Artwork 10: Down on his luck
Activists draw attention to how we value different artforms in Australia
Frederick McCubbin Down on his luck (1889)
Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck has been described as telling a truly Australian story. I see a dispirited man, not young and not old, his head resting in his hand as he sits, staring into a small fire. Hi swag lies on the ground beside him, a bluey green that matches the soft eucalypt foliage in the foreground.
The man appears alone in the bush. Soft light brown grasses carry the eye into the distance through tall and ancient gums and furry acacias. It could be late afternoon, the man, has stopped for the night but hasn’t set up camp.
His clothes provide limited clues as to his occupation or why he has chosen to sit despondently on this spot. Is he more thoughtful than destitute? Perhaps he’s waiting for a mate? As the daylight fades I’m reminded, as in such melancholy situations, that he wasn’t really alone. The painter was there all along.
View Down on his luck on the WA Art Gallery website
It’s also possible look at this painting, slowly, and see a contemplative figure taking time to be in nature. Without the didactic title we might consider this tired-looking man to be taking some time away from the city. The painting’s strong narrative feeling has sustained much debate in the over 130 years since it was painted. The luck that this man has run out of is the prospecting kind, McCubbin intending this figure to be a prototypical self-made man, in the making.
Critics were immediately enthusiastic about the work when first displayed in 1889. A writer in the Melbourne periodical Table Talk wrote effusively that in this picture, McCubbin ‘has left all his former work far behind, and raises expectation in no ordinary degree as to what he will yet accomplish’.
Both the painting’s themes and the critic’s assessment intimate a possible bright future. There can be no question, it belongs to the young white nation.
Rock Art vs. the Impressionist
In January this year Down on his luck was the object of a protest against the oil and gas company Woodside. As the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s ‘most significant and internationally renowned painting’, according to the Guardian, it was chosen and spraypainted with the resource extractor’s logo. The protesters were from a group called Disrupt Burrup Hub, including Perth ceramic artist and illustrator Joana Partyka and Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton. Partyka glued her hand to the wall adjacent to the painting and Blurton spoke a statement explaining why they were taking this action. (Watch it below.)
The protesters, among others taking climate-focused action around the country and around the world, called for greater recognition of the destruction of sacred Murujuga rock art in WA. Often described as the largest rock art gallery in the world this protest focused on a much valued and highly prized painting to draw attention to the way rock art is, in comparison, completely devalued.
Located in the Dampier Archipelago, in the Pilbara region of WA, the Murujuga rock art remains of great spiritual and cultural significance to Yaburara speaking people. Speculation is ongoing but the images are thought to be over 45,000 years old and number above one million.
I’m less interested in Down on his luck as the object of this protest—an action that draws attention to a situation of dire cultural destruction—and more interested in the framing that this, a painting about a prospector in Melbourne, not Western Australia, is the most significant and noteworthy piece in the Art Gallery of WA’s collection.
It says something about the gravitational pull of the country’s art capital (sorry Sydney) as well as about the significance of a national narrative (masculine, resource dependant, triumphalist).
It must not be a coincidence that the gallery’s most famous painting chosen as the object of protest, also happens to depict a prospector, someone intending to make their fortune by digging up the ground belonging to someone else. But how did McCubbin’s sad dude picture, so appropriate for activist intervention, come to represent the hopes and dreams of a new nation? Why the status accruing to this particular painting?
I’ll try to find out!
McCubbin was one for the “famous four” painters of the Heidelberg School, a loose group of Australian Impressionists painting outdoors during the last decades of the 19th century and into the 20th. Art historian Jeanette Hoorn writes (in one of my favourite books on this era, Australian Pastoral,) that alongside McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder were the favourite painters of the Australians.They were the It boy group of the day, praised by both the public and the art establishment of Melbourne and Sydney. (Women painters played a significant role, but it was decades before historians and critics took significant notice, so influential was the founding-dude hero narrative.)
While McCubbin wasn’t as popular as Roberts and Streeton, his images set a tone for the recognition of the Australian bush in art. His bush scenes were imbued with emotion and became synonymous with a nostalgic longing for the simple life, and an optimistic (white) nationalism developing at the time of Australia’s federation.
In 1951 Ursula Hoff, an early historian of Australian art, described the characteristics of the Heidelberg School like this:
it tended towards the dramatisation of pastoral life and became increasingly concerned not with the actual and the present, but with the not very far distant past… They summed up a tradition which stood not only for aspects of a characteristic form of national life, but which embodied those qualities of adventure, freedom, mateship, the life of the open road, the resourceful overcoming of great obstacles which form features of ‘mythos’ and epic poetry at all ages.(emphasis added)
This is easy to see in McCubbin’s Down on his luck, as well as the other paintings he produced around this time such as A bush burial (1890) and The Pioneer (1904). They are seemingly simple narrative subjects, though they hide other stories about the land and what it meant to other people using it.
Mythologising is a selective process. One of the key elements valorised was the success of the settlers, their challenges and triumphs establishing a narrative of worthy entitlement to the land they claimed.
The land in question was Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung land. Not far from expanding Melbourne suburbs, McCubbin chose a spot near Box Hill (its name imported from England, memorable (to me) as the ill-fated picnic destination in Jane Austen’s Emma). In fact, he painted the figure of the down-on-his-luck prospector in his studio, modelled by his artist mate Louis Abrahams. Similarly A bush burial features a mock grave dug by McCubbin himself with friends and Mrs McCubbin as models.These selective elements coming together to produce paintings which critics have found compelling for many years, one critic asserting the latter ranking higher than Down on his luck.
In 1896 Down on his luck was purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia and in 1935 a critic for the Daily News Perth asserted there was ‘no picture in the Perth Art Gallery more typical of Australia.’ The critic, known as C.L., went on to suggest the painting captured the bushland of Perth so well you could almost ‘smell the peculiar odor [sic] of burning gum leaves in the smoke rising from the sundowner’s fire.’ Calling the despondent man a sundowner (someone who drinks at sunset, possibly to excess) suggests another thread in the national male myth making going on in the painting: the prevalence of drink in the colonies.
That McCubbin was born in Australia is frequently mentioned in newspaper coverage of his life and art. In a profile on him in 1932 by a critic named A.C., McCubbin was described as a ‘dinkum Australian’.
Critics also emphasised the letting go of European influences within the subjects McCubbin and his fellows chose. Shortly after Tom Roberts returned from Europe and Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder appeared on the scene, ‘something very like a new Australian school began to declare itself with Box Hill and Eaglemont as it centres,’ reported A.C. in The Age. McCubbin had been teaching at the National Gallery school for some years and developed the nickname the Professor.
McCubbin wasn’t born wealthy. He assisted his mother in the family bakery after his father died. Their premises was in West Melbourne and he subsequently lived in every (now desirable) Melbourne suburb, a true product of Melbourne’s growth and prosperity.
Perhaps Down on his luck became synonymous with being an important and valued painting has more to do with Western Australia’s embrace of it than the work itself. The other members of the Heidelberg School, in my memory at least, have greater, more modern connotations, whereas McCubbin is that older, Professor figure who has worked diligently on his art his whole life but whose style is a little dated.
The resonance between Western Australia as a mining capital and this image of a man allegedly pursuing his fortune somewhere in the hills outside Melbourne (though I’m sure the bush in McCubbin’s picture was intended to be anywhere in Australia), has not been lost with time. The links binding resource extraction and art, in this picture at least, make it a compelling choice for protesting the destruction of Aboriginal land.
A.C. ‘Australian Artists of the Past: Frederick McCubbin’ The Age 26 Nov 1932, p. 5 via Trove.
‘Art and Artists: Mr. Fred McCubbin’ Table Talk 14 Mar 1890, p.5 via Trove.
C.L. ‘Our Art Gallery Pictures - by CL No. 5 “Down on his luck” by Frederick McCubbin’ The Daily News Perth 14 Sept 1935, p. 18 via Trove.
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Jeanette Hoorn, Australian Pastoral: The making of a white landscape, p. 143. (It’s one of my favourites because it critiques landscape painting and the European perspective from which it came.)
The 1990s saw growing research, including Victoria Hammond and Juliet Peers’s pathfinding book and exhibition Completing the picture: women artists and the Heidelberg era (Hawthorne East 1992).
Ursula Hoff quoted in Australian Pastoral, p. 164-65.
Anne Galbally, Frederick McCubbin, (Melbourne 1981), p. 87.