During the Second World War years, United States military servicemen were stationed in Alice Springs in addition to Australian servicemen. By November 1942, forty young men from the Mission were employed in army labour work around Alice Springs. Pastors Albrecht and Gross took turns to drive into town each fortnight to pick up the men at the military camp and take them to the church for a service and a meal, returning them to the camp afterwards. [21]

Some decorated quickly-produced wooden souvenirs in their spare time on their own initiative, thus developing their potential for future opportunities in art. Also, Albert sold up to around fifty paintings to military servicemen during the War, an achievement that was noticed by the residents of Alice Springs and helped establish him as an Arrernte role model.

It was significant that the souvenir artisans started to learn to reach out beyond their world of Hermannsburg via Alice Springs and to further afield.

American military enjoyed visits to the Mission on their way to Palm Valley for day trips when off duty. They bought souvenir mulga wood artefacts [22] and their patronage encouraged production.

Having been regarded with suspicion during the First World War, the German missionaries incurred increased suspicion in the Second World War, despite being opposed to fascism and to Hitler. Rex Battarbee as a former World War One army officer, was appointed Residential Inspector Native Affairs Branch and reported regularly to the Native Affairs Branch on Mission activities. The Mission was content with the arrangement, while the Mission thus became more involved in change. Rex Battarbee was able to guide and encourage creative activity at this turning point in time.

The Hermannsburg School was founded when eleven closely related relatives of Albert started to paint seriously between 1943 and 1947. They built on their experience of decorating artefacts during the War.

Like Albert, they were all baptised Christians. Albert underwent the first stage of tribal initiation as an adolescent, but did not complete the stages of initiation which occur through life. Because the Missionaries insisted Christians cease their traditional religion, Arrernte ceremonies continued away from the Mission but in modified form. Thus all the founding artists may well have been partly initiated as Albert was.

Their cultural mindset was nevertheless rooted in their inherited relationship to their sacred country home although they were inherently rejecting aspects of traditional Arrernte religion, as observed by Philip Jones. [23] Arrernte law still ordered the social life style and rituals of many people as it jostled with Hermannsburg law. [24]

Hermannsburg School Founders

Apart from Albert Namatjira, the twelve founders, listed in the order they began painting, were:

Colour Choice

Albert Namatjira’s guiding artist and mentor Rex Battarbee expressed the atmospheric clarity of the generally dry country in clear colours, letting the white of the paper glow through the paint.

It will be noticed that lemon yellow, the most luminous colour in the spectrum was often applied as a wash by the Hermannsburg artists (to act as a ground), over which foliage and vegetation were described. In some paintings lemon was mainly used (delicately or stridently) to backlight foliage.

Other clear colours – blues, reds and crimson – were applied and ‘greys’ or shadows were achieved from mixes of near colours which are vibrant together such as bright red and ultramarine blue. The white areas of ghost gum trunks or river beds were sometimes left unpainted, leaving the texture of the paper in a similar role to that of smooth sand in a traditional ground painting.

The unique luminous quality of the landscape is in varying degrees a common characteristic of Hermannsburg watercolour art and is one of the factors that assist the recognition of a painting as being of the Hermannsburg School.

In contrast European watercolourists often applied a grey wash before applying other colours over the first wash, thus enabling them to portray the misty qualities of their damper climate. Luminosity was important to the artists and Rex Battarbee helped the artists to achieve this.

Distinctly Arrernte factors include the animate quality of many landscape elements such as hills and trees, along with their traditional love of the parallels in composition design, decoration and infill patterns with dots and diamonds.

In Hermannsburg art, dots normally have a subsidiary but important role as infill, including decorative infill, whereas in Papunya art, dots may have a wider range of roles, from subsidiary infill, to outlining shapes, to obscuring of sacred hieroglyphs, and to an orchestration of patterning as the main element in a composition.

Rhythm and patterning were important in traditional everyday life. Common implements such as boomerangs and coolamons (to carry food or babies) were often decorated with simple elegant patterns. Carefully incised parallel lines following the shape of the boomerang or other implements were aimed at improving function. Red ochre mixed with fat might be rubbed in to preserve the wood.

Where colour was used in traditional ceremony it was used to the fullest intensity possible – red and yellow ochres, black and white, which were the available colours. Contrasting textures were elaborate, but ephemeral, as the designs were left to disintegrate with the elements after completion of ceremony.

Visual creations, like the song and dance, were collaborative and occurred together as part of each ceremony. Ceremonial men played their active roles in the orchestrations.

Albert Namatjira, a thirty-two year old Western Arrernte man living at Hermannsburg, was inspired to turn to watercolour painting when he and his tribal relatives were entranced to see a display of paintings by visiting landscape artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner at the Lutheran Finke River Mission at Ntaria/Hermannsburg in 1934.

An ambitious and capable man, Albert had already established himself since 1932 decorating and selling souvenir artefacts with lifelike animals and plants. On viewing the display Albert was impressed to learn that the paintings would sell for high prices. He told Pastor Albrecht that he would be able to paint.

Missionary in charge, Pastor Albrecht arranged for Rex Battarbee to guide Albert, with the Mission providing painting materials. This was a significant expression of confidence in Albert, given the impoverished circumstances of the Mission in the dire economic depression of the 1930s. Most of the cattle herd had perished in the drought of the late 1920s.

On Battarbee’s return to the Mission in 1936 Albert acted eagerly as his cameleer and guide to painting sites in return for guidance in painting.

From 1940 Pastor Albrecht and Rex Battarbee had been encouraging a number of young men to paint. After starting to paint in 1936, Albert was developing his own increasingly subtle and complex style when Edwin Pareroultja started to paint in watercolour on paper in 1943, likewise turning to his own distinctive vision.

It is not at all surprising that successive Hermannsburg artists developed their own styles in watercolour painting because Albert’s style was not part of an Arrernte tradition.


[21] Barbara Henson, A Straight-out Man: F W Albrecht and Central Australian Aborigines p150  [22] Henson, p174.  [23] Jane Hardy, JVS Megaw and M Ruth Megaw eds. The Heritage of Namatjira: The Watercolourists of Central Australia, p99.  [24] Diane Austin-Broos, Arrernte Present, Arrernte Past: Invasion, Violence, and Imagination in Indigenous Central Australia, p86.