Battarbee and Namatjira

Most of us know the bones of the story of Albert Namatjira. It is one of those iconic tales, which, in the manner of Chinese Whispers, has been distorted and simplified down the years.

Previous to the TV and digital age no Indigenous person has been quite so famous; and no Australian artist had been so well-known, with his imagery so widely reproduced. Especially in the post-war years, Namatjira’s outback arcadias cut a window into thousands of suburban lounge room walls. There was a period when Namatjira’s popularity served him ill amongst some in the arts community, when modernists were looking to America. The trope of those most reproduced landscapes, with a tree on the left or right with blue ranges beyond, was felt to be kitsch. The full variety and originality of Albert’s compositions was perhaps not well-served by the subject bias of the ubiquitous mass-produced reproductions.

Rex Battarbee’s story is much less well-known, and often squeezed into the box of ‘Albert Namatjira’s teacher’, unfairly: for he was a very good painter, the facilitator of an art movement, and so much more than that.Despite Namatjira’s sad final few years and his frustrations with government authorities, I think that the narrative of Martin Edmond’s book, Battarbee and Namatjira, is not a tragic one. It is instead a tale of serendipity – the story how two men met, became friends, shared knowledge, and achieved something very special. It is a story that touches on many themes: first contact, the conflicts of religion and tradition, art, friendship, and the overcoming of hardship.

There is humour here too, as on the occasion, when a white man criticised Albert’s drawing of a kangaroo. His riposte: “I’ve eaten more kangaroos than you’ve seen.”

The course of Rex Battarbee’s life was dramatically altered by World War I. Horrific battle injuries ended his dreams of becoming a prosperous Warrnambool pig farmer. He spent three years in hospital, coming out with a useless left arm and bad lungs. He took up landscape painting, and because his damaged skin was so sensitive to turps and fumes, his medium had to be watercolour.

On the other hand Albert Namatjira probably would have led an enterprising life, had he not met Rex, perhaps not in art; as a truck driver or jack of all trades. Edmond quotes a visitor to Hermannsburg Chapel who wrote that Namatjira possessed “the finest untrained bass voice” that he had ever heard.

Battarbee and Namatjira assiduously plots the twists of fate and circumstance that led to the two men meeting. The narrative takes place mainly at Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but Edmond begins with the Arrernte creation story, and the history of the Lutherans in Germany and how they came to Australia and then ventured far into the outback.

In 1936 Rex gave Albert his first painting lessons, and soon realised that his student and companion was a prodigy. Albert in return guided Rex through his country, and told him the stories about it.

It’s fortunate that Albert was taught by a watercolourist rather than an oil painter. This medium, quick-drying and portable, was practical for the travelling outdoor life. As well, its luminosity so suited the colours of the sky and land they were looking at.

In that era, it took time and effort to travel to the centre of Australia, either up from Adelaide or down from Darwin; and it seems that Hermannsburg Mission in the 1930s and 40s was a magnet to a cast of interesting visitors. This was an era of great fluidity in profession – someone working on the telegraph line could be an ethnographer, an evangelist could be a linguist. Bob Croll, RM Williams, Frank Clune, Ted Strehlow, Charles Mountford, Olive Pink and the poet Roland Robinson, to mention a few, enter Edmond’s story in fascinating cameo roles. The adventurous Teague sisters visited Hermannsburg and organised an exhibition in Melbourne to fund a water pipeline. Violet Teague, a well-known portraitist, hired a taxi all the way from Adelaide to Hermannsburg.

Pastor Albrecht, who ran the Mission for decades, comes across as a solid and highly-principled character, who, as well as saving lives, perhaps unwittingly preserved a lot of Arrernte culture that might have been lost had the pastoralist and government authorities been allowed free rein.

There are some narrow-minded and spiteful characters in this tale too – a contrast to the humility and kindness of Rex Battarbee – some curators and critics like John Reed, who wrote angry letters about the mistake of the government funding a film about Namatjira. Reed wrote: “The painting he is doing is entirely false to his own culture and is merely a clever aping of a completely different one.” Government officials prevented Albert from leasing a viable cattle run, and from travelling to Perth. Edmond outlines Rex Battarbee’s crucial role during World War II in protecting Albrecht from those who would have this ‘German’ mission shut down, and its occupants dispersed.

Another strange story is that of Albert’s copyright, assigned to his dealer John Brackenreg and Legend Press in the 1950s and then renewed in 1984, and then further extended by the US Free Trade Agreement. Refused permission to access images from the two best collections of Namatjiras, the publishers have illustrated the book with black and white photos, poignant images: Albert in an Alice Springs pub, all the white drinkers turned away from him; Rex looking dapper with his leather watercolour satchel over his shoulder, hiding his withered hand beneath his hat.

The paintings are instead described in words, and indeed I think the book is richer for that. Having written two previous books about painters (New Zealand artists Colin McCahon and Philip Clairmont), Edmond knows how to get inside a painter’s mind.

The final chapters of this book are undoubtedly sad. Albert moves away from the puritanical influence of Pastor Albrecht, copes with the death of two of his daughters in childbirth, with the crazy demands his fame has brought, tries to share his good fortune with his large family, and suffers ill health. Martin quotes an exhausted Albert saying to a journalist: “I wish people would leave me alone for a while and let me work as I want to work – like any other painter – when I see something lovely enough to make me want to paint my best.”

But despite this ending, the historic encounter between Battarbee and Namatjira remains, and it is a truly noble one. The great paintings too remain, and the tradition of Hermannsburg Art carries on today in both watercolour and painted ceramics.

Martin Edmond’s approach to the writing of art, history and biography is personal and insightful. He writes at a sauntering pace, never rushing to conclusions, eschewing hyperbole. This is an engrossing book, both eloquent and truthful.

In a final chapter Edmond quotes Lloyd Rees discussing Albert Namatjira’s sense of space: “‘His eyes can look so far away and seem to know what’s there.”

Author: Martin Edmond
Publisher: Giramondo
RRP: $34.95


One Trackback

  1. By Isinglass on February 25, 2015 at 11:20 am

    […] Review of Battarbee & Namatjira by Tom Carment […]

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