The inspiration for Ben Quilty’s monumental Rorschach painting is an Australian scene painted in Europe 140 years ago by H.J. Johnstone, Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia. Read simply, the original painting depicts a tranquil scene at the end of the day: a Ngarrindjeri family camping at a scenic river bend along the River Murray prepare for the evening. Another possible reading sees the painting as a nineteenth- century allegorical meditation on the perceived decline and disappearance of Aboriginal people.
Quilty’s eight-panel painting Evening shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone remakes the original painting to comment on Australia’s history. Inspired by Hermann Rorschach’s eponymous ink blots – an early twentieth-century psychological- testing tool – Quilty loads the canvas with impasto oil paint, only to destroy the surface by pressing a second unpainted canvas directly onto the first. Chance intervenes by creating accidents and abstractions that invite us to reflect on our own perceptions, desires and experiences.
In high school, Quilty received a book on Australian landscape painting as an art prize. The book included a reproduction of Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia, painted in London in 1880 by H.J. Johnstone. Quilty recalls being seduced by the painting’s romanticism yet troubled by the accompanying interpretation of the painting offered in the book. A late-nineteenth-century mash-up, Evening shadows depicts Aboriginal figures in a picturesque river landscape at twilight. By staging the scene at the end of the day, the painting reiterates an all-too-convenient and, at the time, popular allegory – the demise of Indigenous people and their traditional way of life. Evening Shadows, donated in 1881, was the first work of art acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Quilty created Evening shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone (2012) using a method inspired by Hermann Rorschach’s eponymous ink blots, introduced in the early twentieth century as a tool for psychological testing. This technique is also one that was prized by Rorschach’s contemporaries, the Surrealists – a version of their much-loved decalcomania, a technique of chance that invited free association and creative delirium. This way of working represents a perilous strategy as a painting technique – Quilty loads the canvas with impasto oil paint, only to destroy the paint surface by pressing a second unpainted canvas directly onto the first. The process – in essence a reprographic one – demands the meticulous control of paint, colour and composition, but it also invites possibility. Chance intervenes in creating accidents and abstractions that invite the viewer to reflect on their own perceptions, desires and experiences.
Written by Dr. Lisa Slade, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs.
Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 4 History
The nature of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and others, for example, the Macassans and the Europeans, and the effects of these interactions on, for example, people and environments (ACHASSK086)
Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 5 History
The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants (including Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples) and how the environment changed (ACHASSK107)
With most art if it’s a beautiful thing that tells a dark story, it can’t be more powerful
Compare the original painting, of Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia, to Quilty’s appropriation. What is different about these two paintings?
Evening Shadows, backwater of the Murray South Australia by HJ Johnstone was donated to the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1881 and is the Gallery’s first recorded acquisition. Evening Shadows is the said to be the most copied work of art in Australia? In 2011 artist Tom Nicholson asked South Australians to lend them their copies of Evening Shadows for the 2012 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art exhibition.
- Why do you think this painting has been the most copied work of art in Australia?
- What questions do you have about the original Evening Shadows?
Quilty uses his works of art to raise questions about Australia’s history and the stories seldom told. Investigate Australia’s history and find a story that may not be well known. Create a work of art in response to this lesser known aspect to Australia’s history.
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
This education resource has been developed and written in collaboration Kylie Neagle, Education Coordinator and Dr. Lisa Slade, Assistant Director, Artistic Programs.