The Hermannsburg School

Mt Hermannsburg Finke River c.1946-51 Albert Namatjira watercolour over pencil on paper Source: National Gallery of Australia  

Mt Hermannsburg Finke River c.1946-51 Albert Namatjira watercolour over pencil on paper Source: National Gallery of Australia  

Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges c.1957-59 Albert Namatjira watercolour and pencil on paper Source: National Gallery of Australia

Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges c.1957-59 Albert Namatjira watercolour and pencil on paper Source: National Gallery of Australia

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 Mount Hermannsburg, on the banks of the Finke River; 125km west of Alice Springs. The settlement was named after the German town; Hermannsburg where the missionaries had trained. The mission’s intention was to provide religious instruction, a European education, and employment to the indigenous people of the area. 

Employment included working on nearby stations as a ringer or station hand, for Afghan cameleers delivering goods to Hermannsburg, blacksmithing, carpentry and leather work, among others. Pastor FW (Friedrich Wilhelm) Albrecht established the beginnings of a craft trade with the aim of improving the economy of the impoverished mission. The venture proved successful and formed the foundations for a larger art movement which followed.

In 1932 Melbourne artists; Rex Battarbee and John Gardner first visited Hermannsburg on a painting expedition to record the central Australian landscape in watercolour. In 1934 Battarbee returned to Hermannsburg and was invited to exhibit his works at the Hermannsburg school. Many Indigenous residents of the mission saw the exhibition, including a Western Arrarnta man; Albert Namatjira. Inspired by the works on display Namatjira requested painting lessons from Battarbee and accompanied him on painting expeditions.

Albert Namatjira become renowned for his watercolour landscapes, quickly surpassing his teacher. In 1939 the Art Gallery of South Australia acquired Namatjira’s Illum-Baura (Haasts Bluff) 1939. The watercolour became the first Indigenous work of art to be acquired by a public Australian art gallery. 

Albert Namatjira was a prolific artist. Through his paintings he brought central Australia, and particularly the country of Western Arrarnta, to an Australian population with little contact or knowledge of Indigenous art practice outside the ethnographic museum. Namatjira’s watercolours challenged non-Indigenous peoples’ misconceptions of central Australia as a lifeless inland desert by depicting landscape in a way not seen before.

 

This article was produced for Design and Art Australia Online; a collaborative e-Research database.

Museums Australia National Conference

Ellis Rowan