The lie of the land

THIS IS THE biography of a painting I've known my whole life. At least, there hasn't been a time when I can't remember the painting that used to hang in the long, darkened hallway of my grandparents' house on the farm in northern Hawke's Bay. This was the farm we used to visit as children for what felt like the endless weeks of school holidays. I knew the farm in all its seasons – from its calm, elegiac autumns through cold dark winters, and into the halcyon heat of summer. Because the farm is now only remembered as a fragment in a happy childhood, the richness I've remembered has surely deepened with the years. So the winters of recall are probably colder and more dramatic than they really were, the summers probably longer and hotter, and the magpies waking us in the still mornings more melodic and otherworldly.

How then, I wonder, has the painting which used to hang in the hallway deepened with the years since I last saw it? How have the years I’ve lived away from her watchful gaze influenced my recall? The shape of her thickset body emerges from the gloom of the spare landscape she stands against; her slab-like feet and hands and her solid, impassive stare; her dress and hat and bag, clearly the accessories of another, previous time. Even then, to the small boy I was, she was a woman who obviously belonged to a bygone age: a woman of some mythic, and in our case, settler past.

What I cannot remember – not quite, not with any clarity – is the first time I was told about that woman and the fragments of her curious history. I do remember, and so do my brother and sister, the legend of her backstory: how she came to be associated with the family through an uncle of my mother’s. This was my maternal grandfather’s brother, his elder by some years. Jim, despite being the older of the two, was the prodigal son, the family absconder prone to disappearing and reappearing at intervals, usually unannounced, but always with a story to explain his last period of sustained absence. Or, once, a wife.

There are variations on the story. For some reason it is my older brother’s account that has formed definitively in my mind; he tells how Jim appeared in the front door one night just after teatime, during a storm in the depths of winter and nonchalantly asked my astounded and delighted grandmother if he was in time for pudding. She invited him in from the cold, set him down at the kitchen table and called to our grandfather that they had a visitor. When my grandfather entered the room he barely raised an eyebrow.

‘Gidday Jim,’ he said and sat down. At that point they hadn’t seen one another for two or three years. They sat at the table while my grandmother brought them tea and pikelets with jam and cream and spoke as if they’d seen each other that morning.

After an hour or so of sharing news, the story goes, my great-uncle mentioned he had a wife. This was too much for my grandmother. ‘Jim! Why didn’t you say? Where on earth is she?’

‘In the truck.’

In later years, this became one of my grandmother’s favourite stories, one to which she would return again and again whenever asked, especially in the years after my grandfather died. It was not just the story but her husband also she would remember. It was her way of being happy again. I never told her when I noticed if the details had changed a few degrees.

Jim and his new wife stayed a week and then he was off again, not to return for another ten or fifteen years. He spent most of that time in Australia working as a drover until the work ran out. That must have been sometime in the ’60s. By then my mother had been born, the last of my grandparents’ three children. She remembers Jim returning for a couple of weeks when she was six or seven, but by that stage the ‘wife’ had mysteriously disappeared. When I was a teenager I learned that most in the wider family had doubted they’d ever been married. Jim’s infrequent missives home mentioned his bride less and less, until eventually all trace of her dropped off altogether. My grandparents surmised that she and Jim had pretended to be married to avoid embarrassing their hosts.

It was Jim who sent my grandparents the painting. My mother and aunt remember its arrival and my grandmother unwrapping it on the large kitchen table, witnessing her silent astonishment when she saw who it was. For it was her – Jim’s ‘wife’ – whom my grandmother hadn’t seen for what must have been the best part of twenty years. Still, there was no doubt about it. There was no letter of explanation enclosed, just a note, ‘Love Jim’. They hung her in the hallway, at that northern end, in the darkness, away from the sunlight. And there she stayed, on the farm, until my grandfather died and my grandmother moved into a smaller house closer to town. I don’t remember ever seeing the painting of Jim’s wife hung in my grandmother’s new place, but it must have been somewhere. She wouldn’t have discarded it. But nor do I remember it emerging after she’d died and as her children set about dividing her things between them. Somehow it faded out of all reckoning.

But now, and in a curious way that I cannot quite understand, the painting has returned to us again.

First, a confession: I have never stolen anything before in my life. I remember being dared to once in a toy shop and failing utterly to silence the inner conscience and forge the steel will required. But this time the conscience intervened with the opposite effect; I felt I couldn’t not take the book with me. Because you’ve heard what the painting meant to me, how it sat like a cornerstone in my private, family mythology, you will, I think, understand.

I’d been tramping through the Egmont National Park in Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island – the obverse side of the island from the farm where I’d spent those idyllic childhoods. I was all alone. The walking wasn’t too strenuous, and the day was beautiful. The only thing that weighed on my mind came a couple of hours into the walk when I realised I’d forgotten to pack any reading matter. I crossed my fingers there would be something in the hut. Most huts have books left in them by previous trampers for the next to enjoy. My fate was in the hands, or at least the readings habits, of my fellow trampers.

When I got to Kāhui hut it was empty except for me. And a dozen or so books. Thank God, I said aloud to the empty room. I made a cup of tea and changed into warm, dry clothes – there had been a few river crossings through the afternoon and though I wasn’t cold having walked for six hours, I was soaking below the waist. When I was comfortable, padding about in thick socks, thermal long johns and a couple of jerseys I perused the small shelf by the window.

I was relieved and impressed when I discovered a roll call of surprisingly literary names. Alongside the anticipated Stephen Kings and Wilbur Smiths, there was a Maurice Gee – the Plumb trilogy, which I’d read – and next to him a book of Murray Bail’s short stories which I hadn’t. I selected the Bail and sat at the table with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits. When I opened the volume, there, staring at me through the screen of a grainy reproduction, like a ghost looking across the years, was our painting of Jim’s wife. I’ve since learned of course that the painting is called The Drover’s Wife, and that it was painted in 1945 by the Australian painter Russell Drysdale. But I knew her by another name; to me she was and always will be Jim’s wife, that curiously fleeting and yet stable presence in our house and the background of our lives all through the years. In a state of virtual shock I read the short story, which Bail had named after Drysdale’s painting and where her reproduction appears. I devoured the words as fast as I could. And then I read it again more slowly; and again, I think, a third time.

You see now why I had to take the book with me.

THE STORY AND the painting have become twin obsessions. I had to find out what I could about them, their inceptions and their histories. And of course, I had to find out how Jim was involved, and who that woman really was. I began by saying that this is the biography of a painting; perhaps it is more acute – more trenchant and better directed – to say that this is the biography of a painting and its reception.

I have not visited the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, to see where she now hangs. Curiously though, by now I have seen so many copies and reproductions that I am not sure what I would find were I to stand before her in the flesh. I’ve memorised the details, the composition. I know how many spare lines of trees stand in the middle distance; I know how the vastness of space behind her hangs on the line of land and sky, just as I know the slight tilt of her hat and the stoicism in her softly shaded eyes. And I know too the tiny dark figure beyond, tending to the horse and wagon, which, I suppose, the drover’s wife is about to embark within. I can’t help wonder if that tiny figure was meant, in some way, to be Jim.

I hazard a guess that the painting is as familiar to many Australians as the works of well-known New Zealand painters like Rita Angus or Colin McCahon are familiar to New Zealanders. Perhaps, as is the case with Angus and McCahon, there will be those with barely a passing interest in art’s role in cultural nationalism but who might be able to tell you that Drysdale and The Drover’s Wife are ‘important’, even if they’re not able to explain why. I’m interested in that audience and the role they play, vital and inexpert, in the production of a national myth.

For like Angus and McCahon, Drysdale is a painter whose work, it seems to me, has presented certain strains of the national mythos with – we are told – such force and clarity that eventually his work has been allowed to stand in for whichever local reality it was produced in response to. The boundary between the painted landscape and the real one is thus smoothed over, erased, and from here it is hardly surprising when the mythologiser of the land is, in turn, swiftly and inexorably mythologised himself.

A few days after returning from the national park where I came across the Bail story for the first time, I disappeared into a library seeking out other traces of Drysdale. I discovered Geoffrey Dutton, a writer with whom I was not acquainted before, but whose angle on Drysdale was familiar: ‘a slow, stubborn and solitary painter of unshakeable integrity [whose] loving vision of Australia […] is entirely his own.’ Except that it isn’t quite his own, as Dutton’s terms also permit: ‘There are now many occasions on which an Australian can find himself in front of a man, a town street or a deserted landscape and say, “That’s a Russell Drysdale.”’

From the start Bail chooses to wrong-foot us, the implied reader familiar with the painting and, presumably, the place it holds in the Australian cultural psyche. And although I wasn’t one of those readers until I’d discovered later for myself something of Drysdale’s place in the canon, I felt I understood intuitively the ambit of Bail’s story, with its concern to playfully undercut culturally constructed assumptions of identity.

Bail’s narrator, the bitter Gordon, starts by addressing the painting itself, or at least its reproduction, sitting above the story’s opening lines: ‘There has been a mistake – but of no great importance – made in the denomination of this picture. The woman depicted is not “The Drover’s Wife”. She is my wife.’

Gordon notes the hidden left hand of the woman in the painting and reads sinister import in what we can’t see: ‘This portrait was painted shortly after she left – and had joined him. Notice she has very conveniently hidden her wedding hand.’ Our cuckolded narrator goes on, cannily trading further on suggestion and absence: ‘I say “shortly after” because she has our small suitcase – Drysdale has made it look like a shopping bag – and she is wearing the sandshoes she normally wore to the beach.’

In the space of two paragraphs Bail constructs a version of the painting’s history raucously divergent from any we could expect to receive at the hands of Drysdale’s critics. Gone is the determined Aussie she-battler of the bucolic legend underpinning the drover’s wife and taking her place an absconding wife and mother. Gone too, for that matter, is Drysdale the honest chronicler of life in the outback; Bail effectively side-lines him, translating him into a mere bit-player, a hapless portraitist limited in range and vision. Although ‘Drysdale’ the fictional painter is excused by Gordon for the liberties he has taken with his subject – ‘the artist has fallen down (though how was he to know?)’ – he stands accused of taking them all the same: ‘He has Hazel with a resigned helpless expression – as if it were all my fault. Or, as if she had been a country woman all her ruddy life.’

From here, Bail’s subversions come thick and fast. Hazel, we are told, struggled with her weight and ‘had a silly streak.’ She lacked both class – ‘A drover! Why a drover?’ – and sympathy: her final words to her husband, ‘Don’t give Trev any carrots.’ Through her, Gordon is himself a figure lampooned. He is a dentist – perhaps a career choice as respectably dissonant with the dominant tropes of Australian myth-making as Bail could imagine. And on the subject of landscape itself Bail is committed to the satirist’s edge, disrupting all romantic notions associated with contemporary Australians’ relationship with the land; perhaps most memorably towards the end of the story, when a train barrels along the Adelaide-Port Augusta railway line, tearing Gordon and his family from their sleep where they are camped in the great outdoors.

But underlying Bail’s fun at Gordon’s expense are deeper, more far-reaching ramifications. Gordon is in many respects an unwitting narrator, but it is through him that Bail reminds us of the extent of the drover’s wife myth with a couple of sly nods to Lawson. For one thing, there is the snake which appears under the house in both Bail’s and Lawson’s short stories; although Bail’s tone here is too playful, too mocking of the emasculated Gordon to count as homage; his description of the ‘black brute, its head bashed in’ reminds us of Lawson’s take on the myth. Far more telling is the very final note which Bail strikes. Gordon’s closing thoughts consider how dominant Hazel stands in relation to the ‘rotten landscape’ all around her. Anyone who has read Lawson will recall those native apple trees, ‘stunted, rotten’. It is as though Bail has not only hand-picked the word that most represented the extent of the feeling he found in Lawson’s story and thereby chosen to finish with it, but also that he has deployed it as an insult, flung on behalf of the worsted Gordon, back towards Drysdale himself, that painter of ‘rotten’ landscapes.

Delicately imbricated into the layers of Bail’s treatment, then, are laid these subtle reminders of the power and the place of stories and mythologies as they interact with the real world. All are contingent on recognising the nature of art as artifice. For when Gordon observes of the painting that the landscape ‘is the outback – but where exactly? South Australia? It could easily be Queensland, West Australia, the Northern Territory. We don’t know. You could never find that spot,’ he doesn’t only remind us of the reality of the vastness of Australia’s great hinterland, but also that Drysdale was a painter of mythic proportion; that if his vaunted ‘new vision of Australia’ has been firmly lodged in the national cultural consciousness, then it has traded on some broader, more abstract value than the particularities of this scene or that subject.

Although the fictional Gordon seems designed to subvert the critically imagined Drysdale, Bail’s manoeuvring also reminds us of the reality beyond the frames of both the painting and the story.

When I read Bail’s short story I was taken with how the writer had chosen to sit with us, on our side of the painting, inhabiting the same space we inhabit when we stand before it, whether we are in the gallery or looking at it reproduced on the page. Though he makes it an imagined space – situating the fictional, abandoned husband of the painting’s subject before the painting itself – it pays to remember that this is a real space in the world as well. As it was, I discovered, a real space for Dutton; as it was once a real space for my great-uncle when he must have stood before it somehow, decades ago.

It was only then, considering how I’d once looked at the painting as a small boy and then again as an adult – and how Dutton had, and Uncle Jim had – that I realised what I thought Bail was really up to with his story. I contended earlier in this essay that with landscape painters of national importance like Drysdale, ‘the boundary between the painted landscape and the real one is smoothed over, erased, and from here it is hardly surprising when the mythologiser of the land is, in turn, swiftly and inexorably mythologised himself.’ I’ve realised now that it is the space of that boundary itself, that field which often seems invisible to us, that Bail writes from within. He stands between us and our perception, intervening in our reception. In becoming a new lens he thus allows that there is no one version of this painting, but potentially as many different versions as there are pairs of eyes that have looked upon it.

WHAT WOULD JIM have made of Bail’s story, and its author daring to stand in his shoes? I choose to think he would’ve liked it, though of course I cannot really say. Whether contemporary literature was an enthusiasm Jim would’ve held is perhaps doubtful but this seems beside the point to me – from what I think I know of him, he would’ve approved, staunchly, of the playful humour underpinning Bail’s take. He was, as we know, a joker.

But what was really at stake in my interest was her. I had wanted, simply, to discover what had become of Uncle Jim’s wife. His ‘wife’. It was only after I became frustrated with trying to find out exactly who she was that the extent of the joke dawned on me. That sending this painting back to my grandparents, this painting called The Drover’s Wife, had been Jim’s wry humour again. An acknowledgement of what everyone else had long decided they knew: that that woman hadn’t been his wife. Sending that painting was no more than one of his knowing winks. I imagined him coming across a framed reproduction of it somewhere, perhaps on a visit to Sydney during those final years when he himself had been working as a drover. Perhaps he’d walked down the main street on a hot day and seen it hanging in a window. I see him pause before it in the street, struck by the uncanny likeness to a woman he’d known years ago.

I ran this theory past my family. My brother and sister were convinced, my mother and aunt less so. For one thing, they said, the painting was never called the drover’s wife. Always, they insisted, it was Jim’s wife.

‘And besides, she was convinced…’ my aunt went on as she described again that moment when my grandmother had unwrapped the painting and seen Jim’s wife for the first time in years, staring at her through the picture frame.

‘It was her,’ my mother and aunt implored us, we three children who had never met Jim, far less his mythical wife.

It was only when my mother exclaimed, aiming for the emphatically rhetorical, ‘Surely Jim would have explained the joke!’ that a pause fell between the two sisters and they looked at each other silently.

I can still see them as they were in that moment, sitting opposite one another at the dinner table, quietly realising that a gap in the family mythology had finally been filled. But I can’t help but wonder too if it was only at that moment that they realised the gap had even been there.

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