“How to paint the grace of God?”
That is the surprising question with which Wally Caruana opens the essays that introduce this extraordinary compilation of Old Masters: Australia’s greatest bark artists (National Museum of Australia, 2013).
A few years back, I visited the National Museum for the first time and, after wandering through the Yalangbara exhibition that was on display at the moment, rendez-voused with John Carty. John treated us to an experience that I would have otherwise have missed: the “archives” of the Museum’s collection of bark paintings and artifacts, housed in glass cabinets and kept dark and shuttered except for a few brief periods each day when the doors are opened, the lights raised, and visitors allowed to stroll through the wonder cabinet.
The experience was over all too quickly: there was much to see, precious little time, and apart from John’s own knowledge, no guide map for us. I remember only being stunned by the variety of objects, by the overwhelming beauty of many of them, and by an almost visceral sense of an encounter with lost time, with history swelling up before me.
Now a generous selection of that history has been put into a more extended (if still all too brief) exhibition that highlights the grandest painters of the twentieth century bark tradition. My friend Henry Skerritt has published an informative and useful analysis of the intent of the show–to reclaim these paintings as art–and I refer you to his essay, “New Lines of Flight,” which was published in Art Guide Australia on January 14, 2014 for his sensitive interpretations.
I will return instead to Wally’s question: How to paint the grace of God? It might seem a strange opener for a show of bark paintings, for while we may easily recognize the sacred content and context that is conveyed through ochres applied to flattened husks of stringybark trees, I doubt many of us have ever considered these paintings in the light that Wally suggests we ought.
The essays that are included in the catalog stand as signposts to an answer to Wally’s question, in that they offer hints to the meanings that are so often inaccessible without a detailed knowledge of the mythologies (if you will) that they illustrate: the stories of the Djang’kawu and the Wagilag Sisters, the creation myths at Djarrakpi where Narritjin Maymuru comprehensively documented Manggalili clan stories, the Morning Star ceremonies that arc across the northern shores of Arnhem Land, even, on a more historical level, the arrival of the Macassans in their sailing ships with their knives of steel that would transform material culture in the region.
The essays, by Howard Morphy, Luke Taylor, Alisa Duff, and Caruana himself, are of an almost cruel brevity. Each of the authors takes one section of Arnhem Land as his terrain, and couches his discussion in terms of a larger concept. Morphy discusses abstraction in the paintings of the eastern Yolngu; Taylor examines expressiveness in Western Arnhem Land; Caruana looks at “the shapes of things” in the central regions.
Though the essays are each only three pages long, they attempt to strike a balance by elucidating general principles with pointed illustrations to particular works reproduced later in the catalog. It is a mark of the deep understanding that each of these scholars brings to his writing that these abbreviated synopses can be thrilling in their insights, in the ways that they will help you to look at the paintings with fresh eyes. Discussing Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru and John Namerredjie Guymala, Caruana offers this succinct analysis of the hunting scenes they often paint:
The energy of many of their works is created through the dynamism of the mimih hunter’s body as it propels a spear, and the outline form of the kangaroo that may be fleeing or turning to face the hunter, as well as the striking patterns of colour blocks or crosshatching that glow within the body of the kangaroo. In Western Arnhem Land this emanation of the designs is called kabimbebme (literally, ‘colour coming out’) and artists strive for this effect, as well as to achieve body form appropriate to certain movements, careful linework, exciting constructs of colour, elements of symmetry, and overall dynamic balance within the picture frame (p. 22).
Or here is Morphy on the paintings of Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Mawalan Marika, and Narritjin Maymuru:
Elements of figurative representations … become components of geometric designs. The digging sticks and circles are, in a sense, both geometric and representational, but in Mithinarri’s paintings, the limbs of goannas or the feet and legs of birds will continue as extended lines to become part of a clan design or background pattern. Yolngu use figure-ground reversal to create shapes that reference sacred objects… (p. 27).
You could spend hours (and I did) examining the color plates in the catalog to see how the artists have achieved these effects; indeed, just knowing to look for them or to note their absence in a given work is quite like being handed the keys to the kingdom.
And that last simile, of the keys to the kingdom, brings me back to Caruana’s opening interrogative: how to paint the grace of God? It seems to me that in the contemplation of these magnificent paintings, beautifully reproduced in the catalog and, I am sure, stunning to see in person, that we are never far from the concept of transcendence. As with all great art, these paintings point unfailingly beyond the physical, even as their immediate presence and beauty becomes breathtakingly clear.
Any dozen of these paintings taken together could revolutionize your appreciation for the artistry of bark painting: the images are crisp, dynamic, pulsating. With over 120 works in the exhibition, the cumulative effect is staggering, the more so because so many of these works are unfamiliar. Even among the large selection of Narritjin’s works there are multiple surprises. I have looked at a lot of Narritjin’s paintings over the years, thanks in large part to Howard Morhpy’s extensive documentation and scholarship, and I like to think I am fairly adept at recognizing and reading his iconography. Nonetheless, the works in Old Masters introduced me to astonishing new variations in the familiar topography of Narritjin’s paintings of country. Where I expect spareness and symmetry, I found abundance, narrative, and in some cases, a pinwheeling energy of composition.
Perhaps the most surprising single painting in the show was Narritjin’s Coat of Arms, the like of which I had never suspected. Painted in 1963, the year of the Yirrkala Church Panels and the Bark Petitions, it is an astonishing work of individual creativity. Narritjin takes as his ostensible inspiration the kangaroo, emu, and shield design of the Australian coat of arms. He then imposes upon it the sacred geography of Djarrakpi, replacing the heraldic shield with the spear thrower as a symbol of authority, and populating the conventional map of Australian with the iconic animals of his country, the whole supported by the gunyah, or sand crab, that is one of the prime symbols of renewal and continuity in Narritjin’s body of work. It is a work of stunning sophistication and ingenuity, and in this regard is typical of the exhibition as a whole, even if its subject matter appears on the surface to tend toward the mundane rather than the spiritual. Of course, in truth, this painting is every bit as transcendent and spiritual as the most “conventional” clan designs in a bark by Yirawala, Nganjmirra, or Dawidi.
While I can say that Narritjin’s painting may be the most surprising of the lot, it is impossible to pick even a dozen of the “best” from this assemblage. In one way or another–composition, color, historical significance–every one of these works is masterful, engaging, and worthy of prolonged consideration. What is most astonishing is that they form part of a single great collection and that they appear to have been exhibited so little over time. They deserve a wide audience and represent a gold mine for further study, which I hope this exhibition can spur.
The essays at the front of the catalog, as I’ve noted, are suggestive and illuminating, if all too brief. Throughout the pages that illustrate the paintings further brief explanatory texts discuss individual artists, clans, and paintings, although again all too briefly. This material is supplemented by an appendix that features short biographies and photographs of the artists.
All this inspires in me a longing for extensive documentation about the stories behind these paintings, and the conditions of their creation and circulation. I imagine something along the lines of Helen Groger-Wurm’s magisterial Australian Aboriginal Bark Paintings and their Mythological Interpretation, published in 1973 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, which remains in my mind one of the pre-eminent sources for the interpretation of the bark tradition. (Indeed, several of the paintings included in this exhibition were collected by Groger-Wurm and annotated in her book.) These paintings were made to instruct balanda on the nature of the Law, and as stunning as they are as aesthetic objects, they should speak to us as fully as possible.
In the meantime, another striking exhibition of bark paintings is approaching its final days at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne. Transformations: early bark paintings from Arnhem Land, curated by Joanna Bosse from the collections assembled by Donald Thomson and Leonhard Adam, is more narrowly focused in its scope on paintings derived from ceremonial designs, but is no less stunning and rich in what it offers. For those who want a deeper look at the meanings encoded in the works of these old masters, this video of a discussion Bosse led with Wanyubi Marika, Howard Morphy, and Lindy Allen will amply repay your curiosity. Together these two exhibitions offer incredible insights into the artistry of Arnhem Land and an extraordinary glimpse of the grace of God.