It is my belief that literature and art are often deeply entwined within one another. With this view in mind, this week we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Through our tour of the gallery, we discussed how art and literature commonly reflect key issues of the period.
One painting that stood out to me was Arthur Stratton’s “Fire’s On’ Lapstone Tunnel (1891). This artwork was created during a period of transformation. At the desperate end of a prosperous gold rush, colonial society had found an appreciation for the individual character of the Australian landscape. Australia was forging a national identity. Through the work of artists such as Arthur Stratton, and poets such as Henry Lawson, we can clearly see that art and literature had begun to echo these issues.
Impressionism was an unfamiliar style at this time and Stratton’s manipulation of the method reflects the changing identity of early Australia. This painting stood out to me because I believe the informally structured forms, rapid brushstrokes and broad areas of colour and tone had created an emotively realistic and honest depiction of the Australian landscape.
There is an artful complexity behind this artwork. Almost literally split into two, it exposes a contrast between human destruction and raw nature. Depicting dramatic events of a death in the tunnel it speaks of the poignancy of human impact; as man destroys the earth, the earth could destroy man. The Art Gallery NSW describes on the artworks profile ‘The human drama of the painting, however, is overshadowed by the heroism of the landscape itself’ The image of the tunnel and the impact of labourers on the landscape reveals a primal power environment- from womb to tomb. This is the character of Australias’ Bushland and its way of life.
“The Blue Mountains” by Henry Lawson (1888) was written during the same era where this burgeoning love of country was beginning to be explored through visual expression. “The Blue Mountains” constructs powerfully vivid storytelling through a personification of the land “And round about their rugged feet Deep ferny dells are hidden.” Lawson uses beautiful language with highly descriptive imagery to evoke the wonder of the landscape, recognising its connectedness to the Australian identity. The poem ends on a sombre, moody and almost cautionary observation “The rising moon’s great placid face Looks gravely o’er the ledges” demonstrating a sense of respect for the power of the land.
At the dawn of Australian nationalism Arthur Stratton and Henry Lawson mirror the changing issues of the era through art and literature. Demonstrating an emotive connection to the Australian landscape and a response to the formation of a national identity.
Stratton, Arthur, “Fire’s On’ Lapstone Tunnel, (1891)