A Powerful Evocation of an Artistic Friendship: James Keating Reviews ‘Battarbee and Namatjira’ by Martin Edmond

Battarbee and Namatjira by Martin Edmond Giramondo Publishing, 2014

Battarbee & NamatjiraIn 1951, Miles Franklin recounted to American friends the ‘great fun’ which had erupted over Australian Aboriginal art.

An old friend…was telling us recently that the administrators, in the interests of the art, have difficulty keeping track of who does the paintings. Namitajira [sic] will sign any of his tribes’ work with the greatest goodwill and also honesty for they are natural practicing communists. When a member of the tribe gets money or food all the others whack-in of natural right like the children of one parent. The administration supplied them with only a limited number of drawing boards each one numbered to try and keep order but that did not worry them, they beat out the white bark of trees and used that. It appears they have tremendous facility.

Albert Namatjira, the subject of her condescending assessment, was forty-nine and the most celebrated indigenous man in Australia. He had exhibited paintings at solo shows across the country and starred in a nationally distributed documentary film. Though his work often displeased critics, unfairly rankled by his perceived ‘imitation’ of European water-colourists or the success of an Arrernte man working in a medium ‘entirely false to his own culture’, he commanded as much as 100 guineas per canvas. His luminous watercolours inspired a cottage industry of Arrernte artists, collectively known as the Hermannsburg School, after the remote central Australian mission he transformed into a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, as Franklin alluded in her letter, from his birth in 1902 Namatjira lived and worked under the care and surveillance of ‘the administrators’: Hermannsburg’s Lutheran missionaries.

Martin Edmond’s Battarbee and Namatjira is a dual biography, documenting Namatjira’s life alongside that of his lesser known teacher, art-dealer, and friend Rex Battarbee. Drawing on Battarbee’s voluminous diaries and an extensive archive of personal papers collated by the poet Nigel Roberts, Edmond traces the evolution of the men’s relationship from their first meetings in the 1930s through to Battarbee’s wartime role as a Protector of Aborigines, and his uneasy control of Namatjira’s artistic output through the Aranda Arts Council. The author of two previous books about painters, including Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011)—a splendidly contemplative recreation of the New Zealand artist’s brief disappearance in Sydney—Edmond is well equipped to deal with this rich and troubling subject matter.

Born in Warrnambool in 1893, and invalided out from Second Bullecourt in 1917, Battarbee trained as a commercial artist during a decade-long convalescence from his wartime injuries. In 1928 he purchased a Model T and, emulating the commercial and artistic practice of the Taos School, embarked on a fifteen-month long outback painting tour. On his ‘third attempt to find the way to paradise’ in 1932, Battarbee spent six weeks in Hermannsburg, the place he would ultimately spend much of his life. Returning with his ‘house on wheels’ a year later, he exhibited his work to thronged crowds in the mission schoolroom. Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, the mission superintendent, recalled the exhibition as revelation for Namatjira, who abandoned pokerwork for the more lucrative practice of landscape painting. Edmond, however, unravels Albrecht’s Damascene interpretation. Namatjira, a craftsman of decorated boomerang and woomera, had been exposed to European artists and their ‘side-on’ perspective for years before Battarbee’s exhibition, and had already asked the Victorian to help him acquire paint and brushes.

Edmonds’ book is packed with these reflections. Throughout, he weaves the voices of his protagonists, carefully tracing the their personal and artistic relationship. Given the nature of his surviving sources, it is the lesser-known Battarbee who speaks loudest, his honest compassion and affection for Namatjira radiating from the page. Particularly interesting are his diarised recollections of his friend’s artistic development. On a 1936 trip, he expressed his admiration for a sketch Namatjira made of Palm Valley: ‘He has got a good colour sense and puts it on even stronger than I do and good light in his pictures too. I feel now he will make a name for himself…I know that I could not do anything like as good at so early a stage of water colour painting. It even makes me sit up and take note of whether he sees better than I do.’ Namatjira left few letters behind, but Edmond does his best to present a complicated character: proud, generous, introspective, and funny. Though he jokingly recounted a 1954 trip to Sydney by noting ‘everybody talked too much’, he also used the opportunity to protest to a journalist that ‘these Native Affairs people want to keep me down all the time. For a long time I was like a blind man…but now I can see and I see they want to keep me down.’

In producing Battarbee and Namatjira, Edmonds and his publisher, Giramondo, confronted the tragedy of Namatjira’s final years. Though the book is filled with vivid black and white photographs, the usual insert of colour plates is absent. Instead, readers are directed to an accompanying website to view paintings discussed in the text. Ordinarily, this might be considered an impediment to an artists’ biography, but allows room for Edmonds’ thoughtful descriptions of both men’s ‘rich and strange’ attempts to manifest ‘a world not seen before’. Yet, the omission was not an authorial decision, but a latter-day consequence of the legal, financial, and emotional turmoil that accompanied Namatjira’s commercial success. Though he enjoyed several thousand pounds in annual sales after World War II, the demands on his purse from friends and relations, and the depredations of the taxation office increased exponentially. Worn-down by ill health, the deaths of relatives, and his officially-thwarted attempts to build a house in Alice Springs and become a ‘useful’ grazier, by the mid-1950s Namatjira produced little new work. Instead, he derived an income from the sale of reproductions. By 1957, galvanised by the forgery scandals Franklin breezily reported to her friends, and the increasing value of Namatjira reproductions, Legend Press had acquired the entirety of his copyright. Since then, they have fiercely guarded the privilege of reproducing his art—a misfortune Edmond has described elsewhere as ‘the ultimate act of dispossession.’

The story of Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee is not one of ‘great fun’, nor is it an unalloyed tragedy. Rather, Edmond’s book is a powerful evocation of an artistic friendship that crossed cultural boundaries at a moment of flux in white Australia’s Aboriginal policy. Though the absence of footnotes or an index will trouble some readers, as will the awkward interaction between the text and Giramondo’s online photo archive, in the context of a captivating story of dual lives these concerns are minor. A compelling melange of history, biography, and criticism, Battarbee and Namatjira shines as brightly as both men’s watercolours and deserves a wide readership.


James Keating is a doctoral research candidate at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. He obtained a Master’s degree in History (Victoria University of Wellington, 2011) and worked as a historian for the Office of Treaty Settlements in New Zealand. His current research considers the individual connections and organisational networks that linked Australasian women’s rights activists with their counterparts across the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Battarbee and Namatjira is avaliable from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/non-fiction/battarbee-and-namatjira/


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