Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Australian History and the art of Herbert Badham

The Australian art historian Bernard Smith attempted to trace the evolution of Australian art in part through the interaction between the European settlers and the Australian environment. To Smith, the history of Australian art lay in the development of a uniquely Australian visual world.

The later Australian art historian Robert Hughes disagreed. To the expatriate Hughes looking at Australian art from a more global perspective, our art was essentially derivative and often second class.

To me, Hughes missed the point.

Just as some of the impressionists captured a view of French life, so Australian artists captured visual images of Australia that came to help form our perspective of ourselves.

The Australian painter Herbert Badham (1899-1961) studied at the Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney, between 1925 and 1938. An early modernist, his predominantly figurative paintings depict city life and beach scenes. A passionate art educator, he published a study of Australian art in 1949.

The first painting by Badham is called the swimming enclosure. It dates from 1941. The use of colour and light links back directly to Australian art of the 1890s.

To me, the painting reminds of my visits to Manly as a child coming down from Armidale. There was the big enclosure on the harbour beach, the light, the motor boats at each end that used to take people on pleasure rides.

When I first read the original edition of Mary Grant Bruce's Dick published in 1918, I was struck by the descriptions and illustrations of Port Phillip in Victoria. The same seaside life, the same motor boats.

The second painting is a Sydney bar scene from 1940. We know it is from Sydney because of the part concealed Tooheys' sign. Again, it captures elements of Australian life from the period.


I have edited this post slightly, getting rid of the first and last sentence because I felt that they distracted from the post and were, in any case, too cryptic.

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