Shifting the Rear-View Mirror Gallery director Andrew Sayers takes a boldly farsighted look at the story of Australian art

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Canberra The secret life of andrew sayers unfolds in the quiet garden studio of his Canberra home. It's here the director of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia composes his still-life studies-or "arrangements of meaningful objects," as he likes to call them. The fact that his paintings might never reach the public light doesn't faze him. Instead, his private ritual is "to really understand something about painting and seeing," he says. "Let's say my ambitions are modest." Sayers' public achievements-attained with the same careful deliberation as his painting-are anything but. As the gallery's founding director, he has helped shake up portraiture's sometimes staid image, bringing magazine photography, video and performance art into the mix (boldness also characterized the gallery's $A5.3 million purchase last year of John Webber's portrait of Captain Cook, the most costly acquisition yet by an Australian gallery). And as author of Australian Art (Oxford University Press; 257 pages), Sayers presents a quietly radical new model for the appreciation of his country's visual culture. In weaving together the stories of Aboriginal art and the Western traditions that have developed since colonial times, "the terrain he explores is new, fresh, and unfamiliar," writes Patrick McCaughey, the Australian director of the Yale Center for British Art. It's a novel new approach-"a journey through a landscape," writes Sayers, "with stops along the way to look at some features in detail." While Aboriginal art has loomed conspicuously large internationally, until now it has been treated separately or ignored in national art surveys. Bernard Smith's landmark Australian Painting (1962), for instance, was essentially the story of European painting transformed by an antipodean landscape. In Australian Art, Sayers shifts the frame. At its center is indigenous art, which-with rock paintings up to 50,000 years old-is "the oldest continuous art tradition in the world," writes Sayers. The story he paints is of a country slowly awakening to its rich prehistory. Aboriginal art is "the most recognizable, the most distinctive and indigenous in the true sense of the word," he says. "So it seemed to me important to try to bring the two paths of Australian art together." But marrying two styles informed by different worlds (one intent on maintaining ancient spiritual ties to the land, the other on forging a new national identity) has its dangers. As Christopher Allen warned in his book Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism (1997): "Aboriginal culture is not our culture-neither in the sense that we own it nor that we belong to it." Sayers succeeds by exploring where the two traditions overlap and converge. As his book documents, this first occurred with 19th century Aboriginal artists William Barak, Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla, who adopted Western materials-pencil and watercolor on paper- to record the encroachment of white settlement on traditional lifestyles. The process continued with anthropologist Baldwin Spencer, who began collecting Arnhem Land bark paintings early last century as much for their aesthetic as for their ethnographic value; a mission completed in the 1950s by artist and curator Tony Tuckson, who first introduced Aboriginal works into a public art gallery. But it is modernist Margaret Preston who emerges as the real hero of Sayers' book. At a time when her contemporaries were experimenting with "feeble C�zannism" or derivative Surrealism, Preston's robust paintings and prints gave birth to the idea "that an Australian national art would arise from Aboriginal art," Sayers writes. Her 1942 painting Flying Over the Shoalhaven River employed ocher colors to describe an almost Aboriginal mapping of the land. And her extraordinary 1946 monotype Bush Track, N.S.W., which sought "to give the rough and tumble of our growth of trees, without design or any other purpose than that of covering space, as the natives do in their well-covered rock paintings," has the spiritual force of a yam Dreaming painting by Emily Kngwarreye. Here Aboriginal and European art are reconciled in paint. In the process, Sayers manages to dismantle a few myths about Australian art. He questions the assumption that an authentic view of landscape began with the Heidelberg School, when Tom Roberts and his fellow plein-air painters set up their easels on the bushy outskirts of 1880s Melbourne, and points instead to "the grace and lightness" of John Glover's scenes of 1830s Tasmania, and the honesty and richness of the work that accompanied Australia's pioneering naturalists, surveyors and explorers. In downscaling the importance of artists like Norman Lindsay ("the judgment made in London by William Orpen, a British painter much admired in Australia, that Lindsay was not so much a scandalous artist, but simply a bad artist, seems completely just") and Brett Whiteley (whose works "represent the ultimate in lifestyle aspiration paintings"), Sayers allows the achievements of Sidney Nolan to stand as tall as his Ned Kelly pictures of the 1940s. "Nolan was the great intuitive Australian artist-everybody else was struggling away," says Sayers. "With extraordinary originality, he actually grasped what it was to make modern art." In Australian Art, Nolan rubs shoulders with a number of less familiar figures. As an art history student at Sydney University and later as curator of Australian drawings at the National Gallery of Australia, Sayers was intent on uncovering what he calls "the hidden part of Australian art history": the private scribblings of artists' sketchbooks. And Australian Art is filled with the fruits of his labor. As well as the Aboriginal artists of the 19th century, whom Sayers wrote about in a 1994 book, there is convict Thomas Bock and his drawings of executed criminals, S.T. Gill and his jewel-like watercolors of the exploration of South Australia's desert interior, and modernist Florence Rodway and her luminous pastels. According to Sayers, Australian art is as much about these quieter voices as it is about the louder egos of its painters. It's an inclusive approach. And one that has typified the reign of the affable and erudite Sayers at the National Portrait Gallery. Already exhibitions have thrown light on forgotten colonial figureheads and the distinguished but neglected early 20th century studio photographer Walter Barnett; planned for next year is a major survey of portrait sculpture. "We've shown that portraiture is about contemporary artists, it's about photography," says Sayers. "It's not only about admirable people but it's about every part of our psyche." So the gallery director can retreat to his garden studio with pride. Not only has he helped shade in the features of a national face, but with Australian Art he has provided a lively new shape for the body of its art as well.