|Chapter 1:||Reading Post-Colonial Australia|
This vernacular became pronounced in the 1890s, but it negotiates an ambiguous relationship with European tradition that is best seen in the Heidelberg painters. The impressionists were committed to the idea of an authentic picture of Australia, freed from the shackles of European preconceptions and painting techniques. But their plein air technique was itself of European origin, and the ideology of their painting was positioned by the nationalism of the time. This is why the Heidelberg subjects were as much about cultural myths as about a land freed from colonial preconceptions. Frederick McCubbin was the most prolific reproducer of myths, but all the painters, in their anti-imperial nationalism, fell into the trap of cultural stereotype provided by national mythology. What, then, is post-colonial about this complicated struggle over how Australia should be seen? It lies in the gradual but determined way in which artists attempted to divest themselves of the aesthetic assumptions of European painting. As post-colonial discourse often does, it flips from an anti-imperial stance straight into a restrictively nationalist one. However flawed, ambivalent, and even contradictory their ideology might have been, it is the element of engagement itself that signifies a post-colonial orientation, an engagement that produced a form of resistance to the inherited imperial views of Australian place.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a widespread reexamination of the myths of Australian settlement, and we find no better example of this than The Tree of Man, Patrick White's first novel, published in 1956. In one evocative moment, the invasive impact of settler society on colonized place and, by intimation, the capacity of that place to transform the human occupant is summed up in the act of striking a tree with an axe: