Albert Namatjira paintings donated to National Gallery of Australia
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Albert Namatjira paintings donated to National Gallery of Australia

At the same time as Margaret Preston was advocating the use of Aboriginal patterns in "civilised" applied arts, an Aboriginal artist appeared "who could paint like a white fella" and for a time he became the most famous living artist in Australia.

Elea Namatjira, a Western Arrernte man, was born in 1902 at Ntaria (Hermannsburg) on the Finke River Mission Station and received the name Albert when he was baptised three years later. Namatjira may have experimented with watercolours in about 1935, but it was only in 1936, when he spent two months painting with the commercial artist Rex Battarbee on a field trip in central Australia, that he fully mastered the art of watercolour painting.

Albert Namatjira.

Albert Namatjira.Credit:Northern Territory Library

The field trip was to an area that Namatjira knew well, Palm Valley being his mother's ancestral region, while his father's country stretched towards Mount Sonder and Glen Helen, so in a sense he was painting his own country.

In 1938, Namatjira had his first solo exhibition. It was held in Melbourne at the Fine Art Society Gallery where the 41 paintings sold out in three days. Sell-out exhibitions followed in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth and continued throughout much of his exhibiting career.

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As a full-blood Aboriginal person, Namatjira was regarded as a ward of the state and only in 1957 were he and his wife Rubina granted Australian citizenship that permitted them to own property, build a house and to buy and consume alcohol. He was convicted in 1958 of drinking alcohol with his extended family, which by law was not entitled to consume alcohol and, despite a national protest in 1959, he was sent to jail. Generally poor health and this humiliation saw him die on August 18, 1959.

Namatjira between 1936 and 1959 may have painted up to 2000 watercolours, but they occupy a somewhat uncertain place in Australian art. The central question that Namatjira's art touched on is that of authenticity. Was this the work of an Aboriginal artist who had mastered Western European techniques and was basically creating tourist art of a high order, or was this "authentic" Aboriginal art?

Professor Joseph Burke, Australia's first professional art historian appointed to the first Chair of Art History in the country, the Herald Chair at the University of Melbourne, put the matter into an art historical context: "The curious spectacle of Margaret Preston painting like the Aborigines and Albert Namatjira like his white teacher points to an important lesson".

"Miss Preston's art vigorously belongs to the 20th century whereas Namatjira's, whatever its merits, has broken tragically with the traditions of his race," he said.

Of course, the "authenticity" in question was a European construct that had been imposed on Aboriginal art in the first place and had been created within the context of primitivism. Civilised artists could employ "primitive art" as a modernist strategy through which to invigorate the European tradition of art, but Namatjira as a full-blood initiated Aboriginal who was using non-traditional materials and painting in a non-traditional style did not fit into this invented paradigm.

More recently, Namatjira's watercolours have been seen as encoding sacred knowledge and the strength of his art lay precisely in his ability to subvert the imported conventions. Alison French, the leading scholar on Namatjira's art, presents the most balanced assessment to date when she argues, "Albert Namatjira both mastered and invented conventions that present an innovative alternative to the pastoral vision."

The exhibition at the National Gallery is a selection of 40 paintings drawn from those gifted to the gallery by Gordon and Marilyn Darling between 2008 and 2016.

Thanks to this act of amazing generosity, the gallery now has arguably the best Namatjira collection in the world, plus a recent bequest from the late Gordon Darling to fund further acquisitions and research.

Albert Namatjira, Mount Sonder, West MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia c. 1945, painting in watercolour over faint underdrawing in black pencil

Albert Namatjira, Mount Sonder, West MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia c. 1945, painting in watercolour over faint underdrawing in black pencilCredit:National Gallery of Australia

Painting Country is in many ways a survey of Namatjira's art and is spectacular in its scope and diversity. While European artists of the centre were drawn to it for the stunning effects and the sense of the exotic, Namatjira painted it as a local; it was the land that owned him and it was his own backyard. In the images of the ghost gums, not only are all of the peculiarities of these "self-pruning" trees observed, but the trees possess a spirit and a living presence. They appear as specific individual trees.

The watercolours of the mountain ranges, chasms and gorges do have a topographic exactitude and radiate with heat and colour, but also have strange quirky trees and vegetation that seem to leap across the gaps. In Standley Chasm (c.1945), for example, a series of bent gum trees compositionally link the huge rock-faces with faint but distinct white lines. The landscapes are animated and inhabited in a spiritual sense.

Painting Country is a serious exhibition of the work of an outstanding artist and it has been made possible through the love of two beautiful individuals – Gordon and Marilyn Darling.

Albert Namatjira: Painting Country, National Gallery of Australia, is open now.