Prior to WW2, there was little opportunity for the average Australian to gain an accurate impression of the forms and colours of Outback Australia. Tourism in that area was for only the most intrepid. Four-wheel drive vehicles were virtually unheard of, roads that could be called roads were almost non-existent, colour photography had not been invented.
English writer H Rider Haggard, author of such swashbuckling tales as “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She”, had visited Australia in 1913, and visited Oodnadatta by train. He was later quoted as saying “It was very interesting as a waste, but it does not admit of much description …. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets – and lots of flies.” It seems that this view was widely held by the general public in Australia.
But the seeds for change were being sown in the 1930s, as artist Rex Battarbee exhibited his watercolour paintings of the Australian Outback, showing the intense and spectacular colours to be seen there.
Battarbee was born in Warrnambool on the south-west coast of Victoria in 1893. In 1916, he enlisted in the army, was sent to the Western Front, gassed and seriously wounded and left for dead on the battlefield. He survived, but his left hand was rendered useless. Upon his repatriation to Australia, he realised he could not become a farmer (as he had planned), so took up painting.
In 1928, Battarbee and his friend John Gardiner converted a Model T Ford truck into a caravan, and set off on a 10,000 km trip through Victoria, western NSW, and southern Queensland. They returned with 600 of Battarbee’s paintings. Reviews of his exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide felt it necessary to explain that the “Interior” of the country actually possessed scenic qualities, and even striking scenic beauty. Battarbee seemed to have dedicated his life to the pursuit of vivid colour.
Battarbee was a photographer as well as an artist. I’ve been reading a great book called “Images of the Interior” by Philip Jones (Wakefield Press, 2011), which features the work of seven amateur photographers (including Battarbee) who travelled in the Outback between the 1890s and the 1940s. There are many remarkable images. Some of this post is drawn from the book. (It’s not surprising that Battarbee, with his love of colour, was an early adopter – in the mid-1940s – of colour photography.)
In 1932, Battarbee and Gardiner did another epic trip, this time through the Centre to Alice Springs. They visited Hermannsburg, near Alice Springs, on the Finke River, where they met Lutheran Pastor Friedrich Albrecht. They returned in 1934, and at Albrecht’s request, staged an exhibition of paintings of the MacDonnell Ranges and Finke River area specifically for the local Arrernte people.
As Battarbee later recalled,
“The first exhibition was more than a presentation of art – it was the manifestation of magic. They watched wide-eyed for a long time, some of them standing silently in front of one picture for many minutes while he or she recalled some incident from their tribal past which had its origins in a place they could now see on paper.”
Among the indigenous audience was one Albert Namatjira. He alone expressed some confidence that he might be able to create such pictures of his country. It seems it was a true “Eureka” moment for Albert. Battarbee’s observation was that “until that moment, Albert had not seen colour. From that moment on, he has seen nothing else.” In 1934, Battarbee returned to Hermannsburg, where he gave Namatjira extensive tuition in watercolour painting in the European style.
By the early 1940s, Namatjira had become the most prominent aboriginal artist of the time, and a national phenomenon (try a Google image search on “Namatjira paintings”), and his work was widely acclaimed. He won the Archibald Prize in 1956. Sadly, his later life was marked by many difficulties. He died in 1959.