Otto Pareroultja was the oldest of three brothers that Rex Battarbee referred to as the ‘breakaway group’. They were amongst the new generation to follow Albert Namatjira as the watercolour landscape artists at the Lutheran mission of Hermannsburg. 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 been consistently compared with that of Namatjira. 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 his landscapes were distinguished by brilliant colour, dense patterning and ‘rhythmic pulsation’.
While Albert Namatjira’s life has often been characterised by art historians as being ‘lived in two worlds’ - torn between the need for acceptance by his own Aranda people with the pressure of kinship obligations; and compelled by the imperative to act as if he were a white European citizen, Pareroultja’s life was not so marked by conflict. His art, however, does dwell in that space between Indigenous Australian, and European styles. 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. Landscape painting as taught at the Lutheran mission, and practiced by the majority of community painters, was rather a matter of ‘freeze-frame’; the landscape rendered static against the page. By comparison Pareroultja’s desert landscapes exhibit a distinct dynamic originality.
The best of his works were painted late in a career which spanned twenty years. His paintings predominantly depict sacred sites - although at the time of Pareroultja’s painting they may not have been recognised as such outside of their community context. Dark areas are set against regions of prolific colour. The effect is that of concentrated working in defined regions of the canvas such as the ridges of a mountain, or the trunk of a tree. Pareroultja was not overly concerned with correct perspective in his landscape. Shade and scale resulted in paintings that can appear all detail and no depth, almost as if they were intended as the backdrop to a play. His forte was not artistic realism. While we have no indication that he aimed for this, the merit of a painting by Otto Pareroultja lies in the visual articulation of certain Indigenous elements, rendered through European technique.
While Otto painted from 1947 onwards his work was largely overshadowed by that of Albert Namatjira until the early 1980’s when several of his works were included in important exhibitions. This led to his inclusion in the Great Australian Art Exhibition 1788-1988 at the Art Gallery of South Australia and marked the point at which a reassessment of his artistic legacy began.
Over the years there has been some debate as to whether Pareroultja’s depiction of sacred ancestral knowledge was deliberate or unconscious. A more pertinent question might be whether the artist aimed to be political. The answer is probably no. Rex Battarbee, encouraged Pareroultja, like Namatjira and others, to paint things ‘as he saw them’, advice that seems to have been, in Pareroultja’s case, the catalyst for a break with tradition. The native Indigenous forms in the landscape seem simply an intrinsic part of the artist’s vision of his environment. As is often the case, painting truthfully generally makes for good art.