primitiveness.' Rut now, he said, 'a new nation, a new human type, is being formed'; and proudly proclaimed: 'We are Antipodeans'.24

To be Antipodean is to be out of place in one's place. For Stephensen, the alienation which constituted Australian-ness was due to the ways in which colonialism bad constructed the experience of place in Australia. Unlike Rex Ingamells of the Jindyworobaks, whom Stephensen profoundly influenced, he did not eulogise the Aborigines as emblems of a timeless geographical Australia. While aspects of Stephensen's ideology' sound in the Aboriginalism of Preston and Ingamells which found in the desert and Aboriginality a primeval genealogy for their nationalist discourses, Stephensen's legacy lies elsewhere.

Australian 'culture' he wrote, 'if it ever develops indigenously, begins not from the Aborigines, who have been suppressed and exterminated, but from British culture' (my emphasis)25 -- that is, from a colonialist history of rape and pillage, from acts of alienation not nurturing. In this scheme Aborigines are emblems of alienation, not a primeval past -- as is evident in the art and literature which most fully articulated Stephensen's ideas: Xavier Herbert's and Patrick White's novels, A. D. Hope's and John Thompson's poetry, and the paintings of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Jon Molvig.

In many ways, such writing and art recalled the themes of colonial art, except that these modernists did not conceive alienation as something to be disavowed. Indeed, the very alienation of Aborigines made them exemplary Australians, as if in Australia a new convergent culture was being formed from both traditional Aboriginal and Western practices. Such a future was first envisaged in Herbert's Capricornia (1938), which Stephensen edited.

If Coonardoo, the Aboriginal woman and main character in Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo (1929) is, in Aboriginalist fashion, an emblem of the earth's spiritual timelessness, the central character in Capricornia is Norman, a bastard 'half-caste'. Mudrooroo writes of Norman: 'Initially', he is shocked to discover that he does indeed belong to both races; but then he comes to the realisation that he is their heir'. Herbert 'is not describing the replacement of Aboriginal culture and society by the stronger British "civilisation"; but', says Mudrooroo, 'by a "new" society emerging from the amalgamation of the two'.

The Aboriginalist opposition of primitivism and civilisation', he continues, 'engages in an ironic dialectic, and the synthesis of the dialectic is the "new" race'. However, 'the potentialities of this "new" race are not "realised"'. There is no redemptive moment. The possibilities of convergence are only imagined; and when made into reality are like many biological hybrids, a tragic impotent affair.

If Herbert's hybrid characters are not without the hardiness of mongrel breeds, running through Capricornia is the metaphysical force of fate, the primordial mother, which leaves Australia a tragic Antipodean place. Australia's origin of exile (as a convict colony) haunts it at every turn. For this reason, Mudrooroo declares Capricornia typical of the 'great Australian yarn', and being 'about what makes Australians Australian'.26 The same fatalistic 'ironic dialectic' runs through much Australian art in the 1940s and 1950s. In what have since become the most emblematic images of this period, Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly series (1946), Kelly is a black iconic shape who, Aboriginal-like, haunts a landscape in which the British police are comic aliens. Kelly is part of the trees and land yet at the same time a hunted beast in it. In many ways, Nolan figures Kelly with the same grotesque tropes which colonial painters had figured Aborigines and the bush; except that Nolan makes Kelly, and later other legendary white Australians, emblems of an Australian-type. The same claims can be made for Russell Drysdale's paintings which, more consistently but less radically, picture the 'white blackfellow' that characterised mid twentieth-century Australian national identity, hence making his images the most emblematic of the so-called 'Australian-type'.

Nolan and Drysdale painted white Aborigines, but very different ones to Sydney Long's spirit of the plains; they were 'a symbol of desperate impotence' -- as Terry Smith described Arthur Boyd's painting Australian Scapegoat (1987), which fused the Anzac digger with the Aborigine.27 Even if, with Mudrooroo and Terry Smith, we judge the achievements of these radical modernists fatalistic and impotent, they did finally accept the failure of redemptive tropes in Australian discourses and picturings of identity, and attempted to rethink what it was to be an Australian from this failure.

Ian McLean is a senior lecturer in art history and theory at the School of Art, University of Tasmania. He is the author of The Art of Gordon Bennett (with Gordon Bennett, 1996).
This excerpt from
White Aborigines, Cambridge University Press, 1998, is reprinted with the permission of the author.

1. Jenny Lee, Philip Mead and Gerald Murnane (eds), The Temperament of Generations: Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin, Melbourne UP, Carlton, 1990, p. 6.
2. Vance Palmer, "Battle", in Lee, Mead and Murnane (eds), p. 8.
3. Russel Ward, The Australian Legend Oxford UP, Melbourne, (1958) 1977, pp. 285-6.
4. Ibid., pp. 93, 105 and 136.
5. Ibid., pp. 32-4.
6. M. Barnard, A History of Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1978, pp. 668-9.
7. Ibid., p. 650.
8. See Philip Jones, "Perceptions of Aboriginal art: a history", Peter Sutton (ed.), Dreamings: the Art of Aboriginal Australia, Viking, Ringwood, 1988, p. 165.
9. Roger Fry, "Negro sculpture" in R. Fry (ed.), Vision and Design, Meridian, New York, 1974, p. 100.
10. See T. Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 181-3.
11. Daniel Thomas, "Aboriginal art as art", Robert Edwards (ed.), Aboriginal Art in Australia, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1978, p. 29.
12. See Sydney Ure Smith (ed.), Art of Australia, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941. The exhibition was sponsored through the Carnegie Corporation for the Museum of Modern Art (New York). Bernard Smith believes that the inclusion of Aboriginal art was at the instigation of Theodore Sizer, rather than being due to any Australian political agenda (conversation with author, December 1993).
13. Daryl Lindsay, "Foreword", Primitive Art Exhibition, Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1943, p. iii.
14. Jones in P. Sutton (ed.), Dreamings: the Art of Aboriginal Australia, Viking, Ringwood, 1988, p. 174.
15. A. P. Elkin "Foreword", Australian Aboriginal Decorative Art, Frederick McCarthy, Australian Museum, Sydney, 1974, p. 10.
16. John Barnes, "The Years between commentary" in Barnes (ed.) The Writer in Australia: A Collection of Literary Documents, 1856-1964, Oxford UP, Melbourne, 1969, p. 165.
17. P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay toward National Self Respect Allen & Unwin, Sydney, (1936) 1986, p. 15 and 73.
18. Ibid., pp. 18-19.
19. D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, Heinemann, London, (1923) 1966, pp. 8-9.
20. See Joan Kirkby, "Old orders, new lands: the earth spirit in Picnic at Hanging Rock", Australian Literary Studies, 8, 3, May 1978, pp. 255-68.
21. Lawrence, pp. 8 and 15.
22. Ibid., pp. 73-4 and 100.
23. Ibid., p. 15.
24. Stephensen, pp. 11-13.
25. Ibid., p. 12.
26. Mudrooroo Nyoongah, "Introduction", Capricornia, Xavier Herbert, Angus & Robertson, Sydney (1938) 1990, pp. vii-xiv.
27. Terry Smith in B. Smith with T. Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1941, Oxford UP, Melbourne, 1973, p. 459.

The Lawrence Wilson Gallery (University of Western Australia) has an excellent online record of its exhibitions over the past few years.

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