Into the inferno

Into the inferno

25 June 2010

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Australia — CONTEMPLATING the serene countryside that surrounds the TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley, especially on a cool and cloudy winter’s day, it is hard to feel apprehensive about the danger of bushfires.

Vineyards mantling the slopes, with red and white roses planted at the heads of each row, run down to the still waters of a pond, and all around are green wooded hills. And yet all this is very close to the catastrophic bushfires that destroyed so many rural townships in February 2009. How close can be appreciated from inside the gallery, where the enormous window at the end of the perspective looks straight towards hills still bristling with burned tree trunks.

After those events TarraWarra was almost the inevitable place to mount an exhibition about fire in the Australian landscape. The museum has never had as many people come to a show, and will seldom have visitors who scrutinise the works on display in such a spirit of seriousness and even reverence. Staff told me of many people who had burst into tears, sometimes after quietly looking at the exhibition for some time, before being suddenly overcome by emotion or memories of their own suffering or the loss of friends.

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All Australians know about bushfires, a few through direct involvement, many from the pervasive smell of distant fires or the uncanny orange light that comes through the smoke haze, and most in the safety of tele-voyeurism, watching walls of fire on a big screen while reporters repeat their script of cliches. Chief among the banalities that inevitably recur is the phrase “Mother Nature in all her fury”. It seems odd at first sight that journalists only ever personify nature as a mother when they are evoking her most savage and destructive manifestations: fires, floods, hurricanes.

Surely it would be more fitting to speak of Mother Nature when surveying a field of ripe grain, ready for harvest? But in reality the expression, which is like a throwback to a much earlier world of belief, betrays fear and the desire to placate a dark, incomprehensible force by an act of submission.

Curiously, I was told the firefighters themselves spontaneously imagine the fire as a monstrous female entity, speaking of it as “the bitch”, for example, even though fire itself is generally conceived as masculine, whether in the Western system of the elements or in various Eastern philosophies; here, however, it is seen as no more than the instrument of a primitive and enraged female earth-divinity.

From a sufficient distance, great fires are an impressive sight, like volcanoes, waterfalls, storms at sea and other spectacles of the power of nature. An element of fear, in the apprehension of our own smallness and vulnerability, is inseparable from exhilaration. This was the experience analysed by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), in which he associated beauty with wellbeing, harmony and serenity, and the sublime with the fear and excitement of an inhuman infinite.

The sublime was what the romantics looked for in nature, rather than the equilibrium of beauty sought in the classical landscape. It played an important, and different, part in the painting of European masters such as Friedrich or Turner, Australians (Eugene von Guerard) and Americans (Frederic Edwin Church and others).

But it is harder to conceive of our bushfires in this way, because they are simply too close to our daily lives; aesthetic detachment is much more difficult to achieve, as well as more problematic, where the danger is real, an attack to be fought off rather than a spectacle to be admired.

Bushfires mean death, and in the aftermath it can seem like the death of nature itself. This sense of utter bleakness is particularly well evoked in Rick Amor’s painting Summer (2008), with its monochrome palette of ashen greys and stark tonal contrasts of charred trunks.

What makes this picture particularly poignant is that in composition it is loosely conceived as a classical landscape, with framing trees and central space that would once have been welcoming and pleasant; it is thus beauty itself and communion with nature that have been destroyed, with no compensating vision of the sublime.

Jane Scott, the exhibition’s curator, has done an excellent job in assembling the most important images of bushfire in Australian art, and lenders have been generous in parting with important works, though under the circumstances refusal would have seemed extraordinarily ungracious.

Of these loans, the most important, and almost the keystone of the exhibition, is William Strutt’s Black Thursday February 6th 1851, which was based on studies the young painter made in Australia at the time, and completed in London in 1864.

As the title makes clear, this painting was based on the greatest bushfire in the history of Australia, which devastated more than a quarter of the area of Victoria, although more lives were lost in later and smaller fires in more densely populated areas.

In a sense this exhibition is something of a vindication for Strutt, who saw the event as something that was at once terrible and characteristic of the Australian experience, but encountered an almost complete lack of interest, at least from buyers, in his picture.

Perhaps its vision was too grim and even apocalyptic at a time when the new colony of Victoria was booming with wealth and brash optimism; James Smith, the critic of the Argus, argued that Black Thursday was a picture of national importance and should be acquired for what was to become the National Gallery of Victoria.

In the end, however, even the modest price Strutt was asking could not be raised, and after many years the picture was sold to a private collector. When it finally entered a public collection, in 1954, it was that of the Public Library of Victoria.

Strutt worked very hard on this picture, which he conceived as an epic of human suffering in which all flee before the onslaught of an annihilating force that makes no distinction of class or wealth, age or sex, or between man and animal.

The detailed and accurate depictions of the various fleeing or dead animals are particularly striking. In fact they are a bit too prominent, so that the picture is as much a work of natural history as of history painting.

Despite some reservations, however, the painting is a remarkable achievement, full of fine observations and some quite beautiful passages, which repay the effort of picking through a composition that is perhaps inevitably overcrowded for its scale. Longstaff’s Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898 — again a response to specific fires — is more successful in composition, particularly in the way the artist evokes not only the terror of the fire, at once imminent and distantly encircling, but also the loneliness and isolation, through the vast darkness in the centre of the picture.

The horse plays an important but more discreet part in Longstaff’s composition, and animals remain central to several very different works, including Simon O’Dwyer’s moving photograph of a farmer weeping as he shoots cattle burned by the fire, and Susan Purdy’s long photogram that extends in three parts along the side corridor. Purdy’s work is the only one that seems to acknowledge the role of arsonists in starting these terrifying blazes.

One striking thing is that the reality of these events is so extreme it does not permit rhetoric or conceits. The gravity of the subject seems to demand simplicity and directness. Thus Imants Tillers reproduces, on a much larger scale, a bushfire painting by the high colonial painter von Guerard, inscribing on it MODEL OF REALITY, and below, spaced across the composition: ME HERE NOW.

Les Kossatz, like several others, began the work exhibited here as personal notations of the experience, in his case of the aftermath of fire, and his small pastel drawings of hillsides with their clusters of skeletal blackened trunks have a corresponding quality of understated conviction. One of John Gollings’s works looks from a distance like an abstract drawing, covered in a network of dark reticulated lines; on looking more closely, one realises it is a photograph, taken from the air, and the lines are thousands of fallen charred logs.

Among the things that draw you back for another look there are four small oil paintings by a young artist, Camilla Tadich, in a style that is somewhere between Amor and Clarice Beckett, and which evoke the silent stillness of the landscape laid waste by the passage of the blaze.

Claudia Terstappen’s large photographs are certainly striking, but suggest effects of light rather than the fury of destructive heat; the vision is more detached and they are thus less impressive in this context than they might be elsewhere.

Similarly the images that deal with regeneration, such as those of Fred Williams and John Wolseley, while fine in themselves, are harder to appreciate when one’s attention is really focused on the physical and moral drama of the bushfire and its immediate effects and consequences.

The most touching story in the show is the one that lies behind J.W. Lindt’s small but dramatic picture of a cloud of smoke looming behind a hill across the valley in 1926; the elderly photographer, whose house and studio were threatened by this fire, died of heart failure a few days afterwards.

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