Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 17, 2015

Battarbee and Namatjira (2014), by Martin Edmond

Cultural warning: Aboriginal readers are advised that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

Battarbee and NamatjiraA biography of someone who worked in the creative arts, IMO, doesn’t just evoke the life of the subject, it also explains something of what it was that made the subject special.  From that wonderful biography of Beethoven by Jan Swafford which I reviewed some time ago, I have learned not just about the chronology of Beethoven’s life and its cultural context, as well as when and why he composed certain pieces, but also about the development of that quality that made his music unique – what Swafford calls ‘Beethovenish’.  Well, in this very readable dual biography of the painters Rex Battarbee (1893-1973) and his Aboriginal protégé Albert Namatjira (1902-1954), Martin Edmond not only tells the fascinating story of their entwined lives, but he also explains the unique quality in Namatjira’s water colours that excited his mentor and made him the most famous Aborigine in the world. 

The book begins with an introduction to the Arrernte, their beliefs, their lifestyle and kinship systems and how their art was an integral part of religious and cultural life, and then moves on to the Lutherans in Australia, and how they came to be active in missionary work in Central Australia in the period relevant to this book.  There is an account of Battarbee’s childhood, and the war service which left him maimed, and also of Namatjira’s early life at the Hermannsburg Mission and how he came to be both Christian and an initiated man with cultural responsibilities.  The intriguing first meeting between the two is a reminder that we mostly don’t know the significance of events until long afterwards; there are a number of times when this meeting may have occurred, but it’s not clear.

Namatjira’s significance is not just that he was the first important Aboriginal artist who came to White Australia’s notice, but also that he was symbolic of an intelligence that Aborigines were thought – at that time – not to have.  The prevailing view in the interwar years was that they had a childlike naïveté, and were not capable of learning much, at best being suited to domestic work or manual labour.   They were believed to be in need of protection and paternalistic guidance, and religious leaders felt a responsibility to look after them while also replacing indigenous beliefs with Christianity.  It is a shameful aspect of our history that in Australia – which was otherwise a world leader in universal suffrage for men and women – Aborigines were not considered citizens, were not counted in the census, and were denied the vote altogether.

It took a rare and special man to transcend these prejudices, and this biography shows us that Rex Batterbee was such a man, and it was Namatjira’s art that was a catalyst for that reappraisal:

When Batterbee realised, in Palm Valley in 1936, that he had a prodigy on his hands, it was seeing that he emphasised: It even makes me sit up and take note of whether he sees better than I do. Before the lessons took place Albert complained that he could not manage colour: Rex recalled later that one of the things he taught him was how to see the colour in the landscape.  Curiously, learning to see colour might also enable you to see something beyond colour: that is, form. One of the astonishing things about Namatjira’s painting after 1936 is how quickly he progressed towards the refinement of detail, on the one hand, and on the other the extension of space he learned to conjure from the landscape.  His forms became more intricate to a point where the proliferation of detail feels almost vertiginous; while at the same time the space he commands recedes, in the other direction, towards infinity. (p. 153)

This quality was present even in Namatjira’s early work.  Edmond describes them as naïve, rudimentary in their drawing and lacking in detail, with clumsy attempts at perspective – yet although awkwardness is their salient attribute there is a peculiar prescience, as is something both familiar and strange is pushing up towards the surface of the image. (p.152)

What is Edmond alluding to that is both familiar and strange? For those of who are not artists, Edmonds explains the concept of luminosity, and how artists use colour to express the immanence of the divine in many understandings and these may be taken to include the ancient verities Albert had begun to learn at initiation:

Current wisdom suggests that watercolour paints appear more vivid than acrylics or oils not because they are transparent but because actual particles of pigment are laid down in a pure form with fewer fillers obscuring their colours.  Multiple layers of watercolour paint, whether mixed or simply intensified, do for this reason achieve a luminous effect – as Rex had learned at Bitter Springs Gorge and alluded to when he remarked that Albert puts it on even stronger than I do.  It is possible however to go further and suggest that the achievement of luminosity was also a warrant of the ability to see properly, a guarantee of clarity of purpose and of execution, even a means towards a revelation of the essence of creation. (p.148)

What seemed puzzling about this otherwise excellent book as I read it is that there are no examples of either artist’s work for the reader to muse over. Edmond describes some paintings in tantalising detail but – especially when he’s discussing the anthropomorphism of Namatjira’s work – it was frustrating not to be able to see what he means.  There are plentiful small B&W photos placed within the text (though alas, not captioned so you have to keep flicking to the image credits at the back of the book)  but there is no painting by Namatjira, and none by Battarbee so that we might evaluate Edmond’s assertion that  Battarbee was not a lesser painter than Namatjira:

…although he was an uneven painter (and what painter is not?) the best of Battarbee is equal to, though different from, the best of Namatjira.  If we have not yet realised what these differences are, that is hardly the fault of the artists themselves. (p.153)

Apparently most of the paintings are in private hands, and since there has never been a retrospective of either artist’s work, the works remain dispersed, and from a scholarly point-of-view, chaotic.  There are however, plenty of books and catalogues of Namatjira’s work, but the current copyright holder, Legend Press, refused permission to reproduce them.  Edmond describes their attitude as intransigent.  I’d use another well-known Australian expression, but hmm, I’d better not.

Tucked away at the back of the book where you won’t find it until you finish reading, there is a link to the publisher’s website where there is a list of links to paintings by Battarbee and Namatjira, but this was no use to me during my sojourn in Queensland where internet access is like intermittent sunshine on a Winter’s day, merely a brief moment when you feel connected to the rest of the world instead of marooned back in the 20th century.  It was a salutary experience to read this book in the way that people must if they don’t have internet access, but it’s not an experience I recommend.

(BTW, lest you wonder, I was not in Far North Queensland nor in the remote outback west of the state, I was on the Gold Coast, 20 minutes walk from the Burleigh shopping centre, using Telstra’s 4G network. Which for over 24 hours failed to open any web page.  Uploading this to the web had to wait until I was somewhere else with better coverage.)

But – my internet problems resolved – I found the links on the publisher’s website unsatisfactory because it hadn’t occurred to me to record the page numbers of the paintings described.  Confronted by a list of links on the website which isn’t referenced to the relevant page in the book – and no index (!) to help me find the descriptions again,  I was stymied. (There are Notes on Sources, and Acknowledgements – but the absence of an index is something that ought to be fixed in future editions.)

What is really odd about the missing paintings in the book, is that there is a plethora of images of Namatjira’s paintings all over the web.  What’s more, Namatjira’s fame during his lifetime means that there is a good chance that a reader can find reproductions of his work in old books.   I was able to see a Namatjira painting in one by Peter Luck at my parents’ house.  And even though the image was small and the colour reproduction dubious, I could see what I had never realised before: that the placement of the ubiquitous tree and the mountains in the background were more than simple realism.

But alas, while Namatjira was popular with ordinary buyers during his lifetime, State galleries spurned his work.  And as Edmond so cogently explains, Aboriginal politics and art politics was toxic.  Namatjira was born on the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg that wanted to bring the Arrernte people to Christianity – and to make the mission self-sustaining it was essential that it be productive.  The pastor Albrecht was an entrepreneurial fellow, and the mission was involved in a thriving trade in Aboriginal artefacts while also engaged in the cattle trade.  Men like Namatjira made decorative poker work which was sold to tourists and in shops down south…

And so when Rex Battarbee arrived – reinventing himself as a painter because his WWI wounds made other work impossible and he didn’t want to be deskbound – Albrecht was supportive of Namatjira’s interest in Western Art.  But the art world was interested in ‘primitive art’ and was dismissive of an Aboriginal man aping a style, as they saw it, that was alien for him.  Edmond disposes of this argument by pointing out that other artists are influenced by external movements, citing the example of Australian Impressionists being influenced by French Impressionism, but the galleries’ position was that there were other artists producing similar work of a higher standard and that Namatjira was only noteworthy because he was Aboriginal.

Aboriginal politics arose because of issues of self-determination.  Over time Rex Battarbee came to realise that the mission system was paternalistic, recognising that Namatjira had valid cause to chafe under the restrictions that ruled his life.  At a time when few non-indigenous people had ever seen Central Australia, Namatjira’s vivid paintings had great market value.  But Aborigines were not Australian citizens then, they were wards of the state.  Although the artist received payment for his artworks, the mission objected to how he spent it.  Not understanding Aboriginal kinship obligations, Albrecht felt that Namatjira frittered away his money, shouting his relations in all kinds of generous ways.  And he didn’t want Namatjira to buy a car because he was concerned about the temptations that money could bring, worrying that Namatjira was vulnerable to women and alcohol if he were able to visit Alice Springs.

These issues are not entirely resolved today when the Aboriginal art market is worth millions.  We often see TV images of Aboriginal artists sitting under a tree while they work on the ground, and it looks as if they are being exploited, or cheated of their due.  We hear stories about how the artists – who often don’t speak English – need to be protected from unscrupulous dealers and forgers, and – if we are to believe tabloid journalists for whom negative stories about Aboriginal affairs are a staple – perhaps also from the cooperatives which were formed to look after their interests.  It seems a far cry from the genuine good will of a man like Battarbee who spent a lifetime in Central Australia as an enabler of Aboriginal art and the Hermannsburg school, and who came to see that the artists had a right to manage their own affairs.

Looking back on this period, it is hard not to sit in judgement on Australian decision-makers who were, of course, representing public opinion at the time.  Namatjira, who was not allowed to use his money to build a house in Alice because the curfew kept Aborigines out of town after dark; who could not get a grazing licence to set up a cattle station on the land of his choice; and who was taxed on his earnings despite not having the vote, was treated shamefully.  In his old age they took his name off the register of Aborigines but that did not give him citizenship, but bizarrely offered only the right to drink.  And as most people of my generation know, he was charged and found guilty of supplying a relation with alcohol, and sentenced to six months jail for it.  Edmonds tells the story of the subsequent appeals with a kind of rueful awe, as if he too cannot believe that such a thing might have happened in recent history.  Albert Namatjira was born in 1902, but he died aged only 57, in 1959, his spirit all but broken.

I cannot go on like this.  I cannot stand it any longer.  I would rather put my rifle to my head now and end it all than go on.  Why don’t they kills us all?  That is what they want.

He did indeed take up his gun but it was wrestled away from him by his son Enos.  It was only when he was told that he would be allowed to serve his sentence in open country rather than in a prison that he calmed down a little.  He continued:

Why can’t they leave me alone?  I have nothing.  They told me I would not have to go to gaol.  They told me it would be fixed in Melbourne. What is left for me?  I am an old man.  I have worked hard.  They have taken a lot of my money in taxes, but now I must go and do hard labour. (p.319)

He was survived by his wife Rubina who died in 1974, and his children, all of whom died young too, except for Oscar who lived to be 70.  But the Hermannsburg school of painting lives on, true to the spirit of the men who are the subject of this book.  (Wenten Rubuntja, whose book The Town Grew Up Dancing I reviewed recently, painted in the Hermannsburg style as well as Papunya).

I have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating book, from which I have learned so much – and not only about the two subjects.  But I don’t want this to be one of those reviews so detailed that you don’t need to read the book!

Battarbee and Namatjira is no hagiography, but it is generous in spirit.  For all their flaws, the main players are rendered as men of good will.  As you’d expect in a book about the art world, there are some crooks, and as you’d expect in a biography using source materials written in less enlightened time, sometimes there are words and expressions used that make a contemporary reader flinch.  But Edmond has a captivating style and the book is beautifully written, of interest to anyone who is interested in art or in Aboriginal issues.

Update 20/5/15 See also Martin Edmond’s thoughts at Inside Story.

Update 25/2/18 See also Nathan Hobby’s review at A Biographer in Perth

Author: Martin Edmond
Title: Battarbee and Namatjira
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9871922146687
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Fishpond:  Battarbee and Namatjira or direct from Giramondo Publishing


  1. A few years ago I went to the Theatre Royal to see a one man show about this wonderful man. He told his story in vignettes and music and it really was fascinating. My sister was visiting here from the USA and we took her. We all enjoyed it and spent time afterwards reading up on him on the net. This is a wonderful tribute to this man. I enjoyed reading it.


    • It seems as if he’s been a bit of an unsung hero. It’s only since I’ve been blogging that I’ve discovered a bit about the history of this part of Australia. Wakefield Press interested me in some of their history & art books about this area, and so I’m starting to piece together a picture of what it must have been like.


  2. […] Battarbee and Namatjira by Martin Edmond, see my review […]


  3. […] PS Martin Edmond is also the author of Batterbee and Namatjira (2014) which was shortlisted for the National Biography Awards in 2016.  See my review here. […]


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