Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1922: 5, Art books

As I wrote in my fourth 1922-themed post, some genres and forms kept popping up in the articles I was reading about Australian literature. One was the adventure genre which I featured in the last post. That wasn’t particularly surprising, but today’s topic, art, is another matter.

However, before we get onto that, a note about by-lines. I’ve had it in mind for some time to do a Monday Musings post on by-lines. I probably will one day, but I need to do more research. One of the issues is that many of the articles I read in Trove have no by-lines, while those that do are often pseudonyms – and my, are some of them difficult to identify. There are two relevant to this post – Narrung who appears in the Sydney Mail (and Smith’s Weekly) and J. Penn in Adelaide’s The Register. I haven’t identified either of them yet, so if you know anything, please say so in the comments.

Now, onto art … I was intrigued to see such focus on writing about art, but I suppose I shouldn’t be, as the 1920s was a lively time in Australian art when Modernism, along with other exciting new styles and approaches, was taking hold.

Art in Australia

Issue no. 4

It’s not often that whole journals are reviewed these days – though there are exceptions, like the Griffith Review. I was surprised then to see how often Art in Australia was featured in 1922. The journal, which was published from 1916 to 1942, had a chequered publication history. Wikipedia explains that it had four “series”: (1) No.1, 1916 – No.11, 1921; (2) New Series Vol.1. No.1. (February 1922) – Vol.1. No.2 (May 1922); (3) Third Series No.1 (August 1922) – No.81 (November 1940); (4) Series 4, No.1 (March 1941) – No.6 (June 1942).

Two of the articles I read came from early 1922, and they discuss Issue no. 11. Penn, writing in Adelaide’s The Register (7 January), starts by saying that the introduction to the eleventh issue of this “fine literary and artistic serial … confirms an opinion frequently expressed in The Register Literary Page that the publication of such beautiful works as have emanated from the enthusiastic publishers in Sydney must … have been largely a labour of love”.  Penn says this because after this issue the new version will be a larger (newspaper-style?) format and produced less frequently.

The eleventh issue “is one of the best”, Penn says. It contains reproductions from artists like the Lindsays, Arthur Streeton, and G. W. Lambert, and literary contents from people like Lionel Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith (the journal’s editor), Zora Cross, A. G. Stephens, and Christopher Brennan. Those of you interested in the history of Australian literature will recognise some names here like Cross, Stephens and Brennan.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Argus (21 January) also talked about this issue, but focuses on describing some of the art works produced within its pages. S/he writes, for example, that:

George Lambert is represented by his head of Miss Mollie Dangar, a pencil sketch that most critics would probably prefer to his “Bush Landscape,” reproduced in this number, though one must make liberal allowances, of course, for the loss inevitable in all coloured process work. 

The issue also includes “Red Gum Tree” by George Streeton (presumably a typo for Arthur). The article concludes by advising of the changed format to come. It will be “in larger size, though there will be fewer plates. The price will be only half that charged now, but the publishers say that there will be no diminution in quality.”

Late in the year, Adelaide’s The Mail (2 December) wrote about the November 1922 issue of Art in Australia, from the third series, but starts by commenting on the journal as a whole:

Once in each quarter the soul of Australia is nourished and kept alive by the group of artistic and literary spirits who under the name of “Art in Australia, Ltd.,” register the vitality and departures of art and the arts in Australia to-day.

I love the belief that “the soul of Australia” is “nourished and kept alive” by a “group of artistic and literary spirits”. The writer argues that, while painting in Australia can’t “yet compare in range and extent of output with English resource”, this journal “can proudly take its place beside the older Studio“. Not only is it “accomplished in its colour reproduction” but it has “a freshness and virility characteristically Australian”.

Moreover, the issue is, the writer continues, “possessed especially of literary strength centring upon living and candid appreciations of Henry Lawson on the part of A. G. Stephens and J. Le Gay Brereton”. Melbourne’s National Gallery director, L. Bernard Hall, writes on aesthetics, and someone called “F. Bennicke Hart deals suggestively with the prospect before Australian music, stressing the propriety of at any rate continuity with the British spirit”. (Hmm…) There are also “characteristically caustic comments and epigrams” from Norman Lindsay, and poetry from writers like Dorothea Mackellar and Leon Gellert. And much more, but you get the gist of the breadth of the arts covered by the journal.

The writer concludes that “the duty and privilege” of all who support progress in Australian art is to not only support the journal, but introduce it to others.

Art books

Newspapers in 1922 also carried articles about art books, but Narrung, in the Sydney Mail (28 June) starts by discussing the book production industry in Australia, noting that books produced here had been of poor quality: “the less said about them the better; no library would care to own them, and they remain a sad record of ignoble effort and artistic failure”. Meanwhile, overseas, beautiful books were being produced, books that “should have set a great example locally for those who had eyes to see and admire”. Angus and Robertson’s and The Bulletin had produced some beautiful books, but they were made overseas.

Then, Narrung writes,

after a long period of sterility the subscription edition of “Satyrs and sunlight,” by Norman Lindsay and Hugh McGrae, made its appearance some 10 or 12 years ago, and until recently remained probably the handsomest example of a book ever turned out in Australia.

After a few more years, books of “great artistic merit” finally started to be produced here, like Elves and fairies by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The art of Fred McCubbin, and the famous catalogue, the first Hilder book. Suddenly, Australian publishers, including Art in Australia, were publishing beautiful books, albeit many being limited or subscription editions. A particularly beautiful example, according to Narrung, was Norman Lindsay and Leon Gallery’s The Isle of San. Narrung concludes with:

The fact remains that when some local artist or author is singled out nowadays for a special edition the result is always a delight, and Australian books, like other of our products, compare with the best of the world’s market.

The writer in Melbourne’s The Herald (2 December) also takes up this issue of publishing beautiful books, saying that “every painter whose work is worthy gains nowadays the recognition for which, in the past, genius often strove vainly”. S/he reviews The art of Sara Levi, published in 1922, calling it an “attractive portfolio”. Sara Levi was a nature painter, and was involved in several art societies at the time. “Brighton Beach”, a “charming picture” that was included in this volume, apparently fetched $4,400 in 1990, the highest price she’s fetched to date.

A superficial survey, but I’m enjoying learning (and sharing) these little insights into literary Australia of a century ago.

Previous 1922 posts: 1. Bookstall Co; 2. Reviewers on Australianness; 3. ALS Women’s night; 4. Adventure novels