Painting from a continent in flames

Painting from a continent in flames

26 March 2010

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Australia —   Within a year of his arrival in Melbourne, English artist William Strutt was a first-hand witness to the devastation of bushfires, which on February 6, 1851, engulfed the colony to the extent that fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria (about five million hectares).

The fires affected vast tracts from Portland, the Westernport, the Wimmera and the Dandenong and Yarra ranges, with Melbourne town in grave danger.

Strutt, a young man of 25, had come to Melbourne in 1850 with an aspiration, generally held by others of his generation, to experience adventure in the colonies.

He came at the right moment with gold being discovered just after his arrival, and soon Victoria was teeming with prospectors and others keen to seize opportunity in the burgeoning colony.

Strutt found that his skills as an artist had prepared him to depict with extraordinary veracity and brilliance the important events unfolding in this new land.

He chronicled the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, bushrangers operating boldly in daylight on the St Kilda Road and the devastating bushfire of 1851.

As witness to these incidents, Strutt made a series of sketches and diary notes, accurately recording the smallest detail.

These he worked up into final watercolours and paintings after his return to England, 12 years later.

The resulting works bear brilliant testimony to extraordinary moments within the panorama of colonial art and life, and their veracity continues to resonate with each generation.

His masterwork, the elongated composition Black Thursday, February 6th 1851, painted in London in 1864, provides a cinematic panorama of a holocaustic scene where frightened colonists and animals flee in panic before the intensity and fury of the conflagration, in what could be likened to the end of the world.

Strutt was not the first European artist to depict the drama of bushfire.

Earlier artists such as Sydney painter Frederick Garling had recorded this phenomenon of the Australian bush, and Michael Minter in 1854 and Eugene von Guerard in 1859 had depicted vast bushfires stretching out across the distant landscape.

Strutt, however, was the first to truly capture, in what can be described as close-up action, the effect and devastation of fire on all living creatures.

Artists whose outlook went beyond the immediate to the poetic understood that the land and its hardships could be mythologised and personified.

Their compositions provide a more romantic, decorative and abstract interpretation of this perennial aspect of the Australian summer.

Sydney Long’s Spirit of the Bushfire (1900) is an allegorical representation of the natural phenomenon of bushfire. Here the real-life threat has been replaced by a personification of fire in the form of the new woman: the femme fatale of the fin-de-siecle era, her twisting, glowing forms owing more to the liberated free-form dancing made famous by Loie Fuller than to the harsh reality of fire.

When Sidney Nolan was stationed in the Wimmera in 1944, he and other supply corps soldiers were sent out to fight fires on the edge of the Little Desert.

While he described the might of the fire as like “the beginning of a world”, the aftermath provided inspiration for After Grassfire, 1944, where the Wimmera landscape, seen from a high viewpoint, is broken up by a series of geometric black wedges that articulate and give definition to the scrubby vegetation.

The long-distance view of fire, especially when observed at night, provided artists with the opportunity afforded by a safe distance to portray the visually dramatic aspect of fire.

In this vein Richard Woldendorp’s aerial photograph Scrub Fire, 1981, reveals the haunting yet abstract beauty of the pattern of swirling red lines created by the fire’s front arcing through the dark landscape.

It stands in contrast to photographs taken during the Black Friday fires of 1939 by an unknown photographer, where the danger of fire on the front line is captured in all its intensity and fury.

Artists as witnesses to bushfire include not only those who were on-the-spot observers but some whose homes and immediate environments were threatened.

From the 1870s photographers as well as painters found inspiration in the Australian bush, with many such as Nicholas Caire and J. W. Lindt seeking the picturesque aspects of the native forests.

However, for Lindt fire became a harsh reality when the fires of 1926 threatened his home and studio, the Hermitage, a well-known resort at Black Spur in the Yarra Ranges, whose garden had been designed by Ferdinand von Muller.

Early in February fires burned large tracts of land in Gippsland, but on February 14 the fires came to a head in the Yarra Ranges with 31 deaths recorded at Warburton.

Lindt, 81, who had photographed the approaching fire, died of heart failure 12 days later on February 26.

Other artists, too, experienced the threat of fire close to home. Fire swept through the Dandenongs in 1955 when Joy Hester and Gray Smith were living at Avonsleigh. Her expressive watercolour drawing Bushfire, Avonsleigh (1955), painted urgently on the spot, portrays the terrifying effect of approaching fire through the petrified eyes of Gray and their son, Peregrine.

Three decades later, David Larwill also employed spontaneous, aggressive black brushstrokes, here on a blazing red ground in Ash Wednesday, 1983, with strong assertive gestures highlighting the violence of fire and its devastating effect on those in its path.

For some artists the destructive force of fire was felt even within the city.

Both George Duncan and Fred Williams experienced the devastation of having their works destroyed by fire. The former lost his studio in George Street, Sydney in 1947, while a building where Williams’s works were stored suffered a similar fate in 1976, although most of his works were fortunately rescued.

Williams, his wife, Lyn, and three daughters were living at Upwey in the Dandenong Ranges in February 1968 when 53 houses were destroyed in a bushfire that burned 1920ha.

The fire stopped just metres from the Williamses house.

This terrifying experience propelled the artist into a remarkable series of works, including drawings, gouaches and paintings of the fire and its aftermath, taking us from the drama of the approaching fire, through the destruction and aftermath, to the later regeneration of the forest as evidenced by the micro-forms of ferns unfurling with new life.

Williams frequently went on painting trips into the bush with Clifton Pugh, an artist and early conservationist who understood the cycles of nature and the need to respect the delicate ecological balance of the environment.

Pugh created what was virtually a sanctuary at his home Dunmoochin at Cottlesbridge on the edge of Melbourne’s urban sprawl. Here his close observation of nature provided the means to paint vivid images of the bush, including several works that show the effect of fire as one of nature’s elemental forces.

Human vulnerability in the face of this reality is evidenced, too, in Arthur Boyd’s Burning Off, 1958, where the primeval qualities of the bush have an overwhelmingly threatening aspect, with danger imminently possible should the fire exert its power over a single man.

Fire, as an essential aspect of the cycle of regeneration in nature, has always been understood by Australia’s indigenous people.

The collaborative painting Warlukurlangu Jukurrpa (Fire Country Dreaming), 1988, by senior Warlpiri artists Uni Nampitjinpa and Dolly Nampitjinpa Daniels, with its aerial perspective and brilliant colour, tells the traditional story of a huge bushfire followed by an immense storm that caused all forms of plant and animal life to flourish.

It serves to remind us that, before settlement, fire as part of the natural cycle had been respected and mythologised by the traditional custodians as part of a rich cultural history.

Fire is a manifestation of the power of nature to destroy and to germinate and, as the historic and contemporary works in a new exhibition at TarraWarra Museum of Art demonstrate, it is deeply embedded in the psyche of most Australians who are reminded all too frequently of the inescapable fact that with fire comes sorrow and anguish as well as rebirth.

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