(c) Legend Press Sydney
56. ALBERT NAMATJIRA
Since he came to national and international attention in the 1940s, Albert Namatjira’s paintings have become synonymous with the landscape of central Australia. During his lifetime the watercolour paintings he produced were highly popular, widely exhibited and reproduced, and are credited with inspiring a generation of Aboriginal artists. His work became a path for European appreciation of Indigenous Australia, and in due course became recognised as being, for many Australians an integral part of their understanding of outback Australia.
As tastes changed in the late 1960s, this popularity seemed to work against him so that it could be said that few Australian artists have enjoyed the success and few suffered the vagaries of art historical taste and fashion to such a degree. The emergence of Papunya Tula and Aboriginal contemporary art in the 1970s has caused a reappraisal of his work with the result that nowadays Namatjira is generating new interest from scholars as well as art collectors. Seeing the Centre, The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, an exhibition and book produced by Alison French for the National Gallery of Australia in 2002, was an important milestone in this process of re-assessment.
In her book, French relates how a close examination of Namatjira’s trees by curator and writer Daniel Thomas1 precipitated a most productive inquiry into the artist and his work. Thomas wondered, for example, if it was possible to see the tree portraits as being more or less symbolic, as encoding sacred knowledge as well as offering a remarkable insight into the artist and the circumstances in which he created his art.
Twin Ghosts is an exceptionally large and beautifully preserved example of the artist’s work, depicting one of his favourite subjects, the landscape of the MacDonnell Ranges, located roughly 100 kilometres west of Alice Springs and approximately 70 kilometres north-west of Hermannsburg. The distant hills and tree to the left share the focus of the composition equally. The empathic colours and forms Namatjira uses enliven the subject. A timeless mountain is contrasted with the exaggeratedly animated and sinuous tree. In formal terms, the painting typifies the remarkable ability Namatjira possessed of using western techniques, developed over hundreds of years, to create highly distinctive works that continue to delight and engage viewers on a number of levels long after they were created.
1. Related in French, A., Seeing the Centre – The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902 -1959, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002, p.118