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On the relationship between photography and painting in Australia, 1839-1900

Gaskins, William G. (1991) On the relationship between photography and painting in Australia, 1839-1900. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The change from symbolism to imitative art in the late medieval period, and the confirmation of this in post- Renaissance art and art philosophy, served as a paradigm for painters until the mid nineteenth century. The pursuit of supreme objectivity in art, as seen through the camera obscura together with the questioning of the prevailing notions concerning the origins of natural phenomena, inevitably led to a reappraisal of what constituted 'beauty'. The birth of aesthetics endorsed the position of art as the most important medium of representation of the natural wilderness as the handiwork of the Creator but also confirmed the fallibility of the hand of man. Thus the concept of fixing the image of the camera obscura by a means other than drawing became an obsession at the turn of the nineteenth century and was resolved by the idea of 'sun-painting', 'heliography' or, as the first primitive, but workable, process was named, 'photogenic drawing'. The appearance of the first photographs sent a shock through the art community. If 'instant art' could be practised by anyone then the livelihood of artists was in jeopardy and it was necessary to reconsider what constituted 'good art'. But painters in particular saw advantages in the photograph as an 'objective copy' of Nature, one that could, itself, be copied at leisure, accurately. In this way problems of perspective, form, tone and detail were easily resolved. However, those practising the new medium began to adopt a semiosis of painting and photography became recognised not only as a new 'art' but also an art which, as a result of its indexical nature, in the Peircean sense, authenticated the subject. The utilitarian pragmatism of the early nineteenth-century colonist served to delay the introduction of photography to Australia until the process had been perfected, but it was then enthusiastically used to document progress, achievement and an environment which startled those 'back home'. However, the power of authentication surpassed representation and this enabled the unscrupulous to manipulate the photograph in order to exaggerate natural phenomena where this, in turn, served to heighten national pride in the new land. Thus the photograph became the tool of painters, illustrators and engravers in their efforts to authenticate fictionalised images of enterprise and production. But the introduction of photography had caused art critics to question the philosophy of verisimilitude in art and thus the epistemological basis of painting. Issues such as 'imagination' and the mediating role of the artist eventually challenged the post-Renaissance doctrine of imitation, but photography had already influenced painting irreversibly, not only through its use as a tool for painters, but also through the development of a 'photographic oeuvre' or style which was adopted by the first Australian 'school' of painting centred upon the artists' camps at Heidelberg in Victoria.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Ruthrof, Horst and O'Toole, Michael
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