State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 24 October 1979

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Mythmaking In Australian Art

The writing of the history of art in Australia has been characterised by the making and perpetrating of myths. No-where is this more in evidence than in accounts of the most famous period of art in Australia, the so-called ‘Heidelberg School’ of c. 1885–1900.
Perhaps the most striking feature of these accounts by historians and critics is their remarkable similarity. Without fail the secondary sources down to the 1970's present the reader with a series of characterisations that vary only in details. Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Conder are seen as the first artists to paint the landscape through ‘Australian’ rather than ‘European’ eyes: stylistically they are seen to emulate the French Impressionists; the 9 × 5 Exhibition of 1889 is invariably described as a revolutionary act, throwing down the gauntlet to a hidebound bourgeois public, and their subject-matter is acclaimed as the first flowering of a nationalist school of Australian painting.
Further investigation into the exact historical circumstances of this period has tended to erode nearly all these popular conceptions of the ‘Heidelberg School’. For instance it now looks as if the 9 × 5 Exhibition was much closer to a calculated market play at an established and aesthetically-minded bourgeois public rather than an act of revolution. And after analysis in a broader social context it has become obvious that the ‘heroic’ subject-matter of shearers, bushmen and pioneers had its roots in popular contemporary imagery such as photography and the black and white illustrations found in the Illustrated Australian News and the Australasian Sketcher of the 1870's and 1880's rather than in undefined ‘remembered’ images of a golden, pre-selection past. Again, the relationship of these artists to French Impressionism now looks very dubious. In the past, efforts had been made to link them with this internationally recognised movement as a way of bestowing local approval and acceptance on the Heidelberg group. Greater appreciation of their art for its own rather than any extraneously imported qualities and a deeper knowledge of the individuals’ own lives, has meant that the relationship of the ‘Heidelberg School’ to French Impressionism is now seen as minimal and relevant only to that movement's later and more peripheral expressions.
It is worth noting that many of these myths about the nature of the ‘Heidelberg School’ have their basis in the accounts given by those artists involved — but recollected and embellished much later in their careers. Most date from the years following World War One and are closely related to the wash of sentimental nationalism which flowed through Australian institutions in the 1920's. The same period saw a tendency to look back on the years preceding the First World War, particularly the 1880's and 1890's, and to see in them manifestations of an unsullied Australian nationalism. This tide of sentimental national feeling was beginning to rise in the years before World War One. Arthur Streeton for instance came back from London in 1907 with a number of pictures to sell after he had been notified that one of his earlier works Australian December painted in the late 1880's and sold then for £10.00 had recently been re-sold in Melbourne for £75.00. Critical interest in the art of the last two decades of the nineteenth century was growing. William Moore had published his Studio Sketches in 1906 and was thinking about a more comprehensive account of art in Australia. Lionel Lindsay was anxious to set the period in an heroic context and chose Streeton as his main protagonist, hailing him in Art in Australia No. 2, 1917, as the ‘discoverer’ of the Australian landscape. Streeton began his memoirs in the 'twenties, hoping to lay claim for his own primacy in the history of the period.
In the following pages appear the greater part of a memoir by Frederick McCubbin recently acquired by the La Trobe Library as the gift of the painter's daughter Mrs. Kathleen Mangan. The great interest in this previously unpublished account of his early life by McCubbin — apart from the biographical
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information it gives — lies in the fact that it was written years before any of the well-known and well established accounts of the period.
Internal evidence suggests that the manuscript was probably written at the turn of the century, though its rambling, repetitive and disjointed nature indicates that it was almost certainly written over a period of time. This means that it was written before McCubbin went to Europe in 1907. The letters he wrote back to his wife at that time indicate that he was aware of the more modern movements in painting such as Impressionism, but that they did not interest him particularly. What he searched for in the museums he visited in Europe was an extension of his own vision and this he found in the art of J. M. W. Turner and in the rural imagery of the protagonists of the Newlyn School, particularly George Clausen. This manuscript indicates McCubbin's preferences at an early age and — apart from the great discovery of Turner's colour — these preferences did not radically alter throughout McCubbin's life.
In the first place it is interesting to note that contrary to most secondary accounts of his place in Australian art history, at no stage does McCubbin see himself as part of a group or even holding an artistic ethos in common with other artists. Nowhere does he mention a shared vision of Australia, although he does pay tribute to Tom Roberts’ role as a stimulating force both for himself and the artistic community in general.
What does emerge — and stands in stark contrast to his contemporary Arthur Streeton's version of himself as a virtually self-taught artist — is the tremendous importance McCubbin placed on artistic training and received authority. Whereas the manuscript erroneously dates the beginning of his studentship at 1873, McCubbin actually began attending the Lygon Street, Carlton School of Design much earlier in c. 1868–69. He was first enrolled at the National Gallery of Victoria's School of Design under Thomas Clark two years later in 1871. McCubbin remained a student of the National Gallery Schools until 1886 (!), although the year before, he had been appointed Acting Master of the School of Design. Admittedly much of this was on a part-time basis but nonetheless eighteen years as an art student indicates a cautious and not especially confident artistic personality, rather than the more popular version of the bold painter of Australian nationalism.
In the memoir McCubbin is at pains to point out the loneliness of his quest to be an artist, the difficulties he encountered in searching for artistic guidance and the fact that, because of inadequate teaching (he seems not to have been satisified by Thomas Clarke, Eugene von Guerard or Oswald Rose Campbell) he was constantly thrown back upon written authorities especially Ruskin and the more well-known nineteenth century manuals of art instruction for guidance. The pattern of teaching he was subjected to, the copying from engravings then from plaster casts and finally from pictures: then moving on to life drawing with the development of a ‘sketch’ club which organised competitions of compositions on a given subject and some out-of-doors sketching, was typical of conservative art training in nineteenth century England and France. Like many students he found his greatest encouragement came from his fellow students and when these, particularly Roberts, Richardson and Mackennal went overseas and McCubbin remained in Melbourne, he felt himself increasingly isolated.
The popular myth that these years saw the birth of Australia's first national school of painting receives little support from McCubbin. Apart from a brief, rather vague mention early in the manuscript that ‘There used to be a sort of legend about that time that Australia would do great things in Art where it sprang from goodness only knows’, McCubbin gives little indication that this was a period of conscious nationalism in art. He acknowledges the qualities of Louis Buvelot and indicates that at the time he and Roberts were students, Buvelot was recognised as contributing something new and different to the interpretation of the Australian landscape: ‘Roberts and I had an immense reverence
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for the work he did but we had no chance of knowing him he perhaps being the only man at that time who could give us a hint of all the beauties that were under our very eyes …’
This admiration for Buvelot's work indicates further McCubbin's identification with the plein-air art of the French Barbizon school of the 1840's especially in its later manifestations in the ‘tonal’ paintings of the popular French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–84), and his lack of interest at this stage in the French Impressionist school. We learn this not only from his homage to Louis Buvelot whose art was grounded in the Barbizon school intimiste approach to landscape painting but also from a tentative yet telling statement in the manuscript — ‘I painted I think the first picture that was ever painted in this part of the world entirely out-of-doors’ (a popular claim later to be made by a number of McCubbin's contemporaries). This is followed by ‘This little picture gave me the first glimmerings of atmosphere.’
The search for ‘atmosphere’ and its concomitant ‘tonal values’ rather than the Impressionist commitment to colour, light and the de-materialisation of form, became the hall-marks of McCubbin's art in the 1880's and 1890's. Together with his preference for large-scale pictures which contain some narrative interest, this places McCubbin's art in the last two decades of the nineteenth century within the context of late Victorian literary painting.
In preparing the manuscript for publication, no attempt has been made to amend McCubbin's idiosyncratic grammatical style or his eccentric spelling except in a few instances in the interests of clarity. Occasional punctuation has been added for ease of reading. Some paragraphs containing repetitive or extraneous matter have been deleted.
Ann Galbally
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Frederick McCubbin with fellow students, National Gallery School, Melbourne 1887. The annotations are in the hand of Erick Thake. The photographs is held in the Victorian Artists’ Society