by TONY HUGHES-D’AETH
The story of the Carrolup artists is fairly well-known. In 1940, the State Government reopened Carrolup Native Settlement (near Katanning) to house Aboriginal people in the south-west. The Settlement had been set up in 1915 with the purpose of removing Aboriginal people from the new wheatbelt towns in the Great Southern, where they were considered a nuisance. The Settlement was closed in 1922 and the residents (inmates) were sent to Moore River Native Settlement.
A school was part of the reopened Carrolup Settlement, and it was to this school that Noel and Lily White were posted by the Education Department in 1946. They were confronted with a disturbing picture; the children were institutionalised and, by most measures, neglected. In an attempt to connect, Noel White gave the students drawing materials and arranged some basic instruction in drawing.
The result was a remarkable series of artworks appearing between 1946 and the closure of Carrolup in 1951. The pictures were produced by the students and, in a much more literal sense than is usual, are now known as the “Carrolup School” paintings.
So, what is the significance of the gifting of a large collection of Carrolup paintings to Curtin University’s John Curtin Gallery—the subject of their recent exhibition, Koolark Koort Koorliny (Heart Coming Home)?
The answer lies in a prior question, which is, what in fact happened to the original artworks? Remembering we are dealing with, essentially, school-children and it is not usual for art made in school to survive more than a couple of weeks pinned up in the class-room, or, in the contemporary world, stuck to the family fridge.
The spectacular nature of the paintings caught the eye of humanitarians at the time, notably Mary Durack, in the late 1940s, and exhibitions were organised, including at Boan’s Department Store in Perth in 1949. A visiting English philanthropist, Florence Rutter, became passionate about these student’s works and she brought large numbers to England to sell on the student’s behalf, with a view to improving the dire conditions of their life at Carrolup. In 1956, Rutter sold the remaining paintings to an American art-dealer, Herbert Mayer, who donated this collection to his alma mater, Colgate University in 1966. There they remained in boxes until they were chanced upon by the anthropologist and expert in Aboriginal art, Howard Morphy, in 2004. He immediately recognised them and a negotiation then ensued between Australian stakeholders, notably the Noongar relatives of the Carrolup artists, and Colgate. To cut a very long story short, the collection was bequeathed to the John Curtin Gallery this year.
Certainly over the last decade and a half, the Carrolup paintings have enjoyed a re-appraisal, driven by the determined curatorship of Professor John Stanton at UWA’s Berndt Gallery. Exhibitions have taken place, both in Perth and at Carrolup, as part of Perth Festivals. Books have been produced and an educational DVD, Show us a Light.
The question I had was whether these newly acquired (returned) paintings would add any new dimensions to our understanding of the Carrolup phenomenon, or would this merely round out more fully the existing corpus of works? Visiting the exhibition quickly established that what had been returned were not simply some additional paintings of a kind we already knew, but a stunning extension of the compass of the works. This is remarkable, because the hitherto extant paintings were already amongst the most iconic works of Australian art.
A full analysis remains to be done, but it certainly appears that the works that Rutter had kept (and sold to Mayer in 1956) included, quite simply, the best of the children’s work. And the sheer quantity and variety allows a much more detailed understanding of the nuances of the school, its participants (the kids themselves), the developments amongst the more outstanding individuals (Reynold Hard, Revel Cooper, Barry Loos, Parnell Dempster) and shifts in group style over time.
There are exquisite new examples of the classic Carrolup style, particularly late works, which show the art in more mature form. Dempster’s Untitled (Landscape with Fallen Tree) 1953 is a masterpiece, painted two years after the closure of Carrolup, but which still found its way to Rutter. Barry Loos emerges much more prominently in this collection as the painter who refined the style in the direction of an elegant formalism. The contrast between the sharply etched figures in black and the delicately modulated chromatic backgrounds is breathtaking.
Other major features to emerge from the exhibition are the highly developed decorative arts practiced by the students. Again, this was already known, but the studies for decorated pottery in this collection are superb, especially Reynold Hart’s The Blue Plate c1949 and the anonymous design Teapot c1949.
Completely surprising were the large series of abstract designs and patterns made with pastels. It is not possible to describe these in any way that does them justice—they are ur-pictures, made on the border of representation and expression. The Carrolup painters were (and are) often seen as a parallel to Namatjira and the Hermannsburg watercolourists. But these abstract works point, at least formally, to the emergence of abstract oil-painting at Papunya. A major scholarly evaluation of this surely beckons, because there are significant implications for the historiography of modern Aboriginal art.
Lastly, the collection has preserved a number of the pages of the schoolbooks the boys kept. At a recent exhibition of the iconic pieces of its collection, the State Library displayed the history book composed by Revel Cooper, and it is indeed an artefact of profound cultural significance. This collection has pages from the schoolbooks of Cooper, Hart and Dempster—meticulously drawn and captioned descriptions of native animals and weapons. These appeared in Durack and Rutter’s book, Child Artists of the Australian Bush (1952) and it is remarkable to see them turn up in this exhibition.
Images courtesy of The Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork, Curtin University Art Collection.