Death of an artist

I never saw a single aboriginal in Melbourne until Albert Namatjira visited my art school in 1943. He was wearing a fedora and a three-piece suit.

becker art 88 224 (photo credit: )
becker art 88 224
(photo credit: )
Back in the Thirties, my elementary school in Melbourne taught us that the Australian aborigines, who had arrived on the continent at least 50,000 years before Captain Cook, had been decimated by the white man's diseases and that the survivors were now confined to the Outback, as they were an uneducated, Stone Age people who ran around naked. I never saw a single aboriginal in Melbourne until Albert Namatjira visited my art school in 1943. He was wearing a fedora and a three-piece suit. An outback camel wrangler who borrowed a box of watercolors from his white boss and taught himself to paint in the English manner so beloved of many skilled Australian artists, Namatjira was a success story. He was the only known aboriginal painter and quickly became wealthy and independent. I told him that he was a better watercolorist than I could ever hope to be, but that I did not understand why he wanted to paint like Peter de Wint or John Singer Sargent when he had his own rich culture to explore. Namatjira clearly thought I was crazy, but was gravely polite. Contemporary aboriginal art did not then exist and he was doing very nicely as a classic watercolorist, thank you very much. I forgot all about Namatjira until, some years ago, I saw several of his landscapes in an auction catalog. It was clear from the reproductions that I had youthfully underestimated him. Namatjira's landscapes were vitalized; the ground and hills appeared to move from inside in a way that wasn't Western at all. I saw from the catalog that Namatjira was no longer alive. However, I had no idea of his tragic end until I read Sven Lindquist's Terra Nullius - A Journey Through No One's Land. (The New Press, $24.95) The main illustration in this book is a black-and-white reproduction of a portrait of Namatjira by Sir William Dargie, Australia's leading academic portrait painter. Bill Dargie was my first art teacher. By the time Namatjira visited my art school, my father and I had learned that the persecuted Jews of Europe had not only lost their citizenship, but were also being systematically wiped out. What I did not know was that the original inhabitants of Australia did not have citizenship and were still being shot by policemen. In the '50s the aborigines of the Alice Springs area were not allowed into white hospitals, hotels and pubs. They were outside the social security system and did not get old age pensions. In 1957, Namatjira, in recognition of his success, was made an Australian citizen, but he was still without any civil rights and could not vote. Author Lindquist writes that as a citizen, Namatjira was free of racial restrictions but this infuriated the whites of Alice Springs. The local police caught him and a relative drunk in a taxi after the nightfall curfew. A local court sentenced him to six months hard labor for supplying a native with alcohol (something many whites did for money). A higher court halved the sentence because of the painter's age, but a shattered Namatjira did his time in isolation at Papunya, 200 km. north-west of Alice Springs. On his release in August 1959 he died of a heart attack. This gentle man had been a citizen for just two years. Lindquist, in the course of describing his visits to the areas and of police massacres, tells the terrible story of how the many tribes of aboriginals were despoiled of their ancestral lands. In Tasmania, not a single black survived. On the mainland, tribal lands were plundered in turn by farmers, ranchers, mining conglomerates and defense organizations, British as well as Australian. Huge areas of the interior were poisoned for the next several hundred thousand years by atomic test blasts and plutonium dust. All blacks were put under a Protectorate and many herded into shanty camps. Police were still conducting massacres when I was a boy, but these went unreported. In 1937 the Chief Protector was given the legal instruments to "breed out" the aboriginals of Western Australia. Australia has always had its fair share of bigots but it generally subscribes to the idea of a "fair go" for all. Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, tens of thousands of white activists made common cause with the aboriginals in doing away with the Native Administration's restrictions. The blacks organized successful strikes and in the mid-'70s began to reclaim some of their lands. In the '80s, inspired by the success of aboriginal painters at Papunya, who had been given acrylics, one community after another began to paint. Many groups of men and women worked communally on a single work, but a number of fine individual artists emerged, all basing their images on traditional symbols that described the ancestral tribal land beneath their feet. A few of them were paid huge sums for their creations and some were acquired by Australian museums. In 1985 Uluru, the great rock in Central Australia, was restored to the Anangu tribe - on condition that tourists could still visit it. It remains the country's chief tourism symbol. In 1991 Prime Minister Keating launched a decade of reconciliation between whites and blacks and blacks became citizens after the High Court threw out the concept of terra nullius and restored to the aboriginals the lands on which they had always lived. But their troubles were far from over. In 1996, the Labor Party was voted out, partly because of its pro-aboriginal policy. New amendments to the Native Title Act prevented displaced aboriginals from reclaiming pastoral and mining land. Part of the Australian press has recently given voice to a new generation of Holocaust deniers, who claim that the destruction of hundreds of different aboriginal peoples, each with its own language and culture, is a fiction. Today, there are only 400,000 aborigines left out of at least four million. They are lost in a country of 21 million whites. Most live in poverty and have a short life span. This paper recently reported that Premier John Howard is reviving traditional "paternalistic" policy in the Northern Territory, where some 60,000 blacks live at starvation level on their isolated holdings, in places where there are no opportunities for work. Like many whites, many spend their welfare checks on drink and gambling and porn films. Howard intends to introduce Prohibition there and make half of welfare payments subject to food and education stipulations. It sounds well-meaning, but he wouldn't dare try it with whites. While still in wartime Australia, I met painter Yosl Bergner, then serving in an army labor company because he was an alien. Yosl was stationed at a railway siding on the Murray River and there made the first of his aboriginal paintings. He was the first painter to do so. "I saw them as Australia's Jews," he told me after he and his wife moved to Israel in the early 50s. HANDS UP those who have heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). Still a few? Veteran Israelis of German background are among the holders of her work, passed down by admiring parents. Her works have an honored place in German museums and not just because she was a link between early French modernism and Germany's Blaue Reiter group and the Die Brucke painters. She herself was a painter of quietly modern taste, even when rendering sober children and portraits of their parents. Her life was cut short by an embolism, just a few weeks after her daughter was born. Paula Becker was born in Dresden and studied in Berlin with Otto Modersohn, among others. She married Modersohn several years after his wife died. A series of visits to Paris introduced her to both the Fauves and Gauguin, the latter a prime influence on her paintings, as can been seen in the color reproductions in Paula Modersohn-Becker - Gemalde by Brigitte Uhde-Stahl (Schirmer/Mosel, German only, 109 pp. with 40 color plates. Eur 6.95), an attractive slim volume on good paper; the text first appeared in 1991. Some of Modersohn-Becker's oils of children anticipate the low-key palette of Gwen John, but most of the depictions of adult sitters are formalized against stylized depictions of flowers and foliage, or decorative wallpaper. Most startling of all is her highly stylized portrait of her poet friend Rainer Maria Rilke, who eventually wrote her biography. There are at least 15 books about her, two by this author; all are in German.