As you may recall, my theme for the 2018 A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists.
Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) was an Australian Impressionist and a member of the famed Heidelberg School of artists, which played a critical role in the development of a distinctive Australian art. Moreover, through his position as an instructor and master of the School of Design at the National Gallery (1888 to his death in 1917) he taught a number of students who became prominent Australian artists, including Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton. Indeed, when I read artist Jo Sweatman’s reflection on the man, it’s clear both he and his wife Annie, did a lot to foster Australian art and artists:
“It is impossible to think of the Old Gallery days apart from Fred McCubbin, that dearly loved man. In both Mr. and Mrs. Mac students found inspiring and sympathetic friends, who kept open house on Sundays to painters, musicians, and senior students at their home in Brighton. Mr. Mac had a fine tenor voice, and, singing “The Erl King,” hands clenched, hair more than ever on end, and voice almost hoarse with horror, he thrilled one to the marrow. Mrs. Mac was full of energy and enterprise. She first discovered the Athenaeum Hall and helped to make it the present home of painters.
Self-Portrait 1886 Art Gallery of NSW
His obituary also provides a helpful snapshot of the man:
“Mr. McCubbin was essentially a landscape painter, and showed remarkable skill in dealing with and realizing the intricacies, colour, and atmosphere of the Australian bush. Especially could he suggest the great spaces of the forest, the artistic tangle of the undergrowth, and the charm of solitude and silence. In 1906 he visited England, and the influence of Turner was apparent in all he did subsequent to his return, which added considerably to the charm of his landscapes.”
When you think about Australia back to McCubbin’s early days, European Australia was barely 100 years old and still an infant. News from Europe arrived by ship and was 3 months out-of-date by the time it arrived. So, it was very difficult for Australian artists to keep up with overseas trends, although our artists travelled overseas and brought ideas back with them and new immigrants did likewise. Moreover, vast distances and poor transport within the colonies compounded this global isolation. While most Australians lived in cities, in more rural areas, you couldn’t just pop next door for a cup of tea, let alone chat about your latest painting.
So, any movement which could draw fledgling Australian artists together, was critical for the creation of a uniquely Australian art. By the way, I don’t just see that as a political or nationalist urge, but the need for the person on the street to find their own reflection in art and literature. To see our trees, our birds, skies and beaches populated by characters like ourselves, and not simply having someone else’s world thrust upon us.
Personally, I mainly know McCubbin through his work: On the Wallaby Track (1896. For me the first thing you notice, is that it’s distinctly Australian. I can smell the scent of eucalyptus wafting through the bush, and hear the dried up gum trees crunch and crackle under foot. You’re definitely not in England with “her pleasant pastures green”.
By the way, “On the Wallaby”, refers to going bush looking for work. There was a serious economic recession in the 1890s, and this battling swagman doesn’t only have himself to worry about, but also a wife and baby to feed. It can therefore be taken as a comment on the harsh economic times. By the way, McCubbin’s wife, Annie, and son modelled for the painting along with his brother-in-law. So it was a staged, constructed scene and not something he stumbled across.
On the Wallaby Track remains a fairly well-known work. In 1981, it came to life in a Kit Kat commercial:
In 1981, it also appeared on the $2.00 Christmas stamp. Indeed, I remember tearing it off a Christmas parcel from my grandparents, soaking it off and adding it to my stamp collection. I was 12 years old.
However, once you put On the Wallaby onto a Christmas stamp, the scene takes on a different story. Indeed, the mother becomes Mary, the baby is Jesus and the swagman becomes Joseph.
Well, at least that’s what I used to see when the stamp first came out. The last thing on my mind back then, was being a Mum and having children. Indeed, I wasn’t too keen on all the trappings of womanhood back then, and this could well have been around the time that I threw in my angel wings to become a shepherd in the Church Christmas Eve Service. That had nothing to do with cross-dressing or wanting to be a man. Rather, it acknowledged dissatisfaction with the limitations of being “a young lady” i.e. being imprisoned in fancy dresses and patent leather shoes, which couldn’t get dirty. I wanted to have fun, and having fun should never be political.
However, I look at that painting through different eyes now that I’m a mother of two children. Now, I not only know what it is to have a babe on your lap, but also to see them grow up and almost disappear within their adolescent features. So, now, I look at that painting and think of me out in the bush with my husband and our first born.
Oh how times have changed!
So, I thought Slim Dusty singing Waltzing Matilda would be a suitable musical accompaniment to On The Wallaby Track.
That reminds me, family and being a family man are integral to reaching any kind of understanding of Frederick McCubbin and his work. He was the third of eight children himself and he and his wife Annie, had seven children. He worked in his parents’ bakery in the early days as a cart driver, and various family members posed for his works. Moreover, with the weekend open houses, it seems that both Fred and Annie McCubbin extended their notion of “family” to include his family of fellow artists. They fostered young talent and their home was a fertile breeding ground for Australian artists, where they could collaborate and exchange ideas. Indeed, their son, Louis and a grandson, Charles, both became artists.
So, now without further ado, he’s my letter to Frederick McCubbin…
Letter to Frederick McCubbin
You passed away just over a hundred years ago, and I assume you’ve been resting in peace ever since.
Well, I’m sorry to disturb you, although I can see you being quite enthusiastic to jump out of your box, and find fresh inspiration to paint. I wonder how you would depict Australia today? What stands out and gives us a unique sense of identity? Or, does that still exist? Has Australian culture been diluted so much, that there isn’t anything left? I cringe whenever my kids refer to tomato sauce as “ketchup”. What’s the world coming to? I sometimes wonder whether we’ve given away our souls, without even questioning how precious they are. Mind you, trying to define an Australian has never been easy. However, while I struggle to pinpoint what it is, I have a sense of what it’s not.
By the way, I hope you noticed the stamp on the envelope. Does it look familiar? How does it feel to have one of your paintings on an Australian stamp? You must be pretty stoked. I really love: On the Wallaby Track. It feels so real. Like I could just walk into the canvas, pick up your baby boy, and hold him in my arms. Indeed, I could even switch places and slip into position with my own son.However, that could also have something to do with this painting appearing in a Kit Kat commercial.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you!
A Letter From Frederick McCubbin
Thank you so much for your letter. I showed Annie and the rest of the family the stamp, and we popped the champagne. It was such an honour.
As much as I was consumed with creating an Australian art back in the day, I’ve been away too long to have a finger on the pulse these days. What I did notice, was that no one talks to each other anymore. You’re all hiding behind those silly screens. Indeed, after awhile, I started to wonder if anyone has any personality or character at all. Is this what your generation calls “the zombie apocalypse”?
Anyway, I have a very important question for you, Rowena…What happened to your painting? Why did you stop?
Last night, I snuck into your house and your pieces weren’t even signed.
Are you ashamed of them?
What are you hiding behind?
It’s time for you to come out, my dear.
Don’t be so afraid.
You have your own way of seeing. Your own unique vision. Seize it with both hands and ooze it into your words and onto the canvas. Your time will come.
 Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), Saturday 5 April 1941, page 4
 Observer (Adelaide, SA : 1905 – 1931), Saturday 29 December 1917, page 12
Frederick McCubbin – Australian Dictionary of Biography