Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Gum Love

Last year I went to see an exhibition of paintings by Hans Heysen, a German who migrated to Australia in the late nineteenth century. Heysen's paintings fetch enormous prices - in fact, an old schoolfriend of mine used the proceeds from one, bequeathed to her by a godmother, to buy a dear little Victorian house in Sydney's Double Bay ( moral of the story - choose your children's godparents with care.)

All the same, Heysen's paintings have always puzzled me, because, despite their value and popularity, I have never liked them. Until I went to that exhibition last year, I could never understand why. It was only when I got the opportunity to look at lots of them, all collected together, that I at last recognised what my problem with them was.

Even though Heysen's representations of the bush - particularly  his renderings of gumtrees - are very observant and superficially accurate, it seemed to me that he hadn't accepted what he saw in front of him on its own terms. While trying to produce a likeness of the landscape of Australia, he was still attempting to shape it to an idea of how he thought it ought to look, which derived from the appearance of the continent in which he'd been born. He couldn't resist peachifying the colours of Australia and bosoming out the spikiness of our trees and bushes. He couldn't help nudging the utter muddle that is a stand of gumtrees into something just a little cosier and neater than reality. He couldn't help trying to make the bush charming, just like home.

But the Australian bush is not - and never will be - charming. It is messy and untidy. It is, at first sight, predominantly grey and dusty. It is crowded with trees that spend most of their time imitating slovenly drunks at the end of an evening, dropping their bark, like discarded clothing, in dishevelled heaps about their feet:

And it is all too easy to assume that that's all there is to it, to focus on the mess, which admittedly is worse than a teenager's bedroom, to see nothing but a blur of broken sticks and dirt, to mistake the riotous tangle of dull leaves and branches and layered bark for unattractiveness, especially when comparing it with the obvious prettiness of lush green meadows and hedgerows criss-crossing a carefully tilled valley. However, the bush, while not charming, is actually full of beguiling features; its charms are abundant but they are not always instantly noticeable. Its beauty is subtle, not cloying; it surprises you rather than shoving itself in your face.

Those trees in the pictures are actually a perfect illustration of what I mean: while the first thing to strike you about them might be the untidy heaps piled about their feet, they are also extremely lovely. If you divert your attention from the chaos at ground level and look upwards, the stretch of silken trunk that is the result of all that discarded rubbish is hard not to admire:

In this respect, the bush reminds me of those people you meet from time to time in life - well, I do, anyway - who at first appear grumpy and prickly and difficult to get to know but who on closer acquaintance (these people are usually work colleagues, I find, since, if it weren't involuntary you probably wouldn't bother to pursue their company) turn out to be hilarious, intelligent and invaluable friends. In the same way, the bush requires time and attention. Only then will it reveal itself, surprising you one morning by sending out shoots of new life from apparently dead branches:

covering dark tough foliage with tender new growth:

producing delicate flowers in the midst of detritus and twigs:

and, of course, creating delicate sprays of budding wattle, (no, I could not leave that out, despite the prominence I've given it in earlier posts - wattle is always too lovely to ignore):


  1. Thanks for posting these photos. One day I hope I'll be able to visit the Australian bush and have a look for myself.

    Re: Hans Heysen, one of the best exhibitions I've been to was one called 'American Sublime' at the Tate, which showed how artists who were schooled in European techniques struggled to depict New World landscapes. New England wasn't too much of a challenge, but landscapes like the American West and Australian bush must have kept them busy.

  2. Yes, wattle is too lovely to ignore

  3. When I look around me, on the New England Tableland (Australia) I see the European and Australian trees side by side and grouped together, and I can't really imagine how the 'European' eye of someone like Heysen could accept the native flora in its context. I know he came to Australia when he was 7, but how powerful are the images of those first seven years on perception? Enormously, I believe..

  4. Hmm, that Hans Heysen's pretty tasty, isn't he: that's exactly the sort of picture we looked for to lend a bucolic charm to our living room. I suspect that the Australian Outback* would scare me rigid, what with it's poisonous snakes and spiders, but those pictures certainly do make it look quite attractive.

    * I wasn't sure about the capital 'O', but Wikipedia seems to indicate it.

  5. Steerforth - Heysen made a much better job of it than many of his predecessors - he got the shapes of trees pretty right and didn't put European foliage on them. But he romanticised the whole thing somehow. The bush is never pretty, although it is lovely, full of subtly different shades of green that you only notice if you walk through it day after day.
    Nurse - that sort in those photographs is my least favourite actually - I think it might be Cootamundra wattle. I like one's with deeper green leaves and more buttery yellow flowers. But, just before it's flowered, even Cootamundra is delicate and lovely.
    Denis - that New England landscape is so beautiful. I think Judith Wright wrote well about it; didn't she grow up round there?
    Gadjo - I can offer you a job lot of wattle photographs at a knockdown price, if that's any use? The last time I saw a snake, (admittedly a tiny one), I thought it was a hoofpick (I didn't have my glasses on). It was most peculiar picking up something live when I thought it would be metal. That was in Wiltshire though, not here.

  6. Damn the pictures, dammit -- for the fiftieth time this week I wish I could see a gum tree, and not one of the pale replacements they have in the American desert cities (Phoenix, Vegas) but a real stand of them, with those messy gumnut-baby skirts. I don't know if the city councils here select nonmessy varieties on purpose, or if they send workers around to tidy them, but they're messless; they're about as much like real gum trees as a mannequin in a window is like a person.

    "Their suits are neater abroad,
    of denser drape, unnibbled:
    they've left their parasites at home."

  7. "Their humans, meeting them abroad,
    often grab and sniff their hands."

    Thank you so much - I hadn't read that.

  8. In fact, I think I will put it in a post tomorrow.