Australia's lowry is finally being recognised by its artistic elite - but is it for the right reasons?
By Germaine Greer - Monday May 8, 2006
When Australian artist Pro Hart died on March 28 this year, the government of New South Wales promised him a state funeral. Australia has produced many artists of international reputation but none has been accorded such an honour.
At first the Hart family demurred because they didn't think Pro would have been appreciative of such pomp, especially if it meant that he couldn't be seen off by the people he had lived among all his life, in Broken Hill, 1,200km west of the state capital. The politicians moved the event to Broken Hill. Hart was conducted to his last resting place by 1,000 of his fellow citizens in a cortege of vintage cars, including two of his own Rolls Royces.
Peter Black, Labor MP for Murray-Darling, seized the opportunity to rail against the "art industry elite" who hadn't bothered to acquire any of Hart's work for state or federal collections. "You're not going to get a state funeral!" he jeered. "And your artworks, after going on some of these wretched tours, are going to be consigned to some dump where they belong, while Hart's work is going to hang on wall after wall in Australia and internationally." Not only Maurice Iemma's lacklustre state government, but federal politicians too were keen to be seen hitching their wagon to Hart's star, precisely because the Australian art cognoscenti despised him. Justice minister Tony Kelly could find no better explanation of the event than to confess with amazing lameness: "In offering a state funeral for Pro, we were guided by the strong evidence of how he was seen by others."
On the Australian flag on top of Hart's coffin were placed his miner's helmet and lamp, in silent tribute to the years he spent working in the mines. When he first donned them Broken Hill was a thriving metropolis, with 61 hotels, three newspapers, concert halls, mechanics' institutes, technical colleges, and a resident population of 35,000. Smartly dressed people thronged the "silver mile" over which loomed the pithead that first gave access to one of the biggest base metal deposits ever discovered on this planet. Fifty years later, the city of Broken Hill is dying. The population has halved; only one mine is still working and that is to close in 2011. The silver mile has become a string of fast food outlets and opportunity shops. The workings have become a theme park and the surviving miners, tour guides. Lead dust pollutes everything.
Hart was born Kevin Charles Hart on a sheep station 100km or so south of Broken Hill. He drew from childhood, scenes of local life, caricatures of the people and types he saw around him; even in the mine, he drew burlesque scenes on the pit props. He developed into a sort of larrikinish LS Lowry, a popular artist whose strength lay in his dogged provincialism. Lowry took more art lessons than Hart and, at first, exhibited regularly, but he gradually moved away from the art establishment, developing his own style, grouping and deploying dark human figures in stylised industrial city-scapes. Unlike Hart he was recognised by the art establishment before he died; he was elected to the Royal Academy in 1962 and given a prestigious retrospective exhibition in the year of his death.
Both Hart and Lowry worked as knowing naifs, cocking a snook at the accepted illustrative tradition and at every art movement since impressionism. Hart, too, liked to fill scenes with rudimentary figures, in a 20th-century version of the Italian bambocciate. Lowry was lugubrious, Hart irrepressible. He painted not only the scenes of outback life for which he is best loved, but also dazzling seaside scenes in primary colours and thick impasto and portentous semi-abstracts, as if pretending that he could do proper art if he wished. Part of him could not resist baiting the art establishment by making a mockery of painting. He invented "cannonball painting", firing balls filled with pigment at prepared canvases.
What makes Hart special is his unbreakable connection with the Barrier country of far west New South Wales. His bush scenes are not just illustrations of outback life: they glow with the unforgettable light of the inland. His gangling twisted feather-top trees are portraits of the acacias and casuarinas that refract the raking sun of the desert edge in a luminous haze. The vegetation system of Menindee and the Barrier Ranges is called acacia loderi woodland by naturalists and it is, like all such systems in Australia, now under threat, The syncopation in the replication of their gnarly boles is the genuine rhythm of the Murray-Darling and Hart could draw it in his sleep.
Hart worked fast, painting hardboard with transparent layers of thinned oils, and then drawing in the fast-drying glaze with the handle of his brush, laying bare the ground, a technique that caught the scratchiness of xerophytic vegetation, and the general weathered-ness and falling-down-ness of eaten-out sheep country. The technique, which depended on the dryness of the semi-desert air, was almost effortless, but that doesn't make the results any less true or moving.
You don't get Hart until you realise that the figures that line the rails at his bush races and raise their glasses at the bush picnic are all ghosts. His lanky drovers are all long gone but the hot earth that grins through their transparent figures is still there. The gates really do hang as lop-sided and gaping as he paints them. Hart's best work, like Lowry's, is alight with grief and passion - not that the people who contrived his state funeral would know that.