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Saturday, 4 May 2013

Why Australian writing was conventional before Patrick White

Like most Australians, I think, I was introduced to early Australian culture through paintings: Bunny, Lambert, and Roberts especially. Paintings like this 1891 Tom Roberts, A Breakaway! that shows with distinctive colours the dry heat and the looming stillness of the Australian bush. The "bush". What a redolent word that is, and it was a place familiar to artists and writers of the late 19th century and early 20th century who mostly lived, counter-intuitively perhaps, in the big cities along the Pacific coast just as they do today. But while Australia has always been a metropolitan culture the pioneer values that were struck into cultural coin in the bush carried over into use in the suburbs of the big urban agglomerations. It's why even in 1931 Miles Franklin could write a book such as Old Blastus of Bandicoot, which is set in the bush near Queanbeyan before the turn of the century and so was intended to function as a national foundation story (Australia was federated and made a country in 1901) as well as a novel of domestic manners.

For me, reading the book was a revelation in 2008, and the lessons I learned in that process have remained with me since then and have served to form a personal theory of art in Australia. And the reason why the lessons struck so deep was because of the excellence of Franklin's prose. As I wrote at the time, Franklin's art "is fiercely and attractively evident" but stylistically the book resembles earlier, British models: "Franklin is, in fact, Dickens in the Bush." Which is akin to knowing that Australian Impressionists like Roberts modeled their approach to painting on earlier, French works from the mid-19th century. So while in Europe by the 1920s writers and painters were experimenting with new styles and forms that were explicitly designed to more accurately reflect what was recognised at the time as modernity, in Australia such work was ridiculed and rejected out-of-hand.

The reason, I think, for this deeply conservative approach to cultural products was allied to the bush ethos. "[I]n a sense [Old Blastus of Bandicoot] is 'about' how to cope with loss of face in a society where communal action (fighting bushfires, for example) could mean the difference between survival and destitution," I wrote just after reading the novel. (I can sense my delight in that 2008 blogpost as strongly as if I had written it yesterday.) "Without trust, Franklin says, there is no community." And it was the same when it came to art. I think you have to peer past the cliches inherent in a book like Franklin's and a painting like Roberts' to locate something situated beyond the formal surface of the work.

Australia had a small population and people relied on their neighbours to a degree unthinkable today, except perhaps in rural Australia. In such a society it just didn't do to be different, so people bound themselves to convention and celebrated execution rather than originality. It was part of an ethos of sharing, and of creating community in a difficult and often dangerous environment where your nearest neighbour could live a day's ride away. (In a real way it's the same impulse that drew the painter Martin Sharp to deploy such iconic signifiers as Ginger Meggs and the distinctive smiling face of the entrance of Luna Park, in Sydney, into his works.)

Nothing had changed in the years before Patrick White started to experiment with style and form in his early novels. His first novel, Happy Valley, came out in 1939, only eight years after Old Blastus of Bandicoot, and Voss, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1957, was published in that same year. But the aesthetic distance between those books of 1931 and 1957 is unimaginably large. Franklin died in 1954, when White was in his early 40s - at the height of his creative powers - but while Franklin was definitely White's equal as a writer, they are continents apart in a formal and stylistic sense. Modernism arrived in Australia late, only after it had achieved broad acceptance in the northern hemisphere, and had become recognisably "art".

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