"It's like fighting God": Depicting bushfire in contemporary Australian art
It may seem like a lifetime ago that devastating fires ignited our native landscape. It was the height of summer earlier this year. We had been forewarned, as we are every year. But nothing can really prepare us for the danger, inexactitude and devastation of bushfire. Indeed, we have come to forgive large-scale, ravaging fire as part of our environment’s natural state. Resistance it seems has tired us.
This past summer’s bushfires destroyed 12.6 million hectares. 434 million tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted. 11.3 million Australians were affected by smoke. 33 people died. But next to this loss of human life, perhaps the most emotionally impactful statistic is that over 1 billion animals were killed. (Joel Werner, ABC Science, 5 March 2020)
In the midst of the inferno, one exhausted firefighter described it as "like fighting God", only to be corrected by another, "Thats not a big enough word for it".
Inevitably in our efforts to come to terms with our mortality in the face of such overwhelming natural forces, we lend these events an often-heroic narrative, of triumph of the human spirit. To differentiate them, we ascribe names. Black Thursday (1851). Red Tuesday (1898). Black Friday (1939). Ash Wednesday (1983). Black Saturday (2009).
Yet the pictorial representation of bushfire in contemporary Australian art - if one is forgiven for ascribing the art market a single mind - is it seems dismissed, consigned to the art of past centuries. Gallery directors appear often at pains to dissuade their artists from venturing into this non-profitable, flame red infused genre.
Even where fire is the lesser aspect of an artist’s composition, it is most often criticised for its overpowering influence on the work’s composition.
Fire - and its aftermath - as a subject of landscape painting has come to be viewed by many as cliché or old fashioned.
Bushfires ravaged large swaths of Victoria and New South Wales in January 2020
As a significant Australian artist recently asked me, “Why do you think as a subject or even character of the Australian landscape that its depiction in the character of (Australian) landscape painting has taken on such a minor role? It baffles me a bit, it (fires like last year) to me are intrinsic to the experience of our country."
The contradiction here is indeed a stark one.
No doubt, we can all recall an iconic landscape painting that has fire in some form at its centre. By its nature, the advancing colours of fire, flaming reds, luminous yellows, fluorescent whites juxtaposed against a darkened background throw a revealing light across the picture plain. It is a visual trick used for centuries to breathe atmosphere and life into a painting - and to hold and focus our attention.
Fire too is an important and legitimate subject where one views landscape painting as an historical representation or cultural narrative, for example to promote a national identity. So why is the use of fire pilloried, while the use of other elements - and their associated metaphors – are embraced?
A strong influence on my art education was William Strutt’s, ‘Black Thursday, February 6th 1851', providing "a first-hand visual record of the hazards and hardship of colonial life, and demonstrating the meticulous approach of this academically trained artist". (State Library of Victoria)
William Strutt, ‘Black Thursday, February 6th 1851' Photo: State Library of Victoria
Likewise another iconic painting, John Longstaff’s ‘Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898’, on permanent display, not far down the road from the State Library at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Longstaff visited Gippsland, located in the eastern reaches of the Australian southern state of Victoria, in February 1898 to view the fires at first hand and collect material for this major picture.
Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898' was exhibited in a dramatic installation in his Melbourne studio in August 1898. A row of kerosene-lamp ‘footlights’ provided the illumination, and the effect was said to be ‘lurid and startlingly realistic’. (NGV)
There can be no mistaking the important historical context of this painting, but by any measure it also stands tall as a highly proficient work. But is this monumental painting a captive of its initial purpose, irrevocably tied to a fixed period in time? Is the central didactic use of fire too narrow for the painting to assume any broader meaning, transporting it to the present?
John Longstaff, 'Gippsland, Sunday night, February 20th, 1898' Photo: NGV
A survey of Australian art in this context would be incomplete without a consideration of the paintings of artist Tim Storrier. Storrier’s celebrated use of fire has always manifested against the backdrop of a desolate landscape with expansive sky rendered meticulously with his signature ‘antirealist’ sensibilities.
The resulting ‘memory-scapes’ are not about recording the landscape in terms of its topography, but rather conjure the essence of human experience using the landscape as a backdrop to reflect a state of mind. (Alison Burns, Reflected Fireline 2014)
Tim Storrier, 'Evening, 1995-1996' Photo: Menzies Art Brands
While justly acclaimed today is Storrier’s thematic approach and use of fire as a metaphor any different to or more desirable than paintings by Strutt or Longstaff?
Australian artist John Wolseley’s life’s work traversing watercolour, drawing, printmaking and installation muses on how the earth is a dynamic system of which we are all a part and portrays the Australian landscape and its ecosystems by combining collage elements and markings made ‘in collaboration’ with the natural environment.
Wolseley’s works celebrate the beauty of the Australian wilderness and encourage an understanding of the significance of environmental fragility. (Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery)
John Wolseley, 'Cycles of fire and water - Lake Tyrrell, Victoria' (Detail) (2011-2012)
Here the destructive, regenerative nature of fire on an ancient landscape lies central to the artist’s body of work. Wolseley’s work is enthusiastically embraced today as much as it was in his early career; such is the longevity of his oeuvre in all its layered complexity.
The paintings of Fred Williams, Lin Onus and Peter Booth too largely concern the Australian landscape and the relationship between the environment and the individual, as well as the individual’s capacity to create and destroy – infused with emotion and meaning, and additionally in Booth’s case, apocalyptic imagery.
Booth’s painting has been described as challenging and disturbing, augmented by the artist’s choice of colour and heavily applied paint. The heavy impasto paint texture describes, with vigour and intensity, flames, explosions, and unidentified nightmarish images. In Painting 1979 contradictory forces pull us into the central inferno below the glacial mountain peaks, and showers of rock explode towards us.
Peter Booth, 'Painting 1979' Photo: Artnet
Peter Booth, 'Landscape with Fire and Comet'
In the powerfully psychological work, 'Landscape with Fire and Comet' Booth portrays an apocalyptic landscape in which human civilisation has become a smoking ruin, presenting a strongly moral message where the actions of humankind lead to its own demise.
There are numerous contemporary Australian artists producing accomplished art works that have fire as central to their composition but seem to miss the mark with a modern-day audience. To some bushfire scenes are at once hauntingly familiar, perhaps for some even emotionally upsetting as true to recent tragic life experience. Others may see the form as derivative, as unoriginal. Whatever the reason, this aversion is far-reaching.
To succeed in a contemporary painting a bushfire reference it seems must be more than singular in purpose or simply complementary to the Australian landscape. Whatever it purpose, such painting must still be symbolically relevant to the time in which it is made – to the present-day experience of our human condition. Yes, bushfires as a factual or historical subject may still and forever hold a place in Australian art, but to avoid derisive clichés and to remain vital, fire in many of its alternative forms is best used today as more an artistic metaphor, adding a layer of complexity and dare I say sophistication in order to engage a perhaps bushfire-weary audience.
Fred Williams, 'Fire burning on the ridge' Photo: Sothebys
Main Photo: John Wolseley in his studio (2012) Photo: ABC
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia