UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture

For this Research Point I decided to start my investigation with two portrait busts I saw recently when visiting the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Canberra.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
Bust
1936
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Trucaninny, wife of Woureddy (1936) by Benjamin Law is a painted cast plaster sculpture. In primary school I was taught that Trucaninny was the last Tasmanian Aborigine.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law
Bust
1935
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Woureddy, an Aboriginal Chief of Van Diemen’s Land (1835) was made by the same sculptor a year earlier.

There are multiple cast versions of these busts. The photographs here are from the British Museum because my use falls within their terms of use. Their colouring and condition are different to the ones I saw at the NPG which are painted black. The Australian Museum has two sets – one painted black, the other with more detailed paintwork. The Australian Museum photographs provide particular interest which I’ll mention later. The direct links are: British Museum –
www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?museumno=2009,2025.1
www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?museumno=2009,2025.2
NPG – www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=1721
www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?irn=1722
Australian Museum – australianmuseum.net.au/Truganini-1812-1876

A very brief and rough history. Tasmania is a state of Australia, a large island and many small islands to the south of the main continent. Aboriginal people have been living there for 45,000 years or so. The British began to settle in southern Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, in 1803. There was conflict virtually from the start, over land, food sources and abductions (for sexual partners and labourers). The situation worsened significantly from 1824 as the colony expanded and population grew. The Aborigines resisted with guerrilla war tactics, the colonial government declared martial law between 1828 and 1832 – the Black War. The Black Line in 1830 was a chain of colonists – convicts and freemen – which over several weeks swept across the settled land in an attempt to drive the Aboriginal people onto a peninsula where they could be contained. Disease, fighting, massacres had decimated the Aboriginal people. Eventually in 1833 around 220, given various promises, were persuaded to surrender and were moved to Wybalenna on Flinders Island. By 1835 there were fewer than 150 alive, by 1847 just 47, and the last, Trucaninny, died in 1876. Tasmanian Aborigines were said to be extinct. It wasn’t true, and there’s lots of scholarly and not-so-scholarly debate about the rest.

The busts are life-size. At NPG the Woureddy bust is set on a plinth putting it at an average man’s height. He looks out confidently, directly. Close by the Trucaninny bust is on a lower plinth – a small woman. Her gaze is down and unfocused, I couldn’t find a position where I could meet her eyes. Both are dressed in what appear to be animal skins. The contrast in their stance is striking. The simple explanation would be that this portrays the individual personalities, but from various accounts I have read Trucaninny was not a shy or easily overwhelmed woman, and the sorrowful, passive, submissive posture of the bust is extreme.

Benjamin Law arrived in Tasmania in 1835 and created the bust of Woureddy soon after. It could be that Law was not well informed of the history and situation of the aborigines in the colony and that he saw Woureddy as the “noble savage” of Rousseau, free of the vices of civilized men, peaceful, content, without foresight. When working on Trucaninny the next year Law may have been more informed about the devastation of her people and reflected that knowledge in the bust.

The contrast between the busts could been intended as a symbol of the binary nature of men and women. Europa and the Bull (see 28-Jul-2013) shows the strong, active male and the woman acted upon, with no voice in her situation. That explanation leaves a nasty taste, given both Woureddy and Tucaninny were ultimately unable despite their efforts to help their people against the power of the colonists (that is, they were together on one side of a different binary (power) relationship).

Benjamin Law Bust of George Augustus Robinson 1836

Benjamin Law
Bust of George Augustus Robinson
1836
State Library of Victoria
handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/71284

Of interest here is a third bust by Law, apparently dated between Woureddy and Tucaninny. George Augustus Robinson was the “conciliator” or “pacificator” who persuaded the remaining Aborigines in Tasmania to surrender and accept relocation. Robinson commissioned his portrait bust from Law. I saw a similar ones at Elizabeth Bay House (see 30-Nov-2013), although the one shown in my post was marble rather than plaster and commissioned by the Linnean Society rather than self-commissioned. Robinson’s bust is in neoclassical style, showing him draped in a toga, fit but slightly older than his age at the time (around 45), wise, calm, noble, with the authority of antiquity behind him. Woureddy and Trucaninny are depicted in the skins of the savage, deliberately stressing the primitive – at a time when they would have generally dressed in european style clothing. Combined they could be viewed as a Dying Gaul (see www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/exh/3655.html), defeated yet still in death noble, dignified.

Similar approaches can be seen in images of Native Americans, for example the sculptures of Ferdinand Pettrich (see www.skd.museum/de/sonderausstellungen/archiv/tecumseh-keokuk-black-hawk/index.html. His c. 1850 Bust of Kee-o-kuk (Watchful Fox) shows the proud, erect head of the chief of the Sauk-Fox, while The dying Te-cum-seh depicts the fallen, dying warrior. These works were created at a time “when the US government’s policy towards the Native Americans was becoming increasingly hostile and the young nation was striving for further expansion and a national identity, while the native inhabitants were fighting for their physical and cultural survival” (Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2013).

As mentioned above, Robinson commissioned his own bust. Law acted as an entrepreneur when he created the busts of Trucanniny and Woureddy, reproducing them multiple times in a money-making venture as a memorial to the end of the Black War. Public reactions at the time were quite different. A number of contemporaries saw Robinson’s bust as a vanity piece, self-aggrandisement by a man who had managed to make considerable money doing his “humanitarian” work with the natives. The other two busts were a commercial success for Law, but not as works of art. Instead casts were purchased by museums and individuals for their ethnographic value as a record of what was assumed to be a primitive and dying race.

There may be an extreme example of this ethnographic focus, seeing the casts as specimens rather than portraits of individuals. In the copies of Trucanniny shown above and at NPG the figure is shown wearing a necklace of shells. A staff member at NPG explained to me that these were a tangible sign of Trucanniny’s connection to land. The shells were a kind found at her traditional home, and the necklace was knotted in a specific way which she would have been taught as a young woman by tribal elders. I was taken to another part of the gallery and shown a later photograph of Trucanniny, still wearing the shells (see www.portrait.gov.au/site/collection_info.php?searchtype=basic&searchstring=aboriginal&irn=1401&acno=2009.4). It seemed a small positive in a very difficult life that she had been able to keep the necklace and the connection to land. I was shocked later when researching for this post to find that on one of the versions of the cast at the Australian Museum the shells are absent – yet another layer of dehumanisation.

Researching these portrait busts I keep coming back to the beliefs and attitudes of the colonists. There was an assumption of superiority and often an expectation indigeneous people would die out. People acted in an involved web of financial, religious and humanitarian motives. Benjamin Duterrau’s painting The Conciliation (1840 – see foundingdocs.gov.au/enlargement-eid-49-pid-66.html) shows Robinson shaking hands with one of a group of Aborigines, bringing peace and fellowship after the dreadful Black War. It could be likened to Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-72) by Benjamin West (see http://www.pafa.org/museum/The-Collection-Greenfield-American-Art-Resource/Tour-the-Collection/Category/Collection-Detail/985/mkey–2609/). I don’t know American history so can’t comment on the earlier image, but Duterrau’s image of peace and harmony, the suggestion of equality in a handshake, the idea of a “treaty” is far from the actuality. Over 150 years later the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) “acknowledges the dispossession of Tasmania’s Indigenous people and recognises certain rights of Tasmanians of Aboriginal descent. It is the first such legislation in Tasmania, where the assumption that no Aboriginal people remained after the first 50 years of the Colony meant the issue of reconciliation in law was ignored” (Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.]).

Reference

Arnoldsche Art Publishers (2013) TECUMSEH, KEOKUK, BLACK HAWK (catalogue entry) [online] Available from www.arnoldsche.com/en/New-Books/TECUMSEH-KEOKUK-BLACK-HAWK.html#/16/ (Accessed 8-Mar-2014)

Museum of Australian Democracy, [n.d.] Documenting a democracy: Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas) [online] Available from http://foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-79-aid-7-pid-66.html (Accessed 13-Mar-2014)

Resources

‘Robinson, George Augustus (1791–1866)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robinson-george-augustus-2596/text3565, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 13 March 2014.

Delaney, JJ ([n.d.]) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online] Available from http://www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/ (Accessed 9-Mar-2014)

Knapman, G. (2010) The Pacificator: discovering the lost bust of George Augustus Robinson. The La Trobe Journal 86 (December), pp. 37 – 52. Available online at http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-86/t1-g-t4.html (Accessed 8-March-2014)

Lyndall Ryan and Neil Smith, ‘Trugernanner (Truganini) (1812–1876)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/trugernanner-truganini-4752/text7895, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 March 2014.

UA1-WA:P4-p1-Research Point: Portrait sculpture
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Project one: The portrait
Research Point: Portrait sculpture

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