Emerita Professor Catherine Speck reviews Ian McLean’s Double Nation: A History of Australian Art, (London: Reaktion Books, 2023), 303pp.


Ian McLean’s new history of Australian art, Double Nation, a companion volume to his 2016 book Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art, is a refreshing and engaging read. He hasn’t attempted to do what Andrew Sayers ambitiously did in his 2001 publication Australian Art, which weaved into one an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal narrative, despite the difficulties acknowledged in approach and conception. Sayers perceptively observed that there is ‘a duality in the art of Australia’, and ‘at least two stories of Australian Art’ (pp. 1-2). McLean, as if on cue, is writing the second of those two stories in Double Nation, in which he sets out to establish how British art became Australian and the role of Aboriginal nations in the process. This argument unfolds in three pivotal epochs: Empire 1770-1916; Art Wars 1916-1945; and Nation, Post-1945. His end point to the national narrative is 1970. This is not a random date, but one which many Australian art galleries select in shifting their account from a national one to one focused on contemporary art where national issues slip away. Like Jurgen Habermas, Mclean opts for the term ‘post-national’ to cover this era. And in an Epilogue that is little short of enticing the reader for more, he engages in a brisk post-1990 tour in which the indigenisation of Australian art is in full swing.

The Empire chapters span the period from settlement through to the evolution of a British-Australian art, then national art. In examining how penal colonies transitioned to settler colonies, McLean borrows from James Belich’s notion of ‘settlerism’ as an ideological means and economic engine by which the Australian colonies claimed land that, with farming, generated wealth and the raw materials for Britain’s factories. This entailed removing and eliminating Indigenous inhabitants who had cleared large areas of bushland through fire management, with McLean pointing out how ‘settlerism concealed the genocide and theft upon which it was founded’ (p. 28). The chapter entitled ‘Genocide’ is one of the strongest in the book. Its focus is the penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania after 1856) and the Black War of the later 1820s that legitimised killing Palawa people on settled land. Emigrant artist John Glover’s paintings are synonymous with colonial Tasmania. McLean’s analysis of Glover’s Aboriginal and settler landscapes locates them perceptively within his larger thesis of Australian art constructed around race. The historiography of Australian art has been very kind to Glover, with Bernard Smith and John McPhee seeing him as a precursor to Australian impressionism. McLean’s judgement of Glover is sharper, positioning him as a painter of ‘settlerism’s grand theft’, and in showing ‘what was gained and what was lost, he is the first Australian artist to clearly pose an unresolved question concerning sovereignty that was framed by the relationship between the land and its people’ (p. 51).

There are astute observations in the Empire chapters. One is that it was German-born Hans Heysen, more frequently located in the hugely undervalued Federation era, who was the first Australian artist to ‘hit upon the gnarled old gum as a national symbol’, and by doing so, helped break the spell of Britain over Australia. Another is that the idea of Australian art didn’t come from the Australian impressionists, cheekily dubbed ‘a retrofit of recent decades’, but came courtesy of the First World War by the male war artists whose renditions of war-torn landscapes, such as Arthur Streeton’s Mont St Quentin, should be seen as massacre sites. While the general direction of the argument is true, feminist historians and art historians such as this reviewer have pointed to the narrow and exclusionary conception of landscape at the front as the site of the birth of nation. Women artists like Iso Rae were portraying life in army camps behind the front, a space that begs for inclusion in foundational tropes of a national art without the all too familiar habit of writing out the women.

In the second epoch considered, the Art Wars, 1916-1945, the Battlelines chapter is especially refreshing in its attention to the anti-modernists. This balances recent Australian art history’s focus on the modernists. The influential Sydney Ure Smith publication, Art in Australia, is considered in terms of the art and ideas promoted. And while not uniformly conservative, this periodical ran a special number on Margaret Preston in 1927, Hans Heysen’s art was promoted, his ‘eucalypt a national totem’ (p. 135), along with anti-modernist writers such as James McDonald and Norman and Lionel Lindsay, who were antisemitic and racist. Missing though from this analysis is James McGregor, an influential trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and friend of Robert Menzies who deserves attention. The anti-modernist argument could have been developed further if McLean had turned to the appointment of official war artists in the Second World War. John Reed of Heide objected to the sidelining of his stable of Melbourne modernists, so the Australian War Memorial merely confirmed their direction by installing members of the conservative Australian Academy of Art on the appointments committee in 1944.

Max Meldrum, Self Portrait (National Archives of Australia)

The contestation of positions around the emergence of modernism underpins McLean’s account. Like Mary Eagle, another who has written on this subject, he sides with anti-modernist painter and teacher Max Meldrum as a key influencer via his controversial practice of tonalism. Elioth Gruner, his pupil, and a favourite of the anti-modernists, went on to influence Sydney modernists such as Grace Cossington Smith. Yet another strand employed in the discourse of modernists and anti-modernists to define a national art was Aboriginalism. While often a pejorative term, it was indeed ‘an Australian version of the primitivist indigenism that invariably accompanies nationalist movements’ (p. 147).  This refreshing perspective allows Heysen’s radical Flinders Ranges landscapes that portray the deep time of the ancient land to be considered alongside clearly modern work by Preston, who consciously draws on Aboriginal art to suggest a national style.

In the third epoch of Australian art McLean considers, Nation, Post 1945, key themes emerge. One is how Aboriginalism was in full swing with a representational shift by artists Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd to subjects and landscape in central Australia. In contrast to Boyd, whose imagery is of a people who are ‘victims of colonial racism’, Russell Drysdale is singled out as portraying Aboriginal Australians mid-century as ‘resilient and symbiotic with the land’ and ‘an indivisible and visible part of the country’ (p. 204). Another theme is how London, paradoxically, became the centre of Australian art. Nolan and Boyd lived there, and Bryan Robertson’s 1961 Whitechapel exhibition in London of modern Australian art made it the flavour of the month, supported by influential British figures such as Kenneth Clark and Sir John Rothenstein. While McLean calls this era the Australian spring in London, he reminds the reader that in the early 1960s London was the centre of Australian art ‘as it always had been for British Australians’ – but this time ‘it would herald the exaltation of Australian art’ (p. 217).

The idea of a national art was short lived though, and in the final section. Post-Nation, the advance of US-type abstraction (Colour Field, Hard Edge painting, Post-Painterly abstraction) is examined. While it was a liberating move away from parochialism, the new abstract paintings by Australian artists had a short shelf life. A new international, post-national pluralism took hold, with artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s turning to conceptual art, performance art, earthworks and installation art.

McLean’s imaginative and insightful Double Nation is the most recent addition to the history of Australian art, preceded notably by Jaynie Anderson’s edited essays, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Art in 2011; Sasha Grishin’s Australian Art: A History in 2013, and Christopher Allen’s edited A Companion to Australian Art in 2021. But McLean’s version is not another encyclopaedic addition, rather it is an engaging argument around the oscillating British-Australian relationship in narratives of Australian art. While keeping the tale ‘sharp and on point’ (p. 15), it will lead to quibbles from art historians who might find the broad brush leads to inevitable omissions and orientations such as the predominance of images by male artists, with only fifteen percent by women.

Double Nation is an art history tracking the emergence of a national self-consciousness in representation from the colonial era to 1970. It is also a fascinating journey through the art historiography of Australian art reflecting how others including Bernard Smith, Ian Burn and Terry Smith have approached constructing an art history. In so doing, McLean reminds the reader how national art histories take different turns, shaping a narrative in one way or another. What is impressive about Double Nation is its incisive focus on race, and its positioning of Australian art in a wider international context.

Catherine Speck
Catherine Speck

Catherine Speck is Professor Emerita of Art History and Curatorship at the University of Adelaide, and a Fellow of the Academy of Humanities of Australia. She convened postgraduate programs in Art History and Curatorial and Museum Studies taught jointly with the Art Gallery of South Australia from 2002-2019. She is a specialist in Australian art. Key books include:  Australian Art Exhibitions: Opening our Eyes (with Joanna Mendelssohn, Catherine De Lorenzo and Alison Inglis, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 2018)Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars (Reaktion, London, 2014); Heysen to Heysen: Selected Letters of Hans Heysen and Nora Heysen (National Library of Australia, 2011);  and Painting Ghosts (Thames and Hudson/Craftsman House, 2004). She is a member of the Fay Gale Centre for Research into Gender and the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and regular exhibition reviewer for The Conversation.