The wider impacts of The Hermannsburg School

From the mid 1940s, when sellout exhibitions triumphed in the capital cities, tourists sought to buy paintings on visits to Central Australia. Being an art of emotion, the romantic landscapes appealed readily to ‘middlebrow’ tastes of the attentive public, while scholarly critics were not trained to assess the conceptual spiritual nature of Aboriginal art made for sale rather than for ceremony for ‘those in the know’.

It was too soon to recognise the movement as a particular modernism of a particular place. It was quite unlike the romantic expressionist form of modernism of Melbourne and Sydney.

Scholarly culture was uneducated about contact Aboriginal art and culture and, like art historian Bernard Smith, [1] scholars skirted around issues of such aboriginality.

Interest in Central Australia flowered. Tourism boomed, creating a tourist market for visitors to Hermannsburg and Alice Springs.

The Hermannsburg School became, as Christopher Heathcote observed, an art phenomenon of sorts when the Arrernte watercolourists enjoyed what he called a brief moment of fame. [2] The phenomenon occurred in an era when the long standing mindset of white Australia and government was that Aborigines were a dying race and would be assimilated into the general population.

The art was of a particular place and in a particular modified culture and the artists’ heart and soul mindset was tied up in their country in a way in which their audience could only wonder. Thus the paintings could be read by those so inclined as the art of the assimilated, in ignorance of the artists’ perspectives as uniquely cultured people of Ntaria.

Albert Namatjira was an initiated man who had accepted Christianity. Guided by Rex Battarbee, Albert aimed to create paintings which a white artist might produce, but his familiarity with secular traditional infill decoration is occasionally apparent. Albert disguised traditional infill diamond and dot patterning as landscape with rows of dots and lines of diamonds applied to suggest trees and foothills.

A good example in a public collection is Albert Namatjira’s Mt Connor, near the Musgrave Ranges c.1953-59 (NGA 2002) [3]

The younger men were more open and relaxed about using these traditional infill patterns as art devices. While inspiring each other, they tended to develop individual stylisations in patterning of rock and landscape features. Perhaps this was through human nature, perhaps subconsciously in portraying their understanding of totemic spiritual qualities, perhaps to assert individual distinctiveness.

As the first Aboriginal art movement, their art reflected their traditional religion and culture unobtrusively and did not offend the Missionaries who would not accept hints of other beliefs existing alongside theirs. It was sufficient for the artists to let their paintings speak for themselves, without explanation of the myths involved and without use of Arrernte names of sites. As they were not asked, the artists did not think to give general explanatory descriptions.

The artists adapted from the practice of ground drawing, which occurred in ceremony involving song and rhythmic dance, and in which there is an even emphasis of all elements (dispersed focus) without limit to boundaries of designs.

Watercolour art was confined to the shape of the paper support. In coming to terms with the confined shape of the paper support, the area toward the edges was sometimes busier than in the centre of compositions, in contrast to the unlimited boundaries of ground expression. A single focal point in pictorial art is a European convention of the Italian renaissance. Hermannsburg art persisted with a more general or even focus.

Ceremonies or corroborees were events in which Aboriginal people interacted with the Dreaming, that is their eternal perspective on the continuity of life. [4] (Catherine and Ronald Berndt pp 56-57) Sacred ceremonies were for the initiated few, while other more secular events might involve families, especially as people entertained themselves every night. Sacred ceremony required excellence in design and decoration, along with body paint, rhythmic movement and song in order to achieve the objective. Repetition was central to preserving spiritual continuity.

Employment in the activity of painting scenic pictures of the sites of their countries suited the lifestyles of the artists, who could spend periods camping at locations or elsewhere by painting from memory. Memory painting was a valid element of traditional expression in ceremony, unlike the assumptions of the European landscape tradition which preferred at least the sketch or planning to be made on site.

The watercolour movement was of a body of related artists of a modified traditional culture who were able to reach out from their community and give voice pictorially to their individual and collective knowledge and sentiments.

In their traditional understanding, their totemic country was created through the activities of ancestors on their travels. In painting the appearance of country they were not challenging the traditional religion but respecting and accommodating strictures relating to concealing the meaning of the topography.

Like scientists, their knowledge was built on the knowledge of each other as each made his or her painting contribution. As humans, they sometimes idealised and fantasised about their country. Symptoms of emotional release of underlying anxieties are perhaps suggested in the tendency to idealise the anchor of their loved country. Perhaps it helped them cope with the massive cultural and social changes that they were ill-equipped to manage coming from a change-averse culture which emphasised continuity of their world through repetition.

White people were unaware of the profound importance of the ancient legends in Aboriginal life and art. However, the glorious Arrernte watercolours were easy to appreciate and the public responded intuitively.

The paintings reflect high morale as far as the artists’ relationship to their countries was concerned. The Aboriginal artists belonged to country, whereas the white audience thought of themselves in terms of their western tradition whereby the country belonged to them. The paintings were sometimes created in circumstances of stresses of mid-twentieth century cultural change in Central Australia.

While the aim of Government policy and legislation was protective and charitable, Aboriginal people were legally wards and restricted in many activities including the sale of their art. The Mission organised arrangements for sales in an attempt to help artists manage their spending and maintain stability.

In keeping with Government policy, artists were required to be authorised to sell each painting. The general community, being accustomed to changing law by democratic means, appeared to assume that Aboriginal law could accommodate consequences of the introduced technology of alcohol and motor vehicle use.

White society was oblivious that traditional sacred law, which was based on kinship and land, was unchangeable as far as Aboriginal tradition was concerned. It was not appreciated that problems relating to such introduced activities were significant because they could not be accommodated in traditional law.

For example, which kinship group should break up an alcohol induced fight? Thus, there was an ingrained resistance to change.

The Papunya movement

The success of the Hermannsburg School had far-reaching influences with Indigenous people beyond Hermannsburg. Such was the inspiration of the Hermannsburg School that some Anmatyerre men at Papunya (north west of Hermannsburg) attempted landscape painting.

From the early 1960s Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, an initiated Anmatyerre man from Napperby Station working in Papunya, created some pictorial Hermannsburg-style landscapes. He had a strong sense of his own identity. Kaapa was familiar with Albert Namatjira who was imprisoned at Papunya and he knew Keith Namatjira who lived at Papunya. In early 1971 Kaapa created some traditional paintings before starting to lead the revival of Western Desert art for sale to the public under the encouragement of schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon.

Commencing in 1971, the Papunya movement was slow to gain momentum but in the 1980s and 1990s, Papunya art enjoyed well-deserved national and international acclaim. It was promoted as authentic Aboriginal art, although it was produced for sale and thus non-traditional purposes. It filled the vacuum and appetite for contemporary non-figurative art.

In contrast to the Hermannsburg School, the Western Desert artists of Papunya were from cultures which had not experienced more gradual long-term modification as had occurred in Ntaria since missionary contact in 1877. The new Pintupi who were the latest to arrive in Papunya, had been forcibly removed from out west and their shock and trauma confronted and stressed Geoffrey Bardon greatly.

It took the skills of Geoffrey Bardon to champion, initiate and facilitate change, building from a base that had taken early steps. Bardon encouraged symbolic non-figurative style art and the acrylic paintings on canvas were accompanied with explanations of their meanings. In some paintings dotting was applied over symbols to screen them from view and the movement was described superficially as ‘dot art’ when it was actually much more.

A Policy of Multiculturalism

A long period of Liberal/Country Party Coalition government ended in December 1972 with the election of the Whitlam Australian Labor Party (ALP) Government. Gradual acceptance of the integrity of migrant cultures (some more than others) and acknowledgement of Indigenous distinctiveness relaxed imperatives to achieve security by aiming to have everyone assimilating in one direction into an anglophile Australian model.

Multiculturalism became the official policy in 1973. In 1976, land rights legislation initiated by the Whitlam Labor Government, was enacted by the new Fraser Liberal-Country Party Government after the 1975 election. Mindsets had changed.

In the general Australian community rapid national change ensued through the 1939-45 Second World War years with total mobilisation of the workforce, including women, in either the military or in wartime industry such as munitions and aircraft production.

Demobilisation had to occur somehow to provide ‘a life worth fighting for’, as Prime Minister Chifley called it. In the post-war period the greatest fear and political concern was of a return to the mass unemployment that had crippled and traumatised the pre-War decade of the Great Depression, and of unthinkable political instability.

Concern was intensified with the anxieties about repercussions of mass immigration of European refugees from war-torn Europe. Thus the ‘new Australian’ immigrants were expected to assimilate into the general community. Simultaneously there was a cultural cringe toward the high culture pockets of London and Paris.

Department of Territories

Following the election of the Menzies Liberal/Country Party Coalition Government in 1949, the Department of Territories was created in April 1951 and Paul Hasluck from Western Australia was appointed Minister for Territories. Hasluck was responsible for the Northern Territory, which was not a State in the Australian federation, as well as being responsible for Papua and New Guinea and the Australian Capital Territory. Hasluck chaired the Commonwealth State Conference on Native Welfare in 1951 and this was followed by legislative changes which were overtly assimilationist – that Aboriginal people should be able to live like white Australians do. [5] (Heatley p 139)

The shock of the war with the bombing of Darwin and Northern Australia emphasised Australians’ sense of isolation and insecurity. The north was clearly neglected and undeveloped.

Most modernist figurative landscape art in Australia reflected a sense of isolation especially in relation to the outback or central Australia, notably in the frontier-like landscapes of Drysdale, Boyd, Nolan and Tucker. For these romantic expressionists the landscape was the stage for human drama rather than the subject, as it was with the Arrernte artists.

Arthur Boyd was notable for his concern about Aborigines and his shock at his encounter in 1951 with the condition of life of fringe dwellers. He changed the stereotypical representations of the Aborigine as noble savage. In The Dreaming Bridegroom (1957-58) he suggests that longings for the unavailable white woman were present in a town like Alice. [6] Russell Drysdale portrayed the dignity of Aboriginal people in lonely country. Sidney Nolan painted the inaccessibility of the interior.

However, Australians felt modern and more in touch with the world in 1956 when the Olympic Games came to Melbourne. Black and white television came that year in time for the Olympics. The Legend coffee lounge opened in Collins Street Melbourne, complete with Leonard French murals. For the general community, modernity involved engagement beyond Australian shores out to the world.

For the Western Arrernte, modernity involved engagement beyond Alice Springs to reach distant cities of Australia. Art was the leading dynamic.

In 1965 the Coalition Government softened assimilation policy to include an element of choice, which by the early 1970s had been replaced by a concept of integration in an official recognition that Aboriginal distinctiveness was worthy of preservation for future Australian society. [7]

Counteracting these cultural insecurities was the pervading reassurance of the Hermannsburg School that the neglected ‘north’ was more than a dead heart or desert at its centre. Its landscape was intensely exciting and Australia’s  Indigenous artists were masters of persuasion through their art. Capital city and suburban banks and offices displayed Hermannsburg paintings or reproductions throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1970s Australians became more sensitive about art that could be thought of as assimilationist, but criticism and teaching of fine art history of so called ‘primitive’ art remained ill-prepared to examine Indigenous motivations or creating art which was directed to external communities. The lectures on primitive art attended by the author at that time covered the period up to the end of the nineteenth century and did not attempt to come to terms with twentieth century art made for sale.

In reflecting on Hermannsburg paintings the viewer may recognise that the descriptive compositions are nevertheless very conceptual in that they are stylised and idealised, some to the point of forced emotion. They are resonant with the sense of some seasons and times of day as anyone familiar with Central Australia would know. But the compositions are also in most cases full of subtle spiritual knowledge and significance to the artists as individual identities of this unique community. Occasionally, as with the Pareroultja brothers, the demonstration of spiritual knowledge was more overt.

The reinvigorated commercial form of Western Desert art from the 1970s was easily recognised by white people as obviously reflective of Indigenous stories and was more readily regarded as genuine Aboriginal art, notwithstanding the sometimes prolific production methods, as the Papunya artists worked to meet demand. Thus their art was obviously closer to original practice than the Arrernte of Ntaria/Hermannsburg who had long experience of pictorial art as a form of truth.

It is not surprising that the Hermannsburg watercolours by contrast were at this stage sometimes deprecated as only ‘derivative European art’ for they were not yet recognised as a special modernism. There remained a lack of appreciation of the artists’ unique traditional, albeit detribalised and Christianised, culture expressed in the consequent paintings.

In this context, it is worth reflecting on the different commercial market environments in which the Hermannsburg School and the later Western Desert schools operated.

Christopher Heathcote describes the lack of opportunities for artists to exhibit in Melbourne in the 1946 and 1953 period when they were hard-up for exhibiting venues. The practical effect of this shortage was to restrain experimentation in favour of conservatism, helping prolong the influence of the Meldrum tonalists and the George Bell early modernists. Rex Battarbee used the Athenaeum Gallery which occupied a spare room on the uppermost floor of a theatre. [8]

Hermannsburg art, being facilitated by the Mission and Rex Battarbee, was marketed using opportunities existing at that stage. This was through exhibitions organised by Rex Battarbee in capital cities and by selling directly to visitors enticed to Alice Springs and to the Mission at Ntaria/Hermannsburg. Later they sold through galleries in Alice Springs and other galleries, but not on the organised scale of the Western Desert art later in the twentieth century.

By contrast, as Papunya art gradually hit the markets and capital city art dealers were increasingly more organised than in previous decades. Some effectively contracted with Pupunya inspired indigenous communities to produce works for their galleries.

Although a small number of excellent artists continued in the Hermannsburg style, and some remains available in Alice Springs, there was no longer a ready supply of new Hermannsburg art. The capital city dealers in Papunya Western Desert art were able to find adequate financial incentive in these circumstances. Some found it helpful commercially to promote these later artists as the creators of genuine Aboriginal art, and to “put down” Hermannsburg as somehow non-genuine, assimilationist or derivative. By the late 1980s the big canvas economy in Aboriginal art had arrived.

The Western Desert artists themselves, however, frequently acknowledged the inspiration they obtained from the Hermannsburg School. Kaapa Tjampitjinpa had created a body of pictorial landscapes and led the transition between Hermannsburg School and the new Western Desert art school.

Distinctive Methods

The distinctive Hermannsburg watercolour methods relied for their brilliance and luminosity on the whiteness of the paper ground and the transparency that typifies finely ground watercolour pigments. Light is reflected from the white paper through the layers of transparent washes, which are essentially coloured stains.

The dry method of watercolour painting was practised. Paint was applied to dry or moistened paper, rather than using the wet method with soaked paper. The ‘dry’ watercolour painting methods have been in use since the early nineteenth century in England and were introduced by Rex Battarbee at Hermannsburg.

The artists first sketched minimal guiding outlines lightly in pencil as practised by Rex Battarbee and other artists such as Hans Heysen.

Until around 1960 best quality cotton rag mat paper was generally used. From the late 1950s mass produced artists’ cotton paper on cardboard became a convenient and preferred support.

It was logical to adopt the European visual medium of watercolour painting on paper, because it was available to a group whose mindset was uniquely accustomed to coloured pictures on paper as demonstrations of “truth of high order” by the Mission.

The adopted medium of watercolour on paper was unprecedented in Australian Aboriginal history, but the Arrernte as Diane Austin-Broos has explained, were ‘people of the pepe’ – the paper. They were people of the paper as in the way the bible set out the truths of Christianity. Paper was the ideal medium for the message about Arrernte identity and totemic country.

And, the white Australian audience was familiar with the medium. The distinctive Hermannsburg style was achieved as the artists comfortably adapted some of their existing practices of decoration and visual expression into the new medium.

The essential quality was that the artists were imbued with their unique experience of Christianity and also with their understanding of secret ancient myths about the meanings of their spiritual homelands, which they described visually, but without explanation.

It should not be assumed that possible messages and assumptions are either traditional religion of the tjurunga or Christianity. For instance a portrayal of ‘the proper way’ may be a parallel, perhaps an urge of human nature or culture. Parallels in ideas were important to the Arrernte as well as other cultures. Overt parallels in design were also important to the Arrernte in decoration.

Watercolour enabled description of the visual appearance without oral explanations of the mythical meanings or using obvious sacred symbols, which were only available to Aborigines who were ‘in the know’. Watercolour painting of how the country looked was in a sense a form of screening and thus did not incur sanctions or penalties from tribal elders.

It is significant that from the start of Mission preaching in 1877 there was an enduring practice of showing biblical pictures to illustrate the ‘truth’ of bible stories. Originally, the bible stories were competing stories with the myths of the Arrernte sacred traditions of the tjurunga. The famed early native evangelists such as Moses Talkabota and Albert Namatjira’s uncle Titus Renkeraka used bible pictures extensively. When Pastor Carl Strehlow died in 1922, these evangelists were of increased importance until the arrival of Pastor Albrecht to take charge in 1926 and during his settling in period.

So, for the founders bible illustrations were the Arrerntes’ first model of stand alone pictures. By the time the last of the founders started to paint they would have been more experienced with seeing the work of artists. Nevertheless, the founders and those following until the mid 1950s were more influenced by tradition and the Mission at Hermannsburg.

By the 1960s, many artists, including many founders, were living in Arrernte artist camps around Alice Springs where the town culture and its attractions of alcohol brought changed dynamics. They would have felt aspects of fringe culture in Alice Springs, but hopefully their art brought more to life than the scene that had so shocked artist Arthur Boyd into creating his bride series. In any event, the period from the 1960s into the 1970s was inspiring. Art developments from the 1970s included the participation of more women and increasing consciousness of aboriginality.

In the 1990s the women of Ntaria initiated the Hermannsburg Pots movement after they were taught to build on the skills of plasticine modelling of small wildlife shapes along with decoration in Semco styles of embroidery design. Semco-designed embroideries were produced for the Mission shop.

Exciting strands of the Hermannsburg style continued. Sadly, Douglas Abbott and Peter Tjutjutja Taylor died in recent years. Continuing artists are Kevin Namatjira, Elton Wirri, Ivy Pareroultja, Lenie Namatjira, Gloria Pannka, Hubert Pareroultja, to name a few.

One recent ‘rising star’ is Elton Wirri, born 1990, who portrays his own perspective and is perhaps a leader of a new younger generation.

Elton Wirri

Towards Hermannsburg
Elton Wirri

• • •
Watercolour on paper.
54 x 75 cm

Beverley Castleman Collection

In the above scene, the intensely described world of the high viewpoint frames a view of a complicated plain, which extends from the area below to the straight forward zig zag distant blue hills on the horizon.

In October 2017 Albert Namatjira has sprung back to national attention as a result of the resolution of a long-standing copyright dispute. This issue has acted as a brake on discussion of Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg School because of the effective inability to publish illustrations of his paintings.

In 2018 a settlement was reached with the Northern Territory Government. It is hoped that there will now be a further resurgence, to which this manuscript will contribute, of national interest and pride in what is truly Australia’s first substantive Indigenous art school.


[1] Sheridan Palmer Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith, p276  [2] Christopher Heathcote A Quiet Revolution: The rise of Australian Art 1946-68, p97  [3] Alison French Seeing the Centre: The Art of Albert Namatjira 1902-1959, p100  [4] Catherine H Berndt and Ronald M Berndt Aboriginal Australians, pp 56-57  [5] Alistair Heatley The Government of the Northern Territory, p139 [6] Paul Fox Landscape as art: Modernity and its Australian Histories, p12 [7] Alistair Heatley The Government of the Northern Territory, p146 [8] Christopher Heathcote A Quiet Revolution: The rise of Australian Art 1946-68, pp16-17 [9]