Oscar Namatjira developed his own stylised approach, influenced mainly by his father Albert, in the 1950s. His natural interest in rhythm merged into a series of rhythmically spaced blob trees in the late 1960s. In the mid to late 1970s he created a painting which reflected an affinity to the dotting aspect of Papunya art, while retaining a pictorial style. Oscar adapted dotting in a new way for his personal interpretation of how the country looked. He thus linked in to the emerging Western Desert style. He was a founder of the Hermannsburg School.
Although Oscar was seen painting with his father as early as 1939, it seemed that it was in the late 1940s, after the success of Edwin and Otto, that he started painting seriously. His earliest painting in the author’s collection, Central MacDonnells, from the late 1940s showed a close understanding of Edwin and Otto’s work at that time. This very rhythmic painting is his most spirited painting in the author’s collection. Oscar was the second son of Albert Namatjira and started to paint seriously in 1946.
There was a ‘quiet period’ for a few years from 1963, when few (if any) paintings were created by the artist. Paintings from 1967-68 onwards have spaced trees on bland plains as he regenerated his approach. Heavitree Gap is his major late work and builds on the influence of Papunya as he developed his own elaborate and objective system. There is no record of later paintings than Heavitree Gap of 1975-70.
Oscar apparently had a special interest in Heavitree Gap (Ntaripe) Dreaming site near Alice Springs (Mparntwe) (where he is said to have lived much of the time), which was most described in detail in Heavitree Gap. This gap appears to be the subject of most of his paintings in the author’s collection. The viewpoint for his paintings of the Gap was from the hill above the Honeymoon gap to Stuart Highway Road, near Alice Springs. Like most of the artists, he portrayed the Gap as imagined before the presence of structures built by white people.
The view in Oscar’s earliest painting in the author’s collection, which was called Central MacDonnells, showed an interest in the patterned rhythmic foothills. Although strongly influenced by his father, he was also inspired by the independence of Edwin and Otto to develop his own rhythmic dotting infill in empathy with the Papunya dot-art movement.
Oscar was deeply grounded in the pictorial interpretation of country, but increasingly his traditional decorative and rhythmic infill – and the occasional tree-trunk cicatrice – led him to express his aboriginality in comfort with the general increase in pride in being Indigenous. Although he was conservative and restrained in his emotional expression of country, his understanding and ability to express the country was profound.
Oscar was born out bush and died in Alice Springs, having lived there for much of his life. Oscar was Western Arrernte, Subsection (Skin) Peltharre. He married an Arrernte woman, Desma, daughter of Tom Raggett and Sarah. As at 1957 they had seven children including future artists Reggie, Lenie, Albert junior and Gwenda. Sadly, his wife, Desma, died after the birth of their eighth child in 1970.
Rex Battarbee’s diaries mention Oscar as doing well at athletics. For example on 18.10.41 he was fifth in steeplechase and on 26.12.42 at the Mission’s sport’s afternoon the major winners were Richard, Edwin and Oscar. During the War when many men were involved in the Military labour gang, Battarbee noted in his diary, 17.2.44, that Oscar ‘has been allowed to work for his father’. Oscar painted for around forty years.
Oscar’s early paintings reflected his father’s style. Palm Valley James Range, 1946 (Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory; NAM 1217) is an example. It is slightly tentative.