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.

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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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Something Astonishing: Rae Desmond Jones reviews ‘Dark Night Walking with McCahon’, by Martin Edmond

Dark Night Walking with McCahon, by Martin Edmond Auckland University Press, 2011.

dark-night-walking-with-mccahonMartin Edmond is a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. Over a number of years he has written a number of impressive short volumes of prose in which he has demonstrated an ability to draw out and evoke the mood of places which would not have seemed at first glance to justify great interest. In Dark Night Walking with McCahon, a variation on the true life novel, he has found a subject worthy of his considerable gifts.

In 1984 the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon disappeared from an event in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and was found by police the following day in Centennial Park. He no longer knew his name and carried no identification. From a story which,  on the surface, might have justified a magazine article describing McCahon’s artistic achievements with a lament for an inevitable sad decline, Edmond recreates a possible route for McCahon’s journey using the Stations of the Cross, with powerful symbolic links to the poetry of St. John of the Cross.

XXIX

If, then, on the common land
I am no longer seen or found,
You will say that I am lost;
That, being enamored,
I lost myself; and yet was found.

………………….– St John of The Cross, from The Spiritual Canticle

Without preaching or claiming to be a believer, the ‘Stations’ he describes pulse with observations of human frailty, as when his journey arrives at Station V ( where ‘THE CROSS IS LAID UPON SIMON OF CYRENE at the Matthew Talbot Hostel):

Somone has written, in different coloured textas, words on the bricks along that side of the laneway …. The right panel is made up of the names of pop divas and celebrity women actors: Angelina, Cate, Grace … this angelic chronicle gradually gives way to a centre piece that is made up almost entirely of obscenities written over and over: fuck suck fuck suck fuck suck suck suck … is an example.

In this unpromising environment, he thinks:

I hope McCahon fell into company at the Matthew Talbot: I want him to have had a mate … I want him to have walked in step with another into the night that awaited him … I don’t want him to have been, as he almost certainly was, alone.

At Station Vl, (VERONICA WIPES HIS FACE WITH THE HANDKERCHIEF) Edmond considers tranny lane and Carmen, the drag queen:

“… a big woman, with a grandeur and a presence … Maternal sounds like an odd word to use of a drag queen but that fits her too.”

Edmond also writes a passage in which he demonstrates his grasp of arcane information which he pours into the narrative:

Veronica’s handkerchief belongs to an obscure and contested class of objects known as achieropoietoe, that is, made without hands – images of miraculous origin like the Shroud of Turin.

Edmond demonstrates a facility with Art Criticism and History as he concentrates and contextualises his perceptions, drawing the reader into observing through a mundane context something astonishing. It is a poet’s gift in a true life novel to observe his narrator following Arthur Stace, the petty crim who once wandered the streets of Sydney writing Eternity in a perfect copperplate hand. When I worked at the International Telephone Exchange the early 1970s, Eternity, as written by Stace survived on the bell in the bell tower. I hope it still does.

Finally the author spends a night alone in Centennial Park. Of the experience, he writes

like McCahon … I had surrendered my identity; I had, like him become just another entity among entities: as the trees pulled up moisture from the earth and exhaled it through their leaves into the air, so too did I inhale and exhale, so too did I inhale and exhale … 

He considers in this context McCahon’s art:

This … dissolution into an entity among other entities, followed by return as an altered self into the world, was what he had tried, not simply to communicate but to induce or even compel in his audience.

Edmond is stating an almost seamless congruence between the life and the work: a controversial claim justified by a compelling narrative, the tension of which is largely derived by the correlation of McCahon’s experience (and perhaps the author’s) with an explicitly didactic narrative of the crucifixion of Christ.

Edmond observes that most commentators see McCahon as “one who would have liked to believe but could not. He was not even a Christian existentialist ‘since that implies a kind of faith which, however arrived at, is nevertheless genuine.” Without any inside knowledge, I suspect the author’s views of being broadly in sympathy with his main character. Whatever the truth of this, his use of religious imagery in a tale of an artist who said of himself “I’m nothing” has effectively given a pathetic narrative of desolation depth, social significance and power which otherwise it would not have had.

– Rae Desmond Jones

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Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest books are Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011 and Decline and Fall Flying Island Books 2011. His Selected Poems is forthcoming from Grand Parade Poets. He is also the editor of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist (Rochford Street Press) 2012.

Dark Night Walking with McCahon is available from http://www.press.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/home/notices/template/notice_item.jsp?cid=414290