seeking australian identity through comics and art

Global Art Link, Ipswich Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Momington Peninsula Art Gallery, Victoria

Does it puzzle you that, over two centuries after Europeans began to settle in Australia, their descendants are still searching for a national identity? For there it is again, in the foreword to the catalogue of an exhibition at Global Arts Link, Ipswich. The director, Louise Denoon, writes that Bluey & Curley: Portraits from an era 1939- 1955 demonstrates 'regional Australia 's continuing contribution to debates about Australian identity'-a subject which, she adds, the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001 will highlight. (Why regional? This is the one year old institution's first exhibition to be toured nationally and was developed in association with the Australian War Memorial.)

In connection with this unfinished business of identity, Denoon poses the question as to whether the decades in the middle of the last century are 'an ideal to inspire us or an Australia best forgotten'. To help us decide, she says, the exhibition offers 'a comparison of the popular culture of the day with artists' representations'. The works are principally panels and other drawings by Alex Gurney, the originator of the comic strip 'Biuey & Curley' and forty-five works by artists including Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd and many others. The exhibition is in three parts: images of Australian men, the role of artists during the war and life in postwar Australia.

The period spans the beginning of World War 11 and a decade of what Ross Terrill called the 'comfortable and secure era' after the war, when the phrase 'lucky country' attained a measure of non-ironic credibility. lt also encompasses the life of Bluey & Curley, or that portion of it that was drawn by Gurney. lt was the most popular of the Australian comic strips that went to war. Bluey, the veteran of the First World War, and Curley, the young recruit, had their prototypes in soldier cartoons of the earlier hostilities and the digger tradition of mateship.

Both Gurney's humour and art are broad, more music hall than cabaret. For the war years at least, his strip clearly answers yes to Denoon's question: the time was an ideal one to inspire Australians. If the war itself fired and tempered the nation's identity, Bluey & Curley gave the population that stayed home the chance to identify with the discomforts of the foot soldier. The strip is remarkably innocent compared to the dark humour of America's most famous war cartoonist, Bill Mauldin, whose 'Willy and Joe' series earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps Gurney, who had been at times a stinging political cartoonist, was not comfortable mocking the grisly side of war. Another cross Pacific strip, 'Sad Sack', was closer to what one comic historian describes as the 'gentle and smile-provoking manner of Gurney's creation, which, while not subtle, was never cruel '. Nevertheless, as the same commentator noted, Bluey & Curley 'tended to lose some of its appeal and individuality when the characters moved into Australian life, and common enemies of army life were then missing'.

The related artwork in the show is, in contrast, often cruel. From Albert Tucker's Cratered Head to the final darkness of Charles Blackman's The March, Anzac Day, the answer to Denoon's question is left in the air. Given the exhibition's main theme, it is curious that it does not extend to the developing identity of Australian painting. Yet this is what hides in plain sight on the walls. The exhibition is a fair sampling of the post-impressionist art that, beginning in the 1930s, was being introduced into Australia. George Bell, who led in urging painters to extract the 'underlying truth ' from an object rather than making a perfect representation of it, would have been heartened by the wide range of the modernist works here, if not by all the schools present. Traditionalists, against whose dominance Bell was willing to take on the academic establishment, are nearly absent. Social realists, whom Bell distrusted, are well represented. But it is the expressionist school that dominates.

The most severe forms of expressionism are the aforementioned work by Tucker and Hatted man smoking, by Sidney Nolan, in the section on Australian men. The serious art in this segment makes the gentle, even daft mateyness of Bluey & Curley begin to cloy. The real face of war is not funny. Masculinity barely survives in the portraits of soldiers ground down by exhaustion, imprisonment, violence and death. That the section Artists at War contains a less interesting selection than either of the other two may reflect conservatism by the services in choosing official war artists. 

lt is the last section of the exhibition, dealing with life in post war Australia , which is its most arresting. Two artists in particular stand out. Noel Counihan's social realism upset George Bell and may not be as fashionable as it was in the early postwar years, but two of his three paintings in Ipswich deserve to be reevaluated. Their Daumier like satiric commentary is refreshing. On the eve of the election pictures a sinisterly avuncular Robert Menzies addressing fellow Liberal Party members. Head of a Liberal places the viewer in an uneasy face-to-face confrontation with a beefy man who could as easily be a mobster as a politician. The other artist is Nolan. His Little dog mine is the Australian landscape in the hands of a great modernist. Painted after travels through outback Queensland, it observes a bushman sitting on a dry hummock looking at the sluiceway leading back to the openings to his mine. The colours of drought provide odd relief to the scene before us. The orange of the foreground seems especially to mock the significance of any gold nuggets surviving the rinse. Off to the side, the lean-to that the man uses for shelter confirms his hardscrabble existence. And yet he is there, his shoulders slumped, his legs crossed in a fashion that would be more at home in a drawing room, his back to the dead and dying trees behind him.

Some critics have regarded the figures in Nolan's outback series as 'not very Australian '. That is likely to be the major fault of seeking identity through stereotypes. The Australian identity that emerges from the exhibition's comparison of comic strip and art is an amalgam of the comic and the tragic, which is after all the human condition. Not even another century of searching for the quintessential Australian would affect this basic truth. Yet the details are what fascinate.