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.
The comparison between the paintings of Albert Namatjira and Otto Pareroultja in recent art criticism has raised Pareroultja’s profile as a key figure in ‘transitional’ Aboriginal art (that is art presenting both Indigenous Australian and European influences). The surge of interest since the late 1980s is imbued with certain politics. Both Pareroultja and Namatjira have been the subject of a ‘re-Aboriginalisation’. In 1986 Daniel Thomas, director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, initiated a project to posit Namatjira as an intermediary on the road to the emergence of the Papunya movement rather than the producer of anomalous kitsch, as he had been treated during the previous decade. Interest in this new perception of Namatjira also reflected on Pareroultja, who, in comparison would, more overtly, incorporate Aboriginal elements in his watercolours. The study rekindled an appreciation of the artistic merit in Namatjira’s work and this was reflected in rising market values for his, and concurrently, although not as dramatically, the works of Pareroultja.
The average sale price of Otto's work has steadily increased at auction since the mid 1970s and his success rate at auction is now a very respectable 74%. This should considered high for an artist that has had over 517 works offered for sale over a very long period. Prices in the early eighties were generally under $100 but increased gradually to around $300 by the late 80s, and $750 in the late nineties. By 2002 the artist’s career average price was $1,500 and reached $2,800 in 2005 even when omitting the spectacular result achieved for a work in July 2003, which would have skewed the average significantly.
In that year Sotheby’s sold Central Australian Landscape c. 1956 for $24,000, against an estimate of $7,000-10,000 at its July Sydney auction. Prior to this no work by Pareroultja had commanded more than $10,000 in the secondary market. However three years later, Central Australian Landscape 1950’s attracted $84,000, well above market estimates of $30,000-50,000 at Sotheby’s July sale in Melbourne (Lot 29). ‘A very similar looking painting’, was the wry remark in The Australian Art Market Report (2006/7:19). The two works are indeed similar. Like so many paintings in Pareroultja’s oeuvre, both of these works depict the white ghost gum. In fact, in the entire body of Pareroultja’s work, very few paintings vary from this theme; a uniformity that might appear obsessive, even farcical, to a non-Indigenous eye, until we realise that what is being painted are not actually trees, but rather spirits; or, should I say, the representational motif of a spirit. It is only in this light that the repetition begins to make more sense. Tim Strehlow observed that the ‘tiger like rings’ looping the trunks of the ghost gums were referential to the practice of painting black and white rings on the trunks of totem poles, an Aranda ritual.
Although his top two prices have been for works painted in the 1950s, across his entire oeuvre there is little difference in price according to when the painting was created. Many works are undated and his style varied according to whim, as brightly coloured expressionistic works were painted in the same years as more subdued realistic versions. In general, the market has favoured the former with the subtler pale and the less complex imagery fetching lower prices.
In 2007 no less than four of his top ten records were displaced by new results. These included the $48,000 paid for a 1960s Aranda landscape sold by Sotheby’s in July (Lot 68), which carried a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000. An estimate of this magnitude would have been unthinkable just two years earlier, such has been the growth of interest in the artist’s work. Another Central Australian Landscape sold at Joel Fine Art in June for $18,750 (Lot 61) and a lovely rendition of Haast’s Bluff snuck into the artist’s top results at number 11 when sold for $6000 against an estimate of just $1,500-1,800. The overall result of this highly successful year for the artist was that his average price rose from $1,836 to $2,187 per work, surely remarkable for an artist who has had so many works presented over more than three decades. In 2008 however his works were far less successful. Only nine of 17 works offered found a new home and his highest price was a poor $5,400. This lowered his career clearance rate from 81% to 79%. The upward trajectory seen previous to 2008 was regained in 2009 with all but one of the 16 works on offer finding a buyer, whilst setting new third, fifth, ninth and tenth records. The third and fifth record sales eclipsed expectations by a significant amount as exemplified by an image simply entitled Ghost Gums, which fetched $32,400 against a presale estimate of just $15,000-20,000. This gain was consolidated in 2010, amidst intense interest in the Hermannsburg water-colourists. Otto was the 12th most successful artist in 2011, hot on the heals of Albert Namatjira. This saw him become the 28th most successful artist of the movement, a status he continued to hold at the end of 2019.
The one notable sale of 2017 was an uncharacteristic watercolour on wood panel, which more than tripled its high presale estimate of 3,000, ultimately selling for $9,660. But sales have flatlined since that time. 2019, for instance, was a disapointingyear. While 21 works sold of 26 offered the highest price achieved was just $3,480 incl BP at Eder Fine Art in Adelaide and his average price was just $1,122.
Otto Pareroultja’s works have a strong appeal and his finest works should continue their steady growth in value over the next decade. We are, however, unlikely to see any but the very best achieve the dizzying heights of his two highest results. While his works are expected to steadily grow in value, recent sales are of concern. With records for sales going back to the mid 1970s it is remarkable that his success at auction has been as high as it is. Still, Otto Pareroultja was a most important Australian landscape painter who imbued his works with inherent spiritual presence. Amongst the artist's of the Hermannsburg school, his oeuvre is likely to remain second only to that of Albert Namatjira for a very long time into the future.