Oscar Namatjira, second son of Albert Namatjira, grew up with his family in Hermannsburg west of Alice Springs. Albert, a fully initiated member of the Arrernte people, had eloped with Rubina of the neighbouring Luritja tribe. They returned to mission life in 1923 with the first three children of what was to become a large family. The mission and the Lutheran religion remained central to their lives, though this did not overshadow the traditional beliefs and tribal responsibilities that Albert still took very seriously. Ultimately it was the anomalies between these two value systems that brought trouble to the family and Oscar’s famous father to a tragic end. His legacy lives on however, through his children and other Arrernte artists who have become known and loved worldwide as the Hermannsburg School. Though the mission is long closed (1982) and the community has reverted to its traditional name of Ntaria, Hermannsburg has been largely responsible for bringing the visual image of ‘the interior’ into the Australian psyche.
Oscar’s early years were not easy, as there was a severe drought throughout the region and several of his younger siblings died of malnutrition. The production of arts and crafts brought in extra income, however, and Albert’s skill was recognised and fostered by two visiting artists. Famously, Rex Batterbee and John A. Gardener took Albert on their watercolour painting expeditions into the McDonnell Ranges, first as camel handler, then as apprentice artist and then as an artist himself of unique talent and escalating fame. As his sons grew, Albert would take them on painting trips too and often the whole family would travel his country during the dry months, living off the land in the traditional manner and observing and painting their beloved country. They would spend days in front of a chosen subject, capturing its elusive qualities through the key elements of light and colour. This was a response to the landscape born out of a deep affinity with it, an understanding of its transformations over time and the all-encompassing patience of a spiritual belief. Oscar absorbed this sensibility, alongside the watercolour techniques that allowed for its expression.
When World War Two broke out, Oscar was called away for three years to work in the land army. He returned to become Albert’s driver and resumed once more his own commitment to painting. Oscar married and began a large family of his own, many of whom would also take up the artistic mantle. But difficulties were increasing as Albert’s fame began to burden him with a whole host of contradictory claims from both the reigning European society and from his own Aboriginal people who were suffering under many outdated, racist rules and confusing regulations. While his father travelled intermittently to the cities to attend sell out shows, meet the Queen and be painted in a prizewinning portrait for the Archibald (1956), sometimes taking a son with him, the family watched the father’s failing health and eventual, sad demise. Though the consequences of war had begun to change many things, they came slowly to far flung inland communities such as Hermannsburg. The family had retreated to a camp on the edge of Alice Springs where a steady flow of visitors arrived to buy their watercolours. It seemed an enthusiastic public could never get enough. Albert’s life had spanned a period of political change in Australia but he himself did not benefit from any of its improved outcomes.
The watercolours of Oscar Namatjira glow with an inner luminescence. Like his father before him, pictorial realism carries a sense of place that tugs at our heartstrings, just as once it resonated for them as they sat ‘plein air’, painting their ancient home; the vast rock faces, monolithic peaks, dramatic gorges and spacious vistas of tree and sky full of ancient stories. Rex Batterbee described Oscar as a shy, conservative man and a deep thinker. He leaned more toward pastel hues than his brothers and held to a clear structure in his work, with clean lines, clear colours and meticulous attention to detail. While his father paved the way for the many professional Aboriginal artists who have followed in his wake, Oscar Namatjira also upheld Arrernte tradition, remaining faithful to the deep roots of a tremendous past that had etched its place indelibly into Australian history.
Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide.; Hermannsburg Art Gallery.; Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.; The Kelton Foundation, Santa Monica, U.S.A.;
1963, The Melbourne Moomba Festival, Exhibition of Aboriginal Art, presented by the Aborigines Advancement League, in conjunction with the Myer Emporium, Melbourne, Victoria.; 1974 to 1976, Art of Aboriginal Australia, touring Canada, Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Ltd.; 1989, A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art, Westpac Gallery, Melbourne; Design Warehouse Sydney [through Lauraine Diggins Fine Art] ; 1989, Aboriginal Art: The Continuing Tradition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; 1991, The Heritage of Namatjira at Flinders, Flinders University Art Museum, Bedford Park, South Australia.; 1995, Namatjira Ilakakeye, kinship, creativity and the continuing traditions of the Hermannsburg artists, Tandanya, Adelaide.
Battarbee, R., 1951, Modern Australian Aboriginal Art, Angus and Robertson, Sydney. (C) ; Battarbee, R. and Battarbee, B., 1971, Modern Aboriginal Paintings, Rigby, Adelaide. (C) ; Berndt, R. M. and Berndt, C. H. with Stanton, J., 1982, Aboriginal Australian Art, a Visual Perspective, Methuen Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney. ; Diggins, L. (ed.), 1989, A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art, exhib. cat., Malakoff Fine Art Press, North Caulfield, Victoria. ; Hardy, J., Megaw, J.V.S. and Megaw, M.R. (eds), 1992, The Heritage of Namatjira - the Watercolourists of Central Australia, William Heinemann, Australia. (C) ; 1974, Art of Aboriginal Australia, exhib. cat., Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada Limited. (C)
The first time a work by Oscar Namatjira appeared at auction was as early as 1978, when one of his watercolours sold for $75. Since then not a single year has gone by in which not at least two works of his have sold. A mammoth 291 works had been offered by the end of 2017, of which an unbelievable 89% had sold for an avergare price of just $769.
The watercolours of Oscar Namatjira, and in fact the entirety of the Hermannsbourg school (most notably Oscar's father Albert Namatjira), have come to represent a romantic view of the Australian outback, one that has crept into the collective mind of almost every Australian. No wonder then, that with the prolific output of an artist that spent over 20 years sitting on the side of the road selling his works to passersby for 5 to 10 dollars apiece, his fathers fame attached to his name, and the relative cheapness of his paintings, Oscar Namatjira has become one of the most widely collected aboriginal artists of all time.
His highest price was achieved in 2006, when a painting of Glen Helen Gorge sold for $6,600. With only two works selling for over $5,000, his paintings remain as attainable as they are popular.
Oscar Namatjira's watercolours are among the most popular of the Hermannsbourg school. His prices are low and, although the artist passed away in 1991, there are an enormous number of them in circulation. With all this factoring in to a collector's decision making, owning an Oscar Namatjira is essential in any comprehensive Australian art collection.