Unlike most Australians, I can not say that the paintings of the Hermannsburg watercolorists were my first exposure to any kind of Aboriginal art. Although it seems now that these iconic landscapes of Central Australia must have been part and parcel of my consciousness from the very start, a look at the catalogue of the Dreamings exhibition, which was my introduction to the existence of Indigenous Australian art, confirms that nothing from the brush of Albert Namatjira or the school of painters he inspired and who carry on to this day the tradition he started was included in that seminal international exhibition.
I am sure, however, that on my first trip to Australia two years after being exposed to Dreamings, I encountered plenty of examples of the Hermannsburg School. I haunted the souvenir shops of Sydney in my first days in country and spent hours roaming from gallery to tourist trap on the Todd Mall in Alice Springs, impatiently ignoring tea-towels and coasters emblazoned with bad reproductions of Centralian landscapes. Not long after my return to the United States, while poring over the Australiana section of the best used bookstore in town, I came across an envelope containing six engraved images of Albert Namatjira’s paintings, which had been published by Legend Press. I put them aside, thinking that they weren’t real Aboriginal art, at least not of the kind that I was interested in. But my growing fascination with all things Australian and Aboriginal took me back to the bookstore before too long. To my delight, the six little reproductions in their battered envelope were still wedged among multiple copies of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore and memoirs of nineteenth century immigrants to dusty cattle country. I brought them home, puzzled over them, and put them away in a safe place.
It wasn’t until years later, when I had moved beyond my initial fascination with acrylic dots and had begun to appreciate the variety of Indigenous expression, that I began to feel a real curiosity about the Hermannsburg artists. In truth, I suspect it was the great exhibition that Alison French curated for the National Gallery of Australia in 2002, Seeing the Centre: the art of Albert Namatjira, that really awakened me to the glories of Namatjira himself. In the couple of years that followed I devoured whatever other books I could find, including C. P. Mountford’s small wonder The Art of Namatjira (Bread and Cheese Club, 1944), Joyce Batty’s dismal biography Namatjira: wanderer between two worlds (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), Rex and Bernice Battarbee’s Modern Aboriginal Paintings (Rigby, 1971), and most importantly, The Heritage of Namatjira: the watercolorists of Central Australia, edited by Jane Hardy, J. V. S. Megaw and Ruth Megaw (Heinemann Australia, 1992).
That last title was almost impossible to find a mere ten years after its publication, and I remember paying what seemed like a small fortune for it at the time. (Even today, when numerous copies are easily locatable at BookFinder.com, the prices are astronomical, ranging upwards from US$200 to over $600, for a 300 page monograph with relatively few color reproductions.) It is still, to my mind, the essential study of the Hermannsburg painters, with a dozen far-ranging chapters by eminent scholars including the editors themselves as well as the likes of Tim Rowse, Philip Jones, Sylvia Kleinert, and Jenny Green.
The Heritage of Namatjira ignited my interest in the many descendants of the master and began the process of sensitizing me to the stylistic differences among them. Otto Pareroultja’s loopy hillscapes were easy to recognize; they sometimes seemed to be an artistic imagining of a country built out of painted seashells (not in the strict geological sense of sedimentary landscapes but more on the lines of a kitschy seashore art form, though I don’t mean to imply that Pareroultja’s paintings are in the least bit kitsch: they are too strange and haunting for that). Walter Ebatarinja, whose father held great authority for the country around Hermannsburg and who felt therefore that Namatjira was obliged to foster his own artistic ambitions after Namatjira first became a successful artist, is a painter whose clarity of color never fails to impress me; his watercolors glow like illuminated cels from an animated film. I was fascinated by the ways in which, unlike many other practitioners, Wenten Rubuntja moved easily between the conventions of watercolor and dot-painting.
But over the years it is the work of Albert’s eldest son, Enos, that I have come to admire and treasure more than any other painter of the Hermannsburg School; on some days I prefer it even to that of his father.
Enos was born at Hermannsburg in 1920 and served as a cameleer for an early (1938) painting expedition on which Albert accompanied Rex Battarbee. Although he was interested in taking up the brush, he did not, according to Battarbee’s profile in Modern Australian Aboriginal Art (Angus and Robertson, 1951), receive much training and assistance at first, owing to the superior claims that Walter Ebatarinja had on Albert. At any rate, Enos seems not to have begun painting in earnest until around 1945, after three years spent working for the Australian Army Labor Company. A painting from that year is reproduced in Batterbee’s book: a river gum in the foreground spreads its foliage across the entire top quarter of the paper and the sharp slope of a hill in the background adds interest to the composition by transecting the otherwise dominant vertical thrust and horizontal leafiness of the image. The greens are muted and soft, and the redness of rock and soil is likewise toned down to a dusty purple. Battarbee notes the strong influence of father on son.
Soon afterwards, though, Enos removed himself to the ranges west of Hermannsburg. Away from his father’s influence and encouraged by the idiosyncratic originality and commercial success of Otto Pareroultja, he began to develop a style of his own with a palette that was dominated by purples and blues.
This untitled painting by Enos, executed in 1959, is to my eyes one of the supreme achievements of the Hermannsburg School. It is an intimate jewelbox, a mere 17 by 25 centimeters in size. And yet it has a richness of tone that is hard to find among the work of his contemporaries and an altogether different kind of grandeur to it than the portraits of Mt Hermannsburg which Albert often clothed with similar tones. Its sweeping, vibrant, inky blue hills are characteristic of much of Enos’s late work, and I am hard pressed to find a lovelier motif in any of the many paintings of Central Australia that have come from the generations of its watercolorists.
The cluster of red rocks in the foreground left has again been muted to a deep maroon that approximates the dying light of a campfire’s last embers. Without an iconic gum tree to focus on, the eye is left to drift slowly into the depths of the painting’s perspective as row upon row of peaks gently recede toward the horizon, their color becoming more and more attenuated as the distance from the viewer grows greater until at last there are just shades of gray, barely blue in their highlights, at the extreme left, fading into the soft pearl of a dawn sky.
In the two ranges that occupy the middle foreground, those picked out in sharpest detail, the rocky caps of the hills are articulated in a deep purple. The smaller range on the left is the only element in the painting where the sweep of landscape ascends from right to left, and the tension of that difference is what holds the entire painting in equilibrium. The purple rocks at the top of the right-hand foreground range lead the eye back into the center of the painting towards the stretch of deep lavender peaks in the middle distance. There, echoing green vegetation holds the center to the foreground with its row of deep-green, rounded trees and a patch of pale violet sands.
Beyond that point, the blue-grey hills continue their rhythmic sweep into infinity, giving the whole painting a quality of endless waves pulsing across space and time. I suspect that if any of the desperate explorers who pushed into the Centre in search of the fabled inland sea had encountered this landscape, so beautifully rendered by Enos Namatjira’s hand, they would have fallen to their knees, exhausted perhaps, but fulfilled and certain of victory in their quest.