The Hermannsburg School: History


In 1934 a Western Arrernte Aboriginal man by the name of Albert viewed an art exhibition at the Lutheran Mission of Hermannsburg, Central Australia. The exhibition was arranged by mission superintendent Pastor F.W. Albrecht and featured the works of traveling artists Rex Battarbee and John Gardner. Over the two day exhibition more than 300 Aboriginal people attended. They stood enchanted and amazed at the sight of their tribal lands as portrayed by the European artists.

The exhibition fired Alberts imagination and interest in painting. He endeavored to learn the new craft. It would bring him fame, but ultimately despair as he discovered the hypocrisies with which it came. His success challenged naive philosophies of the time and helped pave the way for freedom for his people and respect for their culture in a rapidly changing world.

Albert and his fellow countrymans success with watercolour led the way for the foundation of other schools of indigenous art across Australia. It played an important role in providing a platform for the contemporary Aboriginal art movement which thrives today, more than 70 years later. Aboriginal art of all styles gives the contemporary viewer an insight into the customs, beliefs and artistry of age old cultures. Through its continuing practice it also ensures the passing on of knowledge for the generations to come.

Albert inspired a whole generation of artists. Walter Ebatarinja was one of the first to take up painting in his footsteps. He was soon followed by the Pareroultja brothers and Alberts own sons. The Arrernte artists were inspired by the subjects story, how it came into being, and its connection with the Dream Time. This inspiration gave their landscapes a unique dimension. In the best works by Otto Pareroultja trees are painted in ancestral form. Works by Albert and other Hermannsburg artists also conveyed this deep spiritual connection with the landscape. One thing they all shared was an innate knowledge of the lands on which their forefathers had lived for thousands of years and of the stories which brought them to life.

Some critics criticized the gum tree and landscape format. This was perhaps leveled at the more formulated approach taken by artists in later years when they were often working from memory and producing a more typical subject for the tourist market. In contrast early Hermannsburg works were painted from subject which meant for more varied compositions. Many of Alberts early works have a more intimate feel as he was painting from life in the gullies and gorges in the West MacDonnell Ranges. His later works portray a more vast outlook towards his country. In the late work of Otto Pareroultja he would paint the same sacred scene over and over, rippling with energy at the peak of his dreamings. The ancestoral trees would vary in form in each painting such was his brilliant creative ability. It is important to note that Ghost Gums in Central Australia are sacred and form an important part of Western Arrernte mythology.

All Hermannsburg watercolours portray distinct Aboriginal qualities. These include observation of detail, tribal symbolism, expressive colours and sensitive choice of subject. By adopting the western influence the Arrernte artists were sharing their unique view of the land and bridging the gap between both cultures.
The Western Arrernte

The Western Arrernte People are an indigenous tribe of Central Australia. Their tribal lands lie in the Western MacDonnell Ranges, an area characterized by rugged mountains, deep gorges and arid plains. It is some of the most spectacular country in Australia, but also the harshest, at times stricken by drought and temperatures in excess of 40 degrees. The Arrernte people prospered in these conditions by living as an organized community in which each member played an important role. Men would carve weapons to use for hunting whilst utilizing their remarkable tracking abilities to seek their prey. Women would collect honey ants, prepare food and care for the children. Tribal elders knew bush medicine to heal the sick and would perform sacred rituals like corroborees or increase ceremonies to summon the replenishment of nature. Necessities like food and water were shared equally throughout the group. C.P. Mountford writes in regard to traditional custom and tribal law, These laws have made them a happy people. Laughter is ever present among them. That is so even today, when the blight of our civilisation has fallen upon them and robbed them of their ancient hunting grounds, The Art of Albert Namatjira 1944.

Aboriginal spiritual beliefs are intrinsically linked to the natural world. They are conveyed through dream time stories which are passed from one generation to the next. The stories teach morals and explain how ancestral beings shaped and formed the earth, how every land form, living thing or phenomenon came into being.

Western Arrernte Aboriginal people interpreted their land topographically. Their art used symbols to tell stories which could represent places, people or natural forces. These symbols were in the form of wavy, parallel lines, semi and concentric circles. This language was written on sand, rock and sacred objects such as Tjurungas.

The Western Arrernte people are a highly advanced people who had learned to live in harmony with their environment. Western anthropologists believe that they are the descendants of the first people to have arrived in Australia more than 40 thousand years ago. In this time they have had to endure immense environmental change including the last Ice Age period. Despite these challanges they developed culturally rich lives in which music, dance and story was apart of everyday life. Their strictures emphasized the importance of living as a community. One which encouraged the sharing of resources amongst all of its members. By respecting nature as a life source they developed a deep spiritual connection with the land.

The Hermannsburg Mission

The Finke River Mission (later known as the Hermannsburg Mission) was established in 1877 by Lutheran Missionaries Pastor Kemp and Schwarz. It stands at the base of Mt. Hermannsburg, 125kms West of Alice Springs. Its name originates from a town in Germany where the missionaries had trained.

On October 23rd, 1875, the missionaries departed from the German settlement of Bethany in the Barossa Valley, north east of Adelaide, South Australia. Their journey into the arid centre of Australia would test the spirit and courage of the two men, Kempe writes, How gladly I would have preferred to relate only good news. Yes often our courage nearly fails us. Often I have been almost tempted to exclaim in the words of the prophet: It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am sick at heart. These words were written 500 miles north of Adelaide as the missionaries battled the elements and logistics of their arduous journey. On Friday, June 8, 1977, afer 20 months and over 1,000 miles from their origin, the missionaries chose the site of Hermannsburg on the banks of the Finke river. They remained at the remote outpost for 13 long years, erecting several buildings including a church and school before abandoning the mission in 1891. Three years later, on October 8, 1894, Pastor Carl Strehlow arrived to find the settlement in state of degradation. Over the next few years, Strehlow worked tirelessly to improve conditions at the mission. A talented linguist, Strehlow did much research into Aboriginal cultural practices and was responsible for translating the Western Arrente language. In his 28 years service at the mission, Strehlow had gained not only the respect and admiration of his white pears but had also earned the title of Ingkata (chief) by the Aboriginal people who he had so passionately fought for. H.A. Heinrich took over temporarily in 1922 after Strehlows death until the appointment of Pastor F.W. Albrecht in 1926. Aboriginal people called this area Ntaria.

The missions ambition was to provide Aboriginal people with religious instruction, European education, and employment. It had a policy called, working for rations, which was meant to encourage adults to work on the Cattle run or in associated trades such as carpentry or leatherwork. In the late 1920s while holidaying in Adelaide, Pastor Albrecht saw for sale Aboriginal artefacts ornamented with tribal symbols. On his return to the mission he encouraged some of the men to carve and decorate weapons by burning designs into them with red hot fencing wire. The new venture proved successful and formed the foundations for the larger art movement which followed.

The mission had no permanent supply of water and struggled in times of drought, particularly during the 1920s when a long drought ravaged Central Australia. By the time the drought had finally broken in 1929 it had claimed many lives including 85 percent of children. Many people were suffering the effects of scurvy due to a lack of vitamins. It provided the impetus for a project to supply the mission with a permanent supply of water in 1935. Paster FW Albrechet had long exclaimed the need for the water and at last his desire would come to fruition after funds were raised in Melbourne with the help of Una and Violet Teage. A water pipeline was laid from Kaporilja Springs. It was an important achievement for the settlement and enabled the planting of a large garden which became a reliable source of food. The laying of the pipeline was depicted on several boomerangs made by Albert Namatjira.
The Lutheran church handed the mission back to the the Western Arrernte people in 1982. It is now a popular stop for tourists who marvel at the historic 19th century buildings and revel in its rich artistic history. I highly recommend visiting Hermannsburg if you are Central Australian bound!
Rex Battarbee (1893-1873)

Rex Battarbee was born in Warrnambool, Victoria in 1893. In 1916 he joined the Imperial Force and and was sent to Europe to fight in the First World War. He was seriously injured in battle and was left on the battlefield for two days before being rescued. The injuries forced Battarbee to return to Australia where he was to be hospitalized for four years. Battarbee was released from hospital in the early 1920s but due to his injuries he was unable to return to work on the land. He moved to the Melbourne to study commercial art before taking an interest in landscape painting.

In 1932 Battarbee and fellow artist and friend John Gardner set off on a painting trip to Central Australia. The two artists, who had painted together for a number of years, traveled in a Model T Ford adapted as a caravan. They reached the Hermannsburg mission and painted in the surrounding country. Whilst there they met with the missionaries and many local Aboriginal people before making the long trip home. Two years later Battarbee and Gardner returned to Hermannsburg. They painted in the surrounding country for four months before Pastor F.W.Albrecht arranged to hold an exhibition of their artwork.

ALBRECHT accepts Battarbees invitation: Prior to their return to Victoria, Battarbee called and, in gratitude for what we had done for them, invited us to view their paintings. Of course we would like to see your work, I said, but why us only, why not the Aboriginals as well? Both men gladly consented, and the following Saturday the seats were removed from the old school house and the room was turned into an art gallery. Over the two day exhibition more than three hundred Arrernte people attended, including Albert. On his return to Melbourne Battarbee won the 1934 Centenary Prize for one of his Central Australian landscapes. In 1936 Batterbee returned unaccompanied to the mission and gave Albert his first lessons in watercolour painting.

In about 1940 Battarbee moved to Central Australia. This put him closer to Albert and his burgeoning artistic career. It also enabled him to help other emerging Aboriginal artists who were becoming inspired by what Albert was achieving with his art. He also continued to practice art as well.

In the 1940s and 50s Battarbee acted as a member and chairman for the Aranda Arts Council. During and after this time he continued to promote and support the Hermannsburg artists and also opened up a gallery from his home in Alice Springs called Tmara-Mara. Rex Battarbee played an instrumental role in promoting Aboriginal art and culture to a world wide audience.
Hermannsburg Watercolourists Exhibition Catalogues

Original Hermannsburg exhibition catalogues dating to the 1940s and 1950s.

The first is a solo exhibition titled Albert Namatjira ARUNTA TRIBESMAN CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN WATERCOLOURS At Athenaeum Art Gallery 1st to 12th November, 1948. The exhibition included 44 works with prices ranging from 18 to 55 Gns.

The second is a group exhibition titled EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS BY THE ARUNTA GROUP Sponsored by the BRISBANE TELEGRAPH Held in the BrisbaneTelegraph Auditorium, June 5th to 12th Year? It provides a Forward by O.A.Wallent June 1954 and biographical information of many Hermannsburg Artists.

The third is group exhibition titled WATER COLOURS by Famous Australian Aboriginal Artists FROM October 2nd to October 13th, 1951. The Claude Hotchin Galleries 900 HAY STREET, PERTH. The exhibition included 50 works with the most expensive being by Albert Namatjira 30 Guineas, Walter Ebatarinja 25 Guineas, Enos Namatjira 18 Guineas, Otto Pareroultja 16 Guineas, Cordula Ebatarinja 14 Guineas, Oscar Namatjira 14 Gunieas, Ewald Namatjira 14 Gunieas, Edwin Pareroultja 12 Guineas, Reuben Pareroultja 9 Guineas, Adolf Inkamala 9 Guineas, Henoch Raberaba 9 Guineas, Richard Moketarinja 7 Guineas and Gerhard Inkamala 7 Guineas. The Paintings are individually numbered and titled.
Mythological Surrealism, The Relationship of Story and Art

One can only wonder how it must have felt to be living in such a landscape? One made alive with mythological beings embroiled in titanic battles and love stories, played out since the beginning of time. Stories which define your very existence and relationship with the world.

The best Hermannsburg watercolour paintings portray this surreal world of Aboriginal Mythology. They are not symbolic, rather a present viewpoint of a mythologically based world of Ancestral beings & spirits.True representations of how the landscape & its creation looked through the eyes of an Aboriginal tribesman.

C.P. Montford writes, For untold generations Alberts forefathers had roamed in this distinctive country, a country made alive to them by the creation stories that tell of the time when their progenitors, large and immensely powerful, raised the steep-sided hills, formed the mighty gorges, and caused the river-valleys and water-holes to come into being. Each family had its own land, sufficient for its needs. It was theirs not by conquest, nor by purchase, but by inheritance through countless generations. To them the land, with its legends, songs, ceremonies and associations, is an integral part of their life, and visible evidence of the truth of their philosophy and their beliefs. It is the place that links the people of the present, through a maze of myth and legend, to their strange unearthly progenitors of the ghostly past.

The creation stories bellow give an insight into the Aboriginal beliefs which inspired their art. We may never be able to fully interpret these paintings,such is the secret unknown of Western Arrernte mythology, but will perhaps continue their mysterious beauty.

The Story of The Monoliths of Palm Paddock (The Art of Albert Namatjira, C.P. Mountford)

These monoliths are the metamorphizsed bodies of a euro man and his two sons; that on the left, the father, and on the right, his sons. In the creation or Dreaming Stories, these mythical Euro people made their camp at this place, so that they could catch kangaroos for their evening meal. All the incidents of the hunt are commemorated in the various natural features of the locality, at one place a large isolated rock represents a heap of edible meat, at another are low rounded hills that grew out of the skin and bones that were thrown away, and still another a shallow depression in the plain, where the kangaroo was cooked.

The Story of Mt Ziel (Related by Wenten Rubuntja)

Mount Zeil is called Urlatherrke - ayeparenye caterpillar. That hill is all the little ayeparenye caterpillars. Everybody used to go there and worship, and the women used to dance to make the children grow up quickly just like the little ayeparenye caterpillars do.

The Old-man and his Six Sons, the Namatuna

The following story has been transcribed by Roland Robinson (The Feathered Serpent, 1956, Edwards and Shaw) while researching Aboriginal Mythology in Central Australia 1954. This particular story was related to him by Tonanga (Albert Namatjira) note. The Namatuna (also known as a bull raorer) is an object whirled traditionally on a string of human hair in corroboree ceremony.
Forward by Roland Robinson

The theme of this myth is obviously that of the creation and distribution of native population by a wandering ancestor. As in the northern myths, the significance of the dilly bag as a mother or womb in the possession of this ancestor is clearly revealed. Graphically illustrated too is the magical power and meaning of the six stone namatuna, contained in the dilly bag, which repeatedly become the ancestors six sons. The stone tjurunga of the ancestor contains the indestructible spirit of this individual.

An OLD MAN started out from a cave in a hill at Merina, which the white man calls Haasts Bluff. He carried a big tjurunga with him, and he carried a spear and a woomerah. Six namatuna, who were his sons, he carried a dilly bag round his neck. If the old man wanted meat, he sent his six sons out to get it for him. He would take the namatuna out of his dilly bag, rub some goanna-fat on them, and the namatuna would stand up as six men, his sons. The old man would give each of his sons a spear and a womerah and his sons would go out hunting.

Those six sons did not eat meat. They fed only from a vein on the old mans arm. The old man would open a vein in his arm, fill up a womerah with his blood, and the six sons would eat from the blood in the womerah.

The old-man came close up to a big camp. He stopped and took the six namatuna out of his dilly bag and sent them out hunting. Those six sons had to come back to the old man just after sundown. The old man went into the camp and sat downand made a big smoke. Some women came up to the old-man and said to him: Hey, old man why do you make this big smoke? The old man told the women to make six camps for his sons. He told them that he had six sons to give them in marriage that night.

Just after sundown the six men came into the old mans camp. They brought back with them kangaroo and emu, euro and printi, and put the meat down in six different heaps near the smoke. The six sons sat down in the smoke in the camp of the camp of the old-man. The old man called up the six women and told them that they must each take one of his sons in marriage. The old man did not sleep near the six men and women. He made his camp a little bit away from them. Early in the morning the old-man got up from his camp. He came up to his sons who were still sleeping with the six women. From the hair on the head of each man he pulled out the namatuna and put each one back in his dilly bag.

When the women woke up, the men were gone. Each women looked about the camp for the man who had been given to her. The men were nowhere in the camp. The old man had traveled away with the six namatuna and put each one back in his dilly bag.

The old man came to another camp. He took the six namatuna out of his dilly bag and sent them out hunting. The old-man came into the camp and made a big smoke again. He told the women in the camp to clear and clean the sand all round where he was making the smoke. The women asked him: Why do you want to clean this sand? Clean that sand said the old man. I have six sons to give to each of you in marriage tonight.

The women made the sand clean and after sundown the six men came back from their hunting and sat down in the smoke. To each of the women the old man gave one of his sons. The old man went a little way off and made a camp by himself. In the night the old-man got up and took the namatuna out of the hair of the six sleeping sons and put them in his dilly bag. Then he hung the dilly bag up in a tree near his camp.

Early in the morning the old man started away with the dilly bag. The women woke up and found the six men gone. They looked about for tracks of the men but could not find any. They asked one another: Where are those men who were given to us for our husbands last night? The six women found the tracks of the old man and followed after him. When the women caught up with the old-man they asked him: Where are your six sons, old-man? The old man talked another way. I think they went out somewhere this morning, he said. Might be they have gone out hunting. Might be they are back at camp now. The women went back to the camp but they never found those six men.

Now the old-man, traveling on his way, knew that Mamu, a devil-dog, was following him. The old-man camped near a water-hole. He looked back and saw the Mamu sneaking through the grass. The old-man sat down and took the six namatuna out of his dilly-bag. He placed them on the ground all round himself. And at night the six sons lay down all around the old-man. In the night one son woke up and saw the devil-dog sneaking uo onto the camp. The son reached out for his spear. He hooked his spear up in his woomera and speared the devil dog right through and killed him. In the morning the old-man woke uo and saw the Mamu lying dead outside the camp. Then the old-man picked up the six namatuna and put them back in his dilly-bag and traveled away.

The old-man came close up to another camp and again he took out the six namatuna, greased them with goanna-fat, gave them each a spear and woomera, and sent them out hunting. And the old-man went into the camp and sat down and made big smoke. He told the women to clear the sand and make camps for his six sons. After sun down the six sons came into the camp and sat down in the smoke. They had brought with them the meat they had killed in their hunting, and the old-man took the meat and gave it to the other men in the camp. Then the old-man called up the women who had cleared the sand for his sons and gave each on of them one of his sons.

Early in the morning the old-man went over to his six sons who were still asleep. He started to take the namatuna out of their hair. But one women woke up and saw the old-man taking the namatuna out of the hair of her man. Before she could call out, the old-man drove his spear though the women and killed her. Then the old-man put the six namatuna in his dilly-bag and traveled away.

Always that old-man traveled carrying his tjurunga, his spear and his woomera and his six namatuna in his dilly-bag. Always he gave his six sons to the women, then, in the early mornings, he put the six namatuna back in his dilly-bag and traveled away.

When the old-man got tired and properly old, he died. He made his camp and lay down and put his dilly-bag alongside himself. When the old-man was dead, the six namatuna in the dilly-bag wanted to get out. They started to roll about in the dilly-bag and the dilly-bag rolled round and round in a circle. The old-man turned into stone. Underneath that stone is his big tjurunga belonging to the old man. And near him is his black stone which is the dilly-bag with the six namatuna inside.