Everyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am soppy about dogs, so of course I was always going to love this book. Dogs in Australian Art is, well, lots of pictures of gorgeous dogs, depicted by all kinds of talented Australian artists. It’s a lovely book to browse through, admiring all the cute and fluffy dogs, brave working dogs, stoic veterans of military conflicts and so on. There are artists well-known and obscure, and there are all kinds of artistic styles from 19th century sentimental scenes to impressionism.
What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the author’s deadpan sense of humour. How can a dog-lover not love a book that claims with a straight face that the arguments about influences on Australian art can all be resolved by exploring the untold story of the dog?!
The history of Australian art is conventionally told with reference to a number of themes, such as the Australian landscape and its light, urbanisation, technological innovation or the impact of European art and ideas. There is one theme, however, which has been entirely overlooked and it is the subject of this book. Perhaps it has been overlooked because it seems too commonplace to serve as a grand narrative of Australia’s artistic evolution. Yet history has shown repeatedly that great events are often the results of simple and unexpected causes … So it is with Australian art, The various stylistic shifts which have occurred, the debates about abstraction and figuration, the rivalries between schools and cities are attributed to sociological, historical and personal factors, when the real cause was all the while sitting under our table.
Yes, claims Miller:
The untold story of Australian art is the story of dogs and how they came to inspire and shape the art of a nation. (p1)
Clearly, art teachers across the nation will need to revise the curriculum…
Miller shows us pioneer dogs who ‘might at first appear incidental [but] a closer look will show that they often provide a key to interpreting the works’. His first example is Alexander Schramm’s ‘A Scene in South Australia’ c1850, a painting often said to depict ‘an ideal of how settlers and Indigenous Australians could live together harmoniously’. But the real key to interpreting this painting lies with the dogs, for it shows Old King William’s well-behaved and appealing dogs observing proceedings with genial curiosity while the tethered settlers’ dogs are aggressively snarling. Miller says that we can interpret the dogs’ stand-off as a sad symbol of the years of hostility to come.
His next example is a really cute painting of an adorable little bundle of fluff collecting money for his blind master in his food-bowl. It’s called The Blind Man’s Dog and it’s by William Buelow Gould. But, says Miller, it is more than a cute dog, it is ‘a metaphor for the injustices of the British penal system’ representing ‘victims of England’s corrupt, class-based society’ abandoned to ‘eke out a miserable living at the end of the earth’. (p5) How could art historians not have realised this before?
This comprehensive survey includes a section on The City and its Professions, when loyal dogs accompanied their masters to Australia at the close of the penal colony era and valiant dogs such as Jemmy led their masters in the exploration of the continent, as depicted in Augustus Earle’s painting ‘Solitude‘. In the chapter on National vs International Breeds, Miller explains how a group of dogs were ‘instrumental in the establishment of the first national school of painting’, known to us now as the Heidelberg School. It was at the Heidelberg Kennels that dogs, ‘with a century’s experience of the landscape and the type of life that had been carved out in it [began] to consider the particular characteristics required of them for living and prospering in this environment.’ (p9) We can see the influence of these dogs on the famous ‘cigar-box paintings, especially in ‘How We Lost Poor Flossie’ by Charles Condor, a painting often sentimentally misinterpreted. Quite clearly the representation of a new-breed Australian Terrier in confrontation with an English Fox Terrier is a statement of an emerging national identity. (As the loyal companion of an Australian Silky Terrier, I too identify with Miller’s indignation about the misrepresentation of this painting).
I was shocked to read in the chapter entitled The Dogs of War that the nation’s preeminent gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria, has been active in the ‘systematic removal of canine art from Australian collections by revisionist art professionals’ (p13). It is most unfortunate that such policies have resulted in the de-accession of one of the most popular paintings of the 1890s, a portrait of Baron, a large St Bernard, and that this and other magnificent works featured in the book are lost now to private collections.
No survey of Australian art would be complete without mention of the Melbourne-Sydney Clash of Artistic Dogmas after WW2. It was an English Boxer ‘who only ever identified himself as a ‘legal correspondent’ who rose to the defence of abstraction in the press, not least because it was dogs, says Miller, who ‘had been involved in the whole enterprise of abstract art since its earliest days’ as evidenced by the Joan Miro painting ‘Dog Barking at the Moon’ (1926). There is a brief mention of a feline attempt to take over with a pseudo-tradition characterised by ‘an over-emphasis on the decorative’ but yes, as is obvious from this wonderful catalogue of dog artworks (arranged by breed) dogs have emerged triumphant, in painting, photography, and even in Jeff Koons’ iconic puppy at the Sydney Olympics.
Don’t take my word for it, have a look at some of the sample pages at Wakefield Press, and buy this gorgeous book as a present for the art-loving dog-lover amongst your friends and family!
Author: Steven Miller
Title: Dogs in Australian Art
Publisher: Wakefield, 2012
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: Dogs in Australian Art