On the Possibility of Another Australian Art History

Rex Butler, A.D.S. Donaldson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review

Abstract

Nearly all of the existing histories of Australian art – by Bernard Smith, Robert Hughes, Christopher Allen – seek to identify some peculiarly ‘Australian’ quality to the work, some distinctive quality of either the light, land, or people that gives the art its particular quality. But, in order to do this, they must exclude much art practice that took place in this country and much art made by Australians overseas. What would happen if we opened the aperture of Australian art history a little wider to include these usually excluded artists? We would get a different vision of Australian art and a different sense of Australian art’s place in the rest of the world. We would understand Australian art as a part of rather than apart from the world. We would as it were look at Australian art from the outside in and not the inside out. We would perhaps even produce a history of ‘UnAustralian’ rather than ‘Australian’ art. This paper attempts to write a short history of such a possibility, beginning with the great expatriate Australian artist John Peter Russell, who taught Matisse how to paint, and ending with the equally great Utopia artist Emily Kngwarreye, who inspired the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. In between, we look at a number of moments from the history of Australian art where we might be offered the opportunity to think about ourselves differently.


This paper attempts to write a short history of such a possibility, beginning with the great expatriate Australian artist John Peter Russell, who taught Matisse how to paint, and ending with the equally great Utopia artist Emily Kngwarreye, who inspired the American conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. The first gesture, then, of our new ‘UnAustralian’ history is simply to open the aperture more widely on to what counts as Australian art. It would be to include all those artists who were born and educated here or trained or worked here for some period of time. Aboriginal art certainly forces us to re-read Australian art, although our real point is that it also disaggregates the category of Australian art; that, against all of the undoubtedly well-meaning efforts to write a history of Australian art that includes Aboriginal art, the real effect of Aboriginal art is to do away with the very possibility of a national art history.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Australian Art Field: Practices, Policies, Institutions
EditorsTony Bennett, Deborah Stevenson, Fred Myers, Tamara Winikoff
Place of PublicationNew York, USA
PublisherRoutledge
Chapter3
Pages44-55
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-429-06147-9
ISBN (Print)978-0-367-18441-4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Cite this