Literature and Art

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.

Arthur Stratton’s ‘Fire’s On’ Lapstone Tunnel (1891)


“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.

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Insights on Australian Literature

The landscape of Australian literature nurtures a close relation between literature and art. Narratives become deeply rooted within the culture and context of our Australian history, but also connects us to memory. As an artist I believe that visual messages are part of our repertoire of memories, authors visualise these memories using language techniques as paint. The ethos of our national literature, and in particular our indigenous literature, is often compelled to paint a visual image of land, and the relationship of the narrative within the context of the environment. An environment we encounter in memory, connecting with our understanding of this earth and history. Which leads to an interesting question; Can an author create a successful Australian story without a link to the environment?

“And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.”
Banjo Patterson, ‘Clancy of the overflow’ (1889

Arthur Boyd | Twilight.
Arthur Boyd | Twilight, Pulpit Rock, c.1982.

Reading that particular stanza of Clancy of the overflow, I feel as if I’m being placed in one of Arthur Boyd’s paintings of the Shoalhaven. Having visited his Bundanon studio along the banks of the Shoalhaven River, I remember it as an incredibly tranquil and calm moment, immersed in an awe inspiring and rugged terrain. A beauty and lightness evoked by language texture in Banjo’s perceptions of an Australian landscape.