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The Identity Makers in Australian Art

Art Lovers | 19 January 2018

The Identity Makers in Australian Art

By Mandy McGuire

If someone were to ask you which art image is definitive of Australian identity today, you would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer; it really depends on your point of view. If you identify with beach culture, then Max Dupain might be your first response.

Newport Bathers, 1952, by Max Dupain is one of many images by the artist that introduced beach culture as part of our Australian Identity.

“The romantic notion of Australians as carefree, bronzed beachgoers, frolicking happily by the water, clearly captured imaginations far and wide.”(KerriO’Brien, 2017, Sydney Morning Herald)

However, the international success of Australian indigenous artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rover Thomashave compelled us to think more broadly about who we are as Australians. Their legacy is the continued success of a swag of contemporary aboriginal artists such as Julie Dowling, Tracey Moffat and Judy Watson, who confront colonial attitudes head on and offer alternative Australian histories to the art market.

Big Yam, 1996 by Emily Kame Kngwarreye describes the cracked earth on the surface of the ground where wild yams are growing, while also symbolising ancestral connections.

Tracey Moffat, who shrugs off the label ‘indigenous artist’, nevertheless, creates theatrical stories that reflect a commitment to aboriginal culture and the complexity of the Australian identity. Moffat, a photographer and filmmaker, is one of Australia’s most successful living artists, and in 2017, was the first solo indigenous artist to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

The Movie Star: David Gulpillil on Bondi Beach, 1985, an early photographic work by Tracey Moffat, uses satire to challenge prevailing attitudes about Australian Identity.

The Asia pacific has also encroached on Australian identity. Chinese Australian artist Guan Wei’s symbolic paintings convey both a personal and universal experience of alienation and isolation in his descriptions of Australian histories.

Regardless of where you are standing, in terms of viewpoint, the landscape, and how we see ourselves within the landscape, remain a dominant force in the Australian visual arts story.

Our colonial art history is probably responsible.

The Trial, 1946, by Sydney Nolan, encapsulates Australian’s egalitarianism, and our so-called healthy disrespect for authority.

Driving west, you can be forgiven for immediately thinking of the paintings of Arthur Streeton, or Sydney Nolan, especially if you are a baby-boomer or older.

Streeton, arguably today’s most collectable Australian artist, managed to make the break from the European sensibility and capture the harsh beauty and startling light that has evolved as an inexorable characteristic of our Australian Identity.

Fire’s On, by Arthur Streeton echoed the nationalistic attitudes of the early 1900s.

Streeton was terribly successful during his lifetime and hobnobbed with the Who’s Who of Sydney and Melbourne society. His work, considered particularly successful in capturing the quintessential Australian landscape, echoed the nationalistic attitude that The Bush was a thing to be dominated.

Margaret Preston, at one time a student of Streeton’s, was a radical early Modernist, who produced over 400 individual prints, most of which feature Australian flora. Her work was a refreshing departure from landscape that reinvented the still life as an Australian subject.

Banksia, 1925, by Margaret Preston, celebrated Australian flora.

Other Moderns, like Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, introduced a whole lot of fierce symbolism. Both Nolan and Boyd were narrative painters who moved away from naturalism with the introduction of bold colours and the shedding of realism.

Nolan, particularly, contributed to our Australian identity with his Ned Kelly series, undoubtedly a celebration of our convict past. Boyd’s expressionistic Bride series was provocative, particularly in terms of Australian identity. Brian Kennedy (director of The National Gallery, 1997-2004) commented in 2002:

‘The Bride paintings…speak(s) to contemporary Australia, beseeching reconciliation, understanding and a tolerant, compassionate meeting of old and new cultures.’

The Bride Running Away, 1957, by Arthur Boyd, sold for 1.4 million at Sotheby’s auction in 2012.

Sculptor, Peter Corlett, who in 2010 received the Order of Australia for his services to Australian visual arts, created the famous sculpture, Cobbers. This bronze sculpture, among others,pays homage to heroic mateship, an idea central to Australian Identity.

Cobbers, 1998, by Peter Corlett 1.4 million people visited Australia’s War Memorial in Canberra in 2015.

The visual arts is a powerful vehicle that creates and reflects the Australian Identity. A complex picture of our identity continues to develop and mature, just as we as a nation matures.


Mandy McGuire, visual artist, freelance writer, and curator, has been an art educator for 25 years. She was Director of Mangkaja Arts in the Kimberley from 2006 until 2008, during which time she contributed essays to a number of publications pertaining to Australian Aboriginal art.

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Artwork Image Courtesy of Luke Mallie

Image courtesy of Matthew Broughton

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