As an undergraduate botanist I was taught that early Australian artists struggled to represent Australia’s environment as the colours of the eucalypts and the vertical orientation of their leaves defied representation utilising the techniques applied to European landscapes. Of course the struggle persists. In analysing late 20th-century Australian poetry, Kelly Gardiner observes ‘… distinct visions can be traced to the relationship that each culture has with the land; the inter-relationships between the cultures; and the structural and psychological links between the (artist) … and the landscape he or she is attempting to understand and describe.’ ‘Ownership’ and ‘belonging’ to ‘landscape’ and ‘place’ are fundamental to these visions.
While art and other museums now commonly endeavour to seduce the public with imported, commodified blockbuster exhibitions, Nick Mitzevich’s team at the Art Gallery of South Australia has presented visitors with a rare opportunity to explore and celebrate the richness of our own collections. South Australia Illustrated, one of three important current exhibitions, is immensely significant for ‘landscape’ and ‘place’ as well as for the evident artistic, social and cultural perspectives. Importantly South Australia Illustrated allows us to interrogate the nature of the relationship we have with South Australia and to explore our progress in reconciling ourselves with the environment and with the Traditional Owners.
While South Australia Illustrated curator Jane Hylton’s selection of artworks and the excellent catalogue provide the driving narrative, the exhibition also provides a thread allowing us to explore and interpret the relationships between our landscapes, peoples and cultures. The absence of works from Traditional Owners, at first surprising, perhaps heightens and reinforces this theme. A few exemplars serve to illustrate this theme.
Light’s and J.M. Skipper’s early watercolours and lithographs are of particular interest. In 1836 William Light saw Rapid Bay as ‘… more like land already in the possession of persons of property than left to nature alone‘ while on John Morphett’s arrival at Holdfast Bay he ‘(felt) the beneficence of the great Creator of all things (had) furnished him with the means of realising his most cherished schemes.’ By the 1860s such cultural, political and economic notions extended to the bizarre aphorism that ‘rain follows the plough’ that saw the extension and subsequent collapse of cropping past Port Augusta and Hawker by the late 1870s (and the contemporaneous settlement and collapse of the Great Plains in the United States). The brash dismissal of the science supporting Goyder’s 1865 ‘Line’ for the limits of cropping sees parallels with the contemporary position of climate change sceptics.
Martha Berkeley’s Mount Lofty from The Terrace, Adelaide c 1840 – a marvellous watercolour viewing from East Terrace to the Mount Lofty Ranges across a lightly treed parkland. The image is one of a number reproduced in Bill Garnmage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth to support Aboriginal people’s conscious, audacious and disciplined approach to managing Australia – a thesis beyond imagining to European settlers then and perhaps now, yet one might be construed as concurring with William Light’s observation of ‘... land already in the possession of persons of property‘.
James Shaw’s Botanic Gardens 1865 oil is a capriccio that illustrates the achievement of the Gardens’ first director George Francis during his 10- year stewardship including now lost elements such as the Rootery, the Lunatic Asylum, the Crimean War cannon, the trellis pagoda and the Domed Conservatory. While the Botanics were on William Light’s 1837 Plan of Adelaide, Light’s intention for the gardens is as much a matter for conjecture as his intention for the parklands. Francis’ interpretation of the botanic gardens as ‘adding to the beauty and riches of the Colony‘ may have been broader than Light’s which was more likely economic in line with the contemporary development of colonial botanic gardens such as Calcutta that ‘tend(ed) to the extension of the National Commerce‘. Light was in Calcutta from 1805 to 1806 and is likely to have seen the botanic gardens at Howrah. Shaw’s painting, 28 years after Light’s Plan illustrates a very different view of a botanic garden.
Rosa Fiveash’s botanical works begin in earnest in 1882 with the illustrations prepared for John Ednie Brown’s Forest flora of South Australia. A number of works from the Botanics’ collection of this period are on display. Fiveash’s vision is wonderfully realised in the 1893 watercolour of Xanthorrhoea semiplana – her talent is both scientific and artistic. Perhaps her 1932 observation that, ‘modern young artists are far too slapdash. They have not the love of detail necessary to the good painter‘ Fiveash’s work is in the tradition of botanical illustrators melding scientific truth with an artistic vision.
How we see the environment is critical and our love of the detail of that environment will define our future. The careful viewer of South Australia Illustrated can explore South Australia’s urban, agricultural (although works here are scarce) and natural environments and be rewarded with a much better understanding of Adelaide and South Australia, of the critical importance of environmental reconciliation and perhaps, of themselves.
As William Rees observed in reviewing Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, ‘Human behaviour towards the ecosphere has become dysfunctional and now arguably threatens our own long-term security. The real problem is that the modem world remains in the sway of a dangerously illusory cultural myth. … most governments and international agencies seem to believe that the human enterprise is somehow ‘decoupling’ from the environment and so is poised for unlimited expansion’. In an age of climate change self-serving cultural, political and economic paradigms are dangerous. Art remains powerful in challenging such paradigms.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 2 July 2012.