Australia continues to undersell its own culture

An exhibition at the Royal Academy challenges the old Australian narrative of misunderstanding and wilful blindness.

Australia
Royal Academy, London W1

“They call her a young country, but they lie,” wrote the poet A D Hope. You’ve probably never heard of Hope, or worried away at the problems in his vicious, fabulous poem “Australia”. Is Australia young? If you check the history books, or rock up at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, you’d have to say so: a mere 225-year-old whippersnapper. Ask any of the Aboriginal people whose ancestors were dispossessed after 1788 and you start to understand why Hope writes of liars. But it must be said that they aren’t the only sidelined Australians: why, given his fierce, beautiful writing and status as one of Australia’s foremost 20th-century poets, does Hope remain unknown to you?

This is the Australian narrative, a chain of misunderstanding and wilful blindness, from the original inhabitants failing to comprehend doom dropping anchor to the sailors who saw nothing in their destination save its emptiness and potential as a prison. Then there are the English, far away, who may or may not have called it a young country, because the fact is, they didn’t call her much at all, and still don’t. Australia’s ambiguous status, as both Europe’s last cultural outpost and a place with hardly anything at all in common with Europe, has made her maturation slow and difficult.

The RA is celebrating this process and the peculiar difficulties Australia is still trying to overcome. It is hard to be a great nation, artistically speaking, when your cities aren’t quite Rome or Paris. And Australia is both the most urban of countries – city-dwellers make up 85 per cent of its population, one of the highest proportions of urbanites of any country anywhere – and the least so, because, let’s face it, her cities are burrs on the beast.

Yet aggravation and ambiguity can be inspirational. Even William Westall, the artist on Matthew Flinders’s 1801 exploratory expedition, was nourished by his hatred of this new country. Light pours on to his canvases like a visitation. Westall left but plenty stayed, and their problems simply grew more complex. The attraction that mid-20th-century modernists such as Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan felt to Europe, and their struggle with that influence, are part of what is Australian about their art. It is indifference that makes for mediocrity and Australia is not an easy place to be indifferent to.

It can, however, be a hard place to translate. The scale is different and so are the preoccupations. The cattle-killing droughts in Judith Wright’s poem “South of My Days”, or the swagman in Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda”, are utterly Australian; so are the dreamings in Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s and Uta Uta Tjangala’s paintings, or the “vast astonishment” of which Rickety Kate wrote, referring to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Australia has done herself no favours by refusing to acknowledge her differences. In Melbourne in 1889, the legendary (in Australia only) “9 by 5 Impression Exhibition” featured nearly 200 tiny paintings, many on cigar-box lids; the avowed aim of their creators was to capture light, as Whistler had done half a world away with his Nocturnes. Some of those works, by Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, are on display at the RA. Trying to fit this hulking continent on top of a cigar box is insane: angels and pinheads spring to mind. Yet Aussies continued to measure their work by European standards and, generally, find it wanting. “Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture,” wrote the critic A A Phillips glumly in 1950, christening the problem “the Cultural Cringe”. The Royal Academy has certainly underestimated Australia, similarly trying to fit the continent into too small a space. The gallery has form on this kind of sweeping treatment – its 1995 “Africa” show triggered outrage – but the curators are also responding to Australian self-deprecation, not to mention the internal incoherence of a nation founded on theft by people who were there mostly as punishment for stealing.

Theft is the theme I would have chosen for this show. From Nolan’s terrific images of the outlaw Ned Kelly to Tracey Moffatt’s photography and Robert Campbell Jr’s cartoonish 1988 painting Abo history (facts), there’s plenty great material that fits.

It is no revelation to suggest that Australia needs to come to terms with its past if it wants a prouder future, but it seems possible that one day, the kind of Englishman who prides himself on knowing something about German expressionism or French surrealism would feel a touch sheepish (pun intended) never to have heard of Australian modernism. Hope was writing in 1939: this talk of white and black, young and old, north and south won’t do any more. Terra Australis is closer than we thought. Europe must screw up its ageing eyes against that bright sunlight and take a better look.

“Australia” runs until 8 December. Details: royalacademy.org.uk

Beyond indifference: a scene from Wim Wenders's 1991 film Until The End of The World. Image: Getty

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.