University of Melbourne - Baillieu Library - 2004



Having spent most of the 90’s in Europe, working through mythic themes such as Don Quixote & La Commedia Del Arte, on my return to Australia I felt obliged to address a mythic Australian theme. The obvious choice was Voss; Patrick White’s Nobel prize winning novel based on the disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt.

Further, having spent much of my time in Europe in the context of Antipodean’s such as Arthur Boyd, Bernard Smith & Sidney Nolan, I wanted to explore what I perceived to be an Antipodean methodology: that is to immerse myself in the psychological and physical terrain; firstly to familiarise myself the challenges of painting the landscape, a practice which had never been of interest to me, but as a post-conceptual painter, the issues of vocabulary and virtuosity become increasingly important. My objective was to use an Antipodea methodology to explore the physical and psychological terrain evoked by the myth of Voss. In light of these considerations I set out in my mobile studio/van to loosely follow Ludwig Leichhardt’s footsteps into central Australia.

c aust-paperBefore leaving for Australia from Germany I had imagined working plein-air on large canvases, it became obvious that travelling with large wet oil paintings was out of the question. I eventually developed a racking system for my van so I could work on prepared etching paper (3 coats of gesso on 300 gsm Hahnemule cotton rag). All of the work done during this period was made using an retrospective mode of fast plein-air painting familiar to the impressionists. However, despite the obvious parrallels with impressionism or the attractions of post-impressionist processes, such as those of Van Gogh or Gaugin, my project had no interest in abstraction or enriching the palette.  My painterly objective was to become fast and accurate, ultimate articulate.  The endevour was two fold;

  1. to immerse myself in the physical and psychological terrain encountered by the mythic Voss
  2. to embed the painterly process of the representation of the Central Australian landscape into my mind/hand dexterity.

In effect this meant learning a foreign language, one of the many dimensions of the vocabulary pf painting. I suspect the landscape end of this project engendered considerable confusion regarding my intentions and credibilty as an artist. Particlually in Australia at a time where the gulf between rise of contemporary art and death of painting was so intractable.  The paintings that came of this landscape project were not the subject of my work, but rather a by-product of the post-colonial project; The Myth of Voss.


Plein air landscape studiesc aust rh

The Disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt


There is considerable conjecture as to the circumstances of Ludwig Leichhardt’s fateful disappearance in Central Australia but no conclusive evidence about where or how he died. Since his last citing in 1848 a number of trees have been discovered with the letter ‘L’ carved into them. They affirm a route through the northern river system of western Queensland: several on the Barcoo River where the Thompson River meets Cooper Creek; one on the Diamantina River; and another on the Georgina River, of which Sandover River is a tributary. The Sandover River, which runs through Arawerre in Utopia, starts in the McDonnell Ranges. Somewhere in my research I had come across the suggestion that the last of the ‘L’ trees, had been sited around Arltunga, a notion that I now am given to doubt. A rifle butt inscribed LL Ludwig Leichhardt - 1848 was found in a tree about 370 km south west of Alice Springs. This had had taken me out along the McDonnell Ranges to Hermannsburg, Areyonga, Kings Canyon, Uluru, KataTjuta and the Petermann Ranges where Lassiter’s grave is marked next to a cave toward Docker River. Much had changed in the 150 years since Leichhardt disappeared into the never-never, but rather less than I might have imagined when I left Berlin to return to Australia late 1998.

Leichhardt, often seen around Sydney with his chimney-pot hat garlanded with vines and flowers and the occasional insect specimen pinned to the rim, had difficulty fitting into the colonial society of the 1840s. He had studied philosophy at Berlin University reading Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel, before making a critical shift to the natural sciences. Later, the young German went onto study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and at the Hopital de la Charite in Paris, at the same time researching natural history at the British Museum, London and the Museum of Natural History, Paris. Eventually Leichhardt sailed to Australia as a naturalist. On his arrival in Sydney in 1841, Leichhardt lectured -in geology and botany with aspirations to become the director of a National Museum but such positions were not on offer to the young German nor were any Colonial Office grants almost exclusively given to the British explorers to chart the continent’s rural and mineral resources.

Thus, the eccentric German began his expeditions without financial support. On his first trip, Leichhardt travelled from Sydney through the Hunter Valley district and on up to Moreton Bay, not far from what later became Brisbane, studying flora, fauna and geology. His next expedition managed to raise a small private subscription of £130, compared to Eyre’s proposed budget of £5,000 for the same journey. This time Leichhardt set off with a handful of men from Moreton Bay for Port Essington, a colonial outpost since overtaken by the jungle north of what is now Darwin. After a few months of hardship two of his party returned and a third was killed in an Aboriginal attack. Two years later, after Leichhardt was widely believed to have perished, he sailed triumphantly back into Sydney harbour aboard ‘The Heroine’. Having made what was to be the longest expedition in the history of Australian exploration at the time, a journey of some 5,000 kilometres, Leichhardt became known as the Prince of Explorers. His Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia won him the Annual Prize of the Geographical Society, Paris and the Patrons Medal from the Royal Geographical Society, London, and finally secured him funding from the Colonial Office for his most ambitious proposal yet: to cross Australia east to west.

Despite the historical debate about the Mad German’s common sense, he undoubtedly had learnt much of his bushcraft from encounters with his Aboriginal friends. If necessary, he could survive on bush tucker, a food source spurned by other explorers. However, in spite of Leichhardt’s proven resilience, strength of will and good fortune, a trip from Brisbane across central Australia to the Western Australian coastline then down to Perth would prove a highly speculative venture. Even by today’s standards it would be considered virtually impossible on horseback. Following his departure from Mount Abundance, on the Fitzroy Downs in 1848, neither he nor any of his party were ever to be seen again.                                                         

In vanishing into the mythic never-never without a trace Leichhardt left behind a blank slate. His fate became the subject of great speculation and inspired a whole host of ghost stories and a couple of novels before Patrick White‘s Voss. The Yuwungggayai rock painting which depicts fully clothed European with animal head holding a gun like a spear is believed to have been inspired by Leichhardt’s party. George Chaloupka’s 50,000 year history of Aboriginal Rock Art of Arnhem Land dates two interesting developments concurrent with Leichhardt’s appearance in the top end: the first images of Europeans and the beginning of what he calls the Sorcery Paintings. The Sorcery Paintings developed in direct relation to the need for treatments for a wide range of fatal diseases: influenza, leprosy, syphilis and men with guns. These abstracted glyphs of convulsing bodies are often shot through with spears, magical plants pressed into various orifices. The Sorcery Paintings are markedly different from other cave paintings in that they are usually saturated in the resins known to be used for theurgical purposes. The conflict of cultures and interests between the Aboriginal people and the colonisers had begun. Daisy Bates documents the demise of the entire Kallaia tribe during the laying of the transcontinental railway across the Nullarbor. Seduced off their magic water hole at Ooldea these Emu people were then barred from their sacred water source -as it pumped to a dry clay pan.

The colonising spirit with its historically informed instinct for war and its romanticised notions of enlightenment, in effect a triumph of the will, was pitched against a primordial Aboriginal culture, which had little history of organized warfare, with disastrous consequences for Aboriginal people. Until the advent of colonialisation evidence suggests the Aboriginal people were a healthy race who had prospered under rule of their own sacred law.

Gary Willis - Melbourne - 2004