Due to the creative genius and determination of one very special man, Albert Namatjira the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg burst unexpectedly on to the Australian and International contemporary art scene in the late 1930's. Having joined Rex Battarbee's painting expedition in 1936 as a camel driver, and learnt his method of landscape watercolour painting, Albert's skill so impressed Battarbee that he noted after only a brief period that "I felt he had done so well that he had no more to learn from me about colour," (cited in Morphy 1998: 268). Namatjira's aptitude in capturing the high colouring of the desert landscape, the gorges and valleys of the country of his birth and his Dreaming saw him engage in a painting career over the following decades in which he created unforgettable images of the Western Macdonnell Ranges and their environs including Fink River, Palm Valley, Glen Helen, Haast's Bluff, Mt Sonder, and Ormiston Gorge as well as occasional images of sites further afield including Ayers Rock. His romantic depictions of the desert have become synonymous with our vision of the Australian outback.
Namatjira's success spawned the first significant transitional art movement to emerge from Aboriginal Australia. A movement of naturalistic watercolours in the European tradition of classical landscape painting that came to be known as the Hermannsberg school. Following his own success Albert took a number of other Aranda artists including his sons Enos and Oscar, Ewald, Keith and Maurice and the three Pareroultja brothers, Otto, Reuben and Edwin, on his expeditions with him and all became painters. As they grew as artists over time others most notably Walter Ebatarinja, Basil Rantji, Richard Moketarinja, Claude Panka, and Benjamin Landara joined them.
In soft alluring watercolours each, in their own quite separate style, painted landscapes, which captured the MacDonnell, ranges, the gorges and valleys of the country of their birth and Dreaming. Their paintings depicted in a direct and charming way the early morning light touching Mount Sonder, the blue haze veiling the foothills, gleaming white ghost gums against Glen Helen's red escarpments, the blue waterholes of Ormiston reflecting the clear blue sky and much much more.
While Namatjira's national and international acclaim predated by more than 30 years, the genesis of the Western Desert Art movement at Papunya in the early 1970's, the emergence of 'traditional desert art', led to a period, that lasted for several decades, during which his work and that of other 'Hermannsburg' painters were considered a rather kitsch anomaly. It has only been during recent times with several major institutional exhibitions, most notably the touring exhibition 'Seeing the Centre' that the work of Albert Namatjira has undergone extensive re-evaluation and has re-emerged as highly collectable. This has been accompanied by a growing interest in the work of Otto Pareroultja, Benjamin Landara and several of his sons. Otto Pareroultja in particular has gained recognition and sold for very high prices in recent times. Pareroultja was twelve years younger than Namatjira, and despite Battarbee's initial preference for works by Otto's younger brother Edwin, it is the elder brother's work that has emerged at the forefront alongside that of Albert. Even in 1947, when he first began painting, there were those who inferred that Otto's works resonated with that of European modernists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin in that they were distinguished by brilliant colour, dense patterning and rhythmically pulsating landscapes. Though Pareroultja never departed from the use of watercolour over the course of his artistic career, his style and subject matter became markedly 'more Aboriginal', and, with this gradual transition, much stronger. The sense of movement inherent in his paintings is reminiscent of Dreaming narratives. Anthropologist T.G.H. Stehlow and Battarbee both pointed out the connections between the swirling parallel lines and concentric circles of Otto's paintings and the designs found on the sacred 'tjuringa' stones associated with men's ceremonial life. It is this 'traditional resonance' in his painting that distinguishes Pareroultja from other artists of the Hermannsburg school.
In addition to their direct artistic legacy, the Hermannsburg watercolour artists gave birth to a wide range of new and innovating art forms and crafts including pottery and fabric design now being practiced by the current artists living in at Hermannsburg and other surrounding communities.
Adrian Newstead January 2008
For Further Reading:
Bardon, G. 1989. Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert. Ryan, J (ed). National Gallery of Victoria.
Beier, U. August 1986. 'Papunya Tula Art: The End of Assimilation.' Aspect Vol. 34: 32-37.
French, A. 2002. Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959. National Gallery of Australia.
McKenzie A, Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, Famous Australian Art Series, Oz Publishing Co. 1988, Brisbane
Morphy, H. 1998. Aboriginal Art. Phaidon Press.
West, M.K.C., (ed.), 1988, The Inspired Dream, Life as art in Aboriginal Australia, exhib. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
S.Kleinert and M. Neale, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000.
The Australian Art Market Report, Issue 22 Summer 2006/7. Fox Harper, Sydney.
Bonyhardy T. Strokes of Brilliance. Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum. 18/3/00, p8.