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THE HERMANNSBURG SCHOOL OF WATERCOLOURISTS

Beverley Castleman, opening the Children of Hermannsburg Exhibition at Korumburra Federation Art Gallery, Victoria, Australia. 10 August 2007. Edited speech

© Copyright Beverley Castleman
The Children of Hermannsburg Exhibition of paintings, photographs and memorabilia from the archive of Joyce Batty was loaned by Bob and Jen Landt. The exhibition was organised by Doug Kane on behalf of Korumburra Rotary. Additional paintings by Hermannsburg artists were loaned from a number of private collections.

Thank you for your warm welcome in this excellent gallery. It is very exciting to be involved with this important exhibition of paintings and drawings collected in the schoolrooms of the Hermannsburg Mission in 1961.

The children's paintings cover landscapes and childhood themes. In this exhibition we have paintings from thirty children from a community of around 300 people, of whom at least forty adults were producing watercolours for sale (in the 1955 - 65 period). These were very creative people in a very creative time. This exhibition includes paintings by adult members of the community, and several share common surnames with the children. To some extent this exhibition allows us to participate in an Aranda vision of life and landscape.

The children's paintings were produced in Hermannsburg at a time of high morale as far as art was concerned. Most of the children and their families were of the Western Aranda (Arrente) people, living in the exciting landscape of the Finke River valley, west of Alice Springs. Many of their relatives and community were engaged in painting watercolours describing their country. These were the children of the second generation (so to speak) of the Hermannsburg watercolourists. Albert Namatjira, who first inspired his relatives to paint, had died in tragic circumstances in 1959. The people of Hermannsburg were involved in the stresses of substantial change when these were done. Sadly, continuing stress erodes their wellbeing today.

The art phenomenon of Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg School of watercolourists had its genesis in the 1930s when two young Victorian artists, Rex Battarbee and John Gardner, chose to travel to central Australia in preference to the popular artistic destination of Europe. (Kaye Dowdy, p7)

They visited the Finke River Mission, which was established by German Lutheran missionaries about 120 miles west of Alice Springs in the 1870s not only to take Christianity to the aborigines, but to educate them as well.

Western Aranda people came in to the mission for sustenance during the terrible drought in the late 1920s and this stimulated the detribalisation process. There were three cultures involved in the Hermannsburg history: those aboriginals speaking the Western Aranda dialect, white Australia and the German missionaries. The missionaries learned the Aranda language, converted its sounds to the English alphabet and translated the bible into Aranda. The Aranda language was preserved at Hermannsburg.

The mission occupied nearly a million acres of Aranda tribal country, bounded on the north by the Macdonnell Ranges and on the south by the James Range, with the Finke River cutting right across. This country is both a wonderful hunting ground and an exciting landscape, unlike many other tribal areas of central Australia. The Aranda had a culture rich in poetry and dance and were less warlike than many of their neighbours. However their visual art forms were diagrammatic and not particularly exciting visually. The palette was confined to black, white and ochres, or scratching into wood or stone.

Rex Battarbee and John Gardner first visited and painted in the area of the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission in 1932, when Albert Namatjira was working away from the area around the mission.

This trip was followed by an exhibition of their work in Melbourne in 1933.

In 1934 when the artists revisited for several months, Pastor F W Albrecht arranged for a display of their work around the veranda of the main mission building. Some 300 aborigines sat for hours at a time entranced by the pictures, which described their country, not in traditional diagrammatical form, but in colour and on paper. (C.P. Mountford, pp 44-49, Rex Battarbee p 10)

Albert was in the group and decided he wanted to paint, especially when he ascertained that painting could earn him a lot of money. Albert was unusually ambitious, hardworking and quick to learn anything he was taught. He had already shown promise with his burnt poker-work on mulga wood and was an accomplished boiler-maker. The missionaries aimed at self sufficiency for the mission community and encouraged craft and artistic development.

There was no funding, of course, for art in this era. In keeping with mission philosophy, Albert paid Battarbee for his painting instruction by acting as cameleer and guide during the 1936 visit.

Although trained in commercial art, Rex Battarbee was practically self-taught in watercolours. However, he won the important Melbourne Centenary prize for watercolour in 1934. Albert was with Battarbee for two months at this time (Rex Battarbee pp 9-12). Albert learned quickly and never repeated a mistake. Albert first exhibited in 1938 and Battarbee organised further exhibitions in the capital cities.

The Hermannsburg School of Art was born in the 1940s as Albert Namatjira inspired his relatives to paint and their work came to be included in exhibitions in the capital cities. The initial group in the mid 1940s comprised Albert, his sons Oscar and Enos and the three Pareroultja brothers Otto, Reuben and Edwin. Henoch Raberaba joined the group in 1946.

In producing watercolours for sale to the public, these artists (as Philip Jones in Jane Hardy (ed), p108, write) were acknowledging, somewhat unconsciously, deep transformations in their own society - artistically and socially. Albert was the first to move into the gap between his tradition of the 'dot' diagrammatic or tjurunga art and European watercolour art. It was not until the advent of the Pupunya Tula art movement in the 1970s and the rendering of the sacred art of the tjurunga to be represented safely for public consumption that these artists have today become free to move back and forth between the art traditions of Europe and the Central Desert.

Wenten Rubuntja, chief custodian of the Aranda people as at the time of his death last year considered that the dot form of art is the 'law' and the watercolour form is the 'song'. He described the dot form of acrylics and watercolours as an interchangeable way of representing the country. (Wenton Rubuntja with Jenny Green p161.)

When viewing the colours of the Hermannsburg landscapes, it is important to bear in mind two aspects:
first, that the colours in the MacDonnell ranges can be more intense than we expect, but second, that the Aranda traditionally considered that light and heat came from the earth and not from the sky.

From 1939-44 Namatjira had no exhibitions and his paintings were purchased by American personnel, who were stationed in Alice Springs. The admiration of the Americans stirred appreciation in the hitherto indifferent Alice Springs residents and thus Albert enjoyed appreciation in his own country and became a role model for his people.

Edwin Pareroultja started to paint in late 1943 and adopted a contrasting and more primitive style to that of Albert. His brother Otto followed a couple of years later. The immediate success of the Pareroultja brothers influenced other painters to find their own styles. For instance, Henoch Raberaba spent his first month painting with Albert and in Albert's style and shortly after that spent a month painting with Edwin in Edwin's style. Afterwards, he developed his own style, characterised by hills swooping up from valleys, somewhat between Albert and Edwin (Rex Battarbee p39).

By 1949 ten artists in this community were already making a living through the sale of their paintings (Rex Battarbee, p 20). In the financial year 1951-52, 17 artists made a total of 3,104 pounds, according to Aranda Arts Council records, which sought to handle all works for sale. Rex Battarbee as agent was paid 5%.

A succession of solo and mixed exhibitions, mainly organised through Rex Battarbee, were held in the capital cities from the mid 1940s and through the 1950s. The high rate of sales of paintings in the Australian cities gave rise to an aboriginal art boom of sorts (Christopher Heathcote p 97), so well were they received. Prince Phillip purchased one by Cordula Ebatarinja during his visit to Melbourne for the Olympic Games in 1956.

The late Joyce Batty, author of Namatjira: Wanderer Between Two Worlds, published in 1963, appears to have been very impressed with the artistic abilities of the children. She collected these children's paintings in 1961. In her moving story of Albert Namatjira's life, Batty reported that Lady Huntingfield, wife of the Governor of Victoria, visited Hermannsburg in 1938 and was amazed to find artistic aptitude even among the children. She considered that they learned to write and draw more quickly than white children. (Joyce Batty p35).

Joyce also collected letters relating to Albert and photographs of Albert and Hermannsburg which are included in this exhibition.

This exhibition also benefits from the generous loans from several collectors of Hermannsburg watercolours and I am pleased to loan paintings by artists of the families of many of the children.

Mrs Campbell, wife of artist Reg Campbell made similar observations. Albert Namatjira (while sitting for his portrait) explained to Mrs Campbell why so many of his people can draw. As there was no written language they all, from an early age, draw anything they wish to convey to their companions. Mrs Campbell told Joyce Batty

This I could understand as I have some drawings by aboriginal children and the most talented white children could not have expressed the same accuracy as these native children had done. Every picture appears to tell a story of what these little people saw yesterday or what they hope will happen tomorrow.

Many of the children listed in this catalogue share surnames with those of noted Hermannsburg artists: Abbott, Inkamala, Lankin, Moketarinja, Raberaba, Rantji, Ratara, Rubuntja. Doug Kane and Bob Landt have displayed the children's paintings with those of their relatives. As you can see, there is substantial variation and individuality.

Gwen Inkamala became one of the Hermannsburg Potters, a group of mainly women who have achieved international recognition for their work.

For white Australia, Hermannsburg art emerged in the post-war period at a time when Australia had no purely Australian art or music and when Australians were also attempting to more deeply define their own national identity. The frontier-like landscapes of Drysdale and Nolan were important, but these emphasised the loneliness and ruggedness of the centre.

On one hand the connection between art and national identity was very strong, while on the other hand the so-called 'cultural cringe' was expressed in an orientation towards Europe. In this period fragile pockets of modernism were sustained and were developing at Heide and in studios in Melbourne and Sydney (Simon Plant in 1956: Melbourne, Modernity and the XVI Olympiad).

At this stage, many homes were decorated with reproductions of Albert Namatjira's watercolours. Some travellers purchased Hermannsburg paintings during trips to central Australia, as well as from exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth.

Although the Art Gallery of South Australia was the first museum to purchase Albert's work, the Victorian and New South Wales Galleries were reactionary to his art - but then they were also reactionary to emerging modernism as well. (Daniel Thomas in Jane Hardy ed. Ch 6; Christopher Heathcote pp 39-58, 142-155) There was also a view from high culture that 'If the public like it, it can't be art'.

Despite its success, Hermannsburg art was dismissed by many high culture commentators as derivative art (Wally Caruana p106). The abandonment of assimilation policies and so called paternalism in the early 1970s and the embracing of multiculturalism, self-management and self determination led to an attitude that Hermannsburg art was rather politically incorrect. The emerging art of Pupunya Tula in the early 1970s, involving acrylic paint on canvas, was an exciting development that seemed consistent with the way of thinking that encouraged ethnic identity. This art form involved large often colourful paintings on canvas which were the contemporary fashion. The town of Pupunya lies more further north of Hermannsburg in Aranda country and the Pupunya Tula school involved many Aranda people as well as those of other language groups. Hermannsburg art was a precursor to that of the Pupunya Tula developments (John Morton in Jane Hardy (ed) p39). The mild kind of censorship which developed towards Hermannsburg art has disappeared.

Australia's major public galleries are now acquiring and exhibiting Hermannsburg watercolours.

During 2002 - 03 the National Gallery of Australia's touring exhibition Seeing the Centre: The art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, demonstrated a reassessment of Albert Namatjira's work. Alison French (p23) states

His Hermannsburg watercolours were interpreted for a long time as a symbol of assimilation and the subordination of Aboriginal traditions to introduced forms. But far from a sign of colonial domination, the movement can be seen as an expression of Aboriginal identity and a determination to maintain autonomy in post-colonial Australia.

Namatjira is now seen to have reworked the models of the European watercolour tradition to express his personal vision. His subjects were not chosen for their ostensible beauty in European terms, as had been presumed, but were ancestral landscapes through which he expressed his personal relationship to the country to which he was spiritually bound. The images are of a land created in the Dreaming, untamed by the pastoral industry and by other evidence of European settlement. (Wally Caruana p106)

The Namatjira exhibition was accompanied by a small number of works by Hermannsburg artists. I loaned a couple of my Albert Namatjiras to the NGA for this exhibition.

The same argument applies to the rest of the Hermannsburg School of artists. The Hermannsburg School of Art is important in its own right as an art movement and is also important in Australia's social history for the role it played in the definition of national identity. Hermannsburg art has its own place in modern landscape art.

As a social scientist, I observe that this was a unique art epoch that crossed a gap between two cultures. The German culture of the missionaries (and their experience of what it was like to be marginalised) added impetus, helping to give birth to an important art phenomenon.

I now have pleasure in declaring this lovely exhibition 'open'.

References cited

Rex Battarbee. Modern Australian Aboriginal Art. Angus and Robertson. Sydney. 1951.

Joyce Batty. Namatjira, wanderer between two worlds. Rigby Ltd. Adelaide. 1976.

Wally Caruana. Aboriginal Art. Thames and Hudson. London. 1996.

Kay Dowdy. A Vagabond and his Easel: a biography of John Gardner. Keplet Publishing. Warrnambool. Victoria. 1984.

Alison French. Seeing the Centre: The art of Albert Namatjira 1902 - 1959. National Gallery of Australia. 2002.

Jane Hardy (ed). The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia.

William Heinemann Australia. Port Melbourne. 1992.

Christopher Heathcote. A Quiet Revolution - The Rise of Australian Art 1946-1968. The Text Publishing Company. Melbourne Australia.

C.P. Mountford, F.R.A.I. The Art of Albert Namatjira. Bread and Cheese Club Melbourne. 1944.

Wenten Rubuntja with Jenny Green. The Town Grew Up Dancing. Jukurrpa Books. 2002

Bernard Smith with Terry Smith. Australian Painting 1788-1990. Oxford University Press. Melbourne. 1995.

Simon Plant. 1956 Melbourne, Modernity and the XVI Olympiad. Museum of Modern Art at Heide. 1996.

Paul Fox. The Modern Landscape 1940-65. Museum of Modern Art at Heide. 1998.

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