Sunday, July 5, 2009


Australian Artist Arthur Boyd, 1945.

I have been reading a book about Australian art from the period of colonization to the present. It's been fascinating to watch how the art unfolded and reflected the changes in culture and history in the country. I have often thought that a great way to learn about any nation, and group of people, is to study their art. It tells volumes, as does the writing that is done about it.

One of the main themes throughout this book is the issue of settlement and connection/disconnection to the land of Australia. Specifically, there is this strong tension between the tenuous and ambiguous connection the Europeans who came to the country have towards the land, and the perceived deep inhabitance of the Aboriginal peoples who have lived in Australia for centuries. This tension seems to come to a peak during the years of World War II, when a short-lived, but memorable group of artists dominated the Australian art scene. Author Christopher Allen writes of them: "A truly motivated and extremely vigorous modernism arose in the years immediately before, during and after the Second World War. The art of the Angry Penguins, as they came to be known, was riven with tensions that recall those of early settler art in a new idiom and at a far more acute emotional pitch. It was the paradox of living in the 'Uninhabitable.'"

First off, what an evocative name: the Angry Penguins. And also fitting, given that it's kind of difficult to imagine what an angry penguin looks like (maybe this is from lack of personal experience.)

But what most interests me is this issue of uninhabitability. It seems to be something we all experience with ourselves, our own lives, sometimes fairly often. How often do you turn away from what you are experiencing? Or do something, anything to deflect or enhance the present moment's raw openness? We have a damn hard time living in, inhabiting, our lives as they actually unfold, so it's no surprise that the art of an entire nation seems preoccupied with the issue of inhabiting its land.

Of the Angry Penguins, Arthur Boyd's work seems to most embody the flamboyantness of the group's name. Born in 1920, and coming from a long line of painters and artists, Arthur Boyd was fairly young - in his early twenties - when the Angry Penguins formed. He later would become known for his work done while living in the bush and studying the lives of Aborigines living in and around Alice Springs. But it's his early work, done during the war years and just after, that truly exemplifies this firery struggle to come to terms with our lives as they are.

Most notably among these paintings is the apocalyptic image of Melbourne Burning , which was completed in 1947. Clearly influenced in part by the Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel, Boyd's painting is filled with screaming, tortured people and animals trying to escape an enormous fire in what appears to be a mythic version of Melbourne as both a modern, industrial center as well as an ancient, pre-industrial city. Cows tumbling into the river; smokestacks spewing soot right next door. It's a very curious image, one that is filled with people attempting to, but not quite fully able to, embrace each other.

I think this burning, imaginary Melbourne is very much like how we live much of the time. Katagiri Roshi called it our "thirsting desire." In his book Returning to Silence, he writes:

"According to Buddha's teachings, sickness is holy truth. This means you have to accept sickness, which is beyond the world of your likes and dislikes. For instance, if you have cancer, how can you be free from this suffering? Buddhism tells us to accept the suffering from cancer. But it is difficult to accept it because you believe to accept the suffering from cancer is to not be free from cancer ... No matter how long you struggle to be free from the suffering from cancer you will never be free. Suffering from cancer is real reality, which is inescapable."

So, if it's inescapable, how do we approach the fires of our lives without getting burned beyond recognition? Is it even possible to do so?

In the center of Boyd's painting, in the middle of the fire, is a single person-like figure. Maybe this is each of us, at the moment when we have given up trying to be something we are not. Maybe even in the middle of what seems to be hell, we can be liberated from the flames of desire.


ZenDotStudio said...

Great post. I love the name "Angry penguins". There is such tension in the name. And it is always such an interesting thing to explore, the relationship between art and the physical environment. A lot has been said about the darkness of us northerners as expressed in our writing and film. A lot of Canadian film is pretty dark and so is some of our literature. But we also produce some very funny folk. And when I think Northern I think Ingmar Bergman, now there's some dark brooding for you.

And yes we mostly have a hard time being in the present, good or bad. We're squirmy, wiggly sorts, kind of uncomfortable in the present moment

Interesting comments on cancer. I have been there and what I found is that it kind of forces you to live in the moment. Everything else falls away. You don't care about the dog barking next door or what colour curtains you'd like in the dining room. You find out how to live moment to moment because you realize there is nothing else you can do. You feel afraid and you just sit with it. And when the fear gets too strong, you realize it is skillful means to do something to mitigate that, talk to someone, go for a walk. And I learned first hand that not every moment is filled with suffering. There are gaps in between. It's a strange and interesting mixed gift bag, one you wouldn't choose if given the opportunity, but weirdly it is an opportunity.

Thanks for the great post. I think I might just have to go off in search of some Angry Penguins!

Robyn said...

I would love to see the painting you describe...I am completely unfamiliar with Euro-Australian artists.

Your post, and esp. the quote from Katagiri Roshi reminds of a phrase that has been jangling around in my head for the past several days - "unconditional yes." What does it take to say - or be- an unconditional yes?

Thanks for your always interesting posts!

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn,

I looked for a good half an hour for an image of the painting on-line. They have some of his other work, but not the Melbourne painting. I figured the photo of him working was a decent second best.

Hi Carole,

Thanks for the comments, especially about your own experience with cancer. I thought of you, among others, when I found those lines.

I've long been a fan of Canadian writing, and your comments make me think of Anne Hebert's work - lots of darkness and brooding there. And so brilliant.


Algernon said...

Beautiful post. One of the traditional koan used in my lineage comes from the Korean master Ko Bong: The whole universe is on fire. How do you escape being burned?

Clever students figure out "the right answer" to this koan eventually, but the implications of this question and its response go deeper and deeper.