San Francisco

“Australian Aborigi­nal Bark Paintings”

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

The Australian aborigi­nal’s bark paintings, an outgrowth of the long practice of painting on the undersurfaces of their wurlies (the lean-­to shelters of stringy eucalyptus bark so suited to their nomadic life), are done in an art style developed by their an­cestors through more than 12,000 years of tenure on the continent. Of their several art forms, it is the strongest survivor. Bark paintings are used for communication by means of pictograph and sign language, much in the manner of Egyptian papyrus paintings, and also for recording activities of totemic signi­ficance, myths, just plain history keep­ing, and for leisure-time pleasure.

These latter types predominate in the Legion show. The most exciting are those called “dreamtime” paintings, where the artist works with shapes in free association. There is little, if any, thought of the sleep conception in this reference to “dream.” It is more of a day-dream, inspiration, or imagination conception.

Aside from their strangely stylized, but quite legible human figures and local fatuna and flora, the paintings (colored drawings, actually) are notable for their textural handling. Water cur­rents, waving tentacles, nets, even rain, are indicated by dotted line, ribbon line, bars, serrated line, cross-hatching and seeding, kept parallel to the picture plane. They are drawn in white, black, and earth red, with the bark showing through as yellow, often resembling closely woven net. Within this network the figures are flat colored, only occa­sionally loosely textured for identifica­tion. The effect is a patterned chron­icle of great harmony, representing the artist-storyteller’s dreamworld. The Aus­tralian aboriginals are noted for their x-ray drawings, wherein the skeletal structure of the animal is shown within the outlines, but few of this type are included here.

––E. M. Polley