Australia continues to undersell its own culture

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

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:

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

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide