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Commentary on Arthur Streeton's Fire's On! Lapstone Tunnel (1891) 

In which are suggested the aesthetic import of plein air, the nature of progress both modernist and postmodernist, why mining Australians have a bond of belonging with the land, and, inadequately, what is to be done. 

What's going on down there? 
 

 

So much for the basics, les grandes lignes, all well known. Rockface dominating the entire left half; trees at the top; high skyline; human figures as dots at middle-and-leg; a hole with two lines going into it. But what are those figures doing down there, near the hole? Australian Studies, painting perhaps? Yet theirs are parallel lines, going from a hidden place, disappearing to a hidden place. A railway, we are told. A line of progress, surely not of Australian Studies or painting. If only we knew which way was which. Only major lines, a general network, could say. 

Are they late for the train? 

Here is a network. Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas, who met Roberts and Russell in Spain in 1884, launching Catalan Modernisme with their 1890 and 1891 exhibitions at Barcelona. Max Liebermann doing similar things in Berlin with the Gruppe XI in 1892. And others, as far as Japan, where the Shiro-uma group had its "secessionist" exhibition in 1895. The corresponding event in Australia was of course the "9x5" of 1889. All damned fools spotting texts with dabs of pure French. All doing it at more or less the same time, all in slightly different ways, as parts of a general outward movement from Paris, spread across lands caught up in development ideology. Little belatedness here; remarkably little anxiety about influence. Such problems are more properly the stuff of later Australianists, like Richard White, relating the "9x5" to the 1878 clash between Whistler and Ruskin because he - White - has few other fields of comparison. For those actually in the network, half an eye was certainly on the centre. But the remaining one-and-a-half were for the regional object to be painted. Such was the first import of plein air. It made painters look.

Without plein air, the studio frames the painter's work. Consciousness (the subject, humanly carpentering space) frames being (the object, nature, landscape, uncut yet waiting to be changed). The studio could be a place for Kantean rationality, reading all the travelogues without leaving town, understanding within a room, from books and letters. The studio's subjective dominance might also be the Romantic scaling of mountains, to look down and across the land controlled. In its properly post-Romantic use, however, plein air surrounds consciousness with a being yet to be controlled. The painter is somewhere within the object to be painted, which extends beyond and around. "The objective dialectic," says Lukács, wholly within this aesthetic of development, "is always richer and wider than the subjective." The studio relationship is reversed. A nature to be understood becomes a nature to be transformed, through work.

At this point progress is neatly defined as increase in the possibility that consciousness dominates being. The possibility, not the fact. No more than a call to work. Putting a railway through a mountain is an act of such progress. Painting it in plein air participates in the same progress. The painter is certainly above the scene, to control it. But he is also there, surrounded by the same being against which the workers struggle. He cannot look out very far. This is an element of post-Romantic collusion, against wholly sanitized history. 

They might be painting, down there in the cave. Yet the frame we have here places the eye outside, with the workers. The painter works with the workers. On an opposite rockface, but still with the workers. 

The land is a woman, of course. The men down there are men. The painter, on the unseen rockface, our point of vision, is also a man. Many clever things could be said, the tunnel and all. You string together a few citations and prove the land is female, the discourse is male, working within power. You forget the ones that say otherwise. By unfalsifiable binarism you are at your destination before you start out. Little is discovered or transformed by such readings of gender. They bring extension, not progress. The beauty of the land, although woman, femme fatale and fatal cutting, should take us elsewhere. 

There is also death in this maiden. Not instead of, but also. Let us risk a long annotated citation from Streeton the painter ("Smike"), letter to Roberts ("Bulldog") dated Glenbrook December 17th 1891, found in Bernard Smith's Documents:

"This morning, hot, windy, and warm [the setting surrounds], as I travel down the line, and the mirage sizzling and jiggering over the railway track [the line enables an object to be seen, opposed, objectified]. I arrive at my cutting [possessed because object], 'the fatal cutting,' and inwardly rejoice at the prosperous warmth [whence the profits] all glowing before me as I descend and re-ascend the opposite side [the painter's controlling perspective must be worked for] up to my shady, shelving sandstone rock, perched up high [certainly much better than toiling down there]. I wipe the wholesome moisture from my pale brow [a city painter, malgré tout], and having partaken of a pull at my billy (like a somewhat lengthy and affectionate kiss [the land is not the only woman]), I look up and down at [a woman?] my subject [object possessed]; is it worth painting? Why, of course, damn it all! that is providing I'm capable of translating my impression to the canvas [the Impressionist aesthetic recited, and yet the value of the object has been placed in the object itself, prior to the value of the painter; the important relation is between the men and the land, opposite, and the rest is literature]. All is serene as I work and peg away [driving spikes into a line?], retiring under the rock a bit when they light any shots, then, 'Up with that b____ wagon, Bill.' 11.30: The fish train struggles over the hill and round to Glenbrook. 12 o'clock: The next shift comes toddling [micro men against macro nature] down the hot track with their billies, and I commence to discuss my lunch and tea (of which I consume over a quart every lunch [December, it's hot]), and now I hear 'Fire, fire's on,' from the gang close by; rest my billy on the rock, take out my pipe [countless references to smoking in these letters], and listen for the shots, with my eye watching the bright red-gum yonder [flora as distraction from the true event]. BOOM! and then rumbling of rock, the navvy under the rock with me, and watching says, 'Man killed.' [explanation, not exclamation; the urban painter is not expected to act]. He runs down the sheltered side, and cries, 'Man killed!' [others should act]. Another takes it up, and now it has run through the camp. More shots and crashing rock, and we peep over; he [the unknown soldier] lies all hidden [already buried?] bar his legs - and now men, nippers and 2 women [so few they can be counted] hurry down, a woman with a bottle and rags [their role in the bush, a supplement when things go wrong]. All the shots are gone but one and all wait and dare not go near [are we also waiting?]. Then someone says the last hole was not lit, and they raise the rock and lift him on to the stretcher, fold his arms over his chest, and slowly six of them carry him past me [the painter has presumably descended; the moment of control is over]. Oh, how full of dread is the grey, mysterious expression of death - 'tis like a whirlpool for the eyes. [painfully Victorian literariness, but then:] Blown to death twenty yards from me [presumably from where the painter now stands, with the workers and women] and, as a navvy said, it was an [not a] ''orrible sight.' By Jove! a passing corpse does chain your eyes [the object acts, not the Impressionist subject], and indeed all your senses, just as strongly ['strength' is the main positive value in these letters] as love [strong love, of tea, of the land, of work, of participation]."

Smith adds (p. 262): "Streeton painted a crow in his watercolour painting 'Fire's On,' but did not include a crow in the large oil painting of the same subject. Perhaps the tragic death of the settler described in the letter to Roberts provided him with a more realistic 'symbol' of melancholy." 

Melancholy? Symbols? Who needs Poe and Paris when the object itself, as index (smoke, fire, death), produces its own interpretant? The painter can only hope for adequacy to the objective dialectic. 

One would presume the men down there are carrying out a body on a stretcher, while others look on. 

However, looking at the tracks, you can't tell which way the train has gone. This, said the man brought up on the Nullabor, is a false Murphy's Law. If you're at the back of the train, looking straight out to the point de fuite, it's very easy to tell. Yet the painting is not entirely on any train of linear progress. And the vanishing point, of escape, is hidden, somewhere within the cutting, in the folds of the earth. The men are perhaps coming out along the tracks. But if not autochthonous, and none that we know of are, this means they have also gone in. 

To leave what? 

I can't make out the details. They belong to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I'm told, along with the watercolour. Belonging is being able to check the details, to gaze more intimately at the folds. At this distance and unseen, near Sitges, our vision is only through a scanner darkly: 
 
 

In this image of forgotten forebears, an old family photo, two figures carry something along lines. No doubt the dead man of the painter's story. If they are going in, the hole might be a tomb as well as womb. And if coming out, they might be leaving the site of entombment. 

Yet something else has surely been left in. A tomb not for bodies - the letter says the body is retrieved, for the women to wash, for burial elsewhere in the same land -, but certainly an entombment for expended capital, dead labour, left in the land channeled and transformed. The fatal cutting is inseminated with death. Such is progress. 

What are they doing down there, at that moment in history? 

Let us say, generally, that to open the land is to mine. Agriculture, housing, transport and communication all cut land in their ways. They are all forms of more general mining. Yet mining is more so, at this particular point in history. The society of some 400,000 in 1850 became 4,000,000 by about 1900. Mining made that society, and that society made Australian nationalist culture. If an image of mining, the painting sees truly the essence of its time and place. 

But if not a body, what did they leave down there? 

A personal story: Returning to Westonia, Western Australia, some ten years after I helped drill and sample the old gold mine there, I searched in vain for trace of my labour. The mine was gone. Or rather, it had been buried under a mountain of its own earth, filled to what the expert says is a height 50% higher than whatever open cut had been made. I spontaneously thought the land was pregnant, inseminated by the work of myself and others. But now, through Streeton's painting, I remember that huge mound as a tomb. 

One belongs to the land where one's forebears are buried. A European idea, perhaps, and alien to an aboriginal culture for which, it seems, the land cannot be broken (for agriculture, housing, transport and communication). Yet not a bad idea. If non-miners can say the land is in them and we will never take it away, mining Australians can glibly reply that we are in the land. Not a bad idea, since we must recognize that not all the bodies are ours, that others have worked, that possession is fundamentally shared. But mere work, with its aesthetics and ethics, cannot tell us what is to be done now, beyond the age of Streeton's painting. Labour is not enough. 

Two attitudes are possible with respect to those workers down there. Radically, we could say they were wrong. Perhaps the hill should have stayed a hill. Perhaps there is no beauty in the rich colours of exposed rock, the drama of male work against it. We could simply say they screwed it (up). Turning our back on it, we would have to look for something else to do, somewhere else to go. Paraguay? Spain? Or do you think your analyses are not located anywhere?

Less radically, we could accept that we are part of them, and they of us. With five generations buried in that land, I myself cannot turn my back, I cannot help but find pathos in buried mines and great beauty in exposed rock. It is my upbringing. Looking out at the hills around Perth and Adelaide, I never saw the cuttings as scars marring nature. There was beauty even there, in the colours of open earth. We could then perhaps claim a kind of possession, having worked to reveal the colours. But with such possession would come responsibility, and with that, the possibility of love and guilt. Only in terms of this second chain can I contemplate what is to be done. 

One lesson learnt in the 1890s is so simple that it constantly risks being forgotten. They - the painters, but also the writers, notably Lawson - went out and looked. The first thing to be done is to get out and look. The foreign citations, like plein air, can help ask questions of what you see, they can help keep you looking. But the important point is to get out and see where and when you are acting. Strange things happen when this is forgotten. Within the cave down there, generations of studio Australianists could be fretting over problems of identity, a magic word that, with repetition, could even create the thing it represents. You could stay there and create a place for your own burial, if it makes you feel happier. But there is also the outside. 

A second lesson is harder to explain. As I look, I am now unconvinced that the objective dialectic is automatically the richer and wider. I see consciousness intervening within a frame so wide that it can kill the wealth of being. It can take ozone away, raise temperatures, kill water, cover land with salt, and the rest that is much repeated yet, unlike identity, remains more than mere talk. The move from studio to plein air must be taken one step further. In an age where the object as nature can say no to our participation, the task of consciousness is not merely to understand and control being. It is to accept responsibility (possession, love, guilt) for our actions. Of no consequence who owns what if there is little left to own, if there is no life left to consume the fruits of work. This wider frame, where consciousness is restored to a position of dominance, now without innocence, where modernist development should find its post-modernist curtailing, is more importantly the level at which this end of the century needs its own ideas. 

What is to be done? Go out and look. Accept responsibility. Spend little time on identity and lineal ownership. Remember without sanitizing. 

Why should one believe the last shot was not lit? As if we had endless time to sit down and repeat. Perhaps it was lit, and fire's still on. 

 

Lukács, György. 1963. Die Eigenart des Ästhetischen. Trans. Manuel Sacristán Estética 1. La peculiaridad de lo estético. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1981. Vol. 1. 64. 

Streeton, Arthur. 1891. Letter to Tom Roberts. Bernard Smith (ed.) Documents on Art and Taste in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1975. 258-59. 

White, Richard. 1981. Inventing Australia: The Australian Experience. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin. 91. 

 
Last update 1 June 1998 

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