Writer and academic Bri Lee talks about the influence of painter Eugene von Guérard on her work and outlook. By Maddee Clark.
Bri Lee is an award-winning author, journalist, activist and legal advocate. She grew up in Brisbane and has lived in Sydney for the past two years. Her published books include Eggshell Skull, Beauty and her recent release, Who Gets To Be Smart. She is also the host of the online B List Book Club at the State Library of New South Wales. Lee has been a powerful public advocate for greater education and cultural change around sexual consent.
For this column she has nominated Eugene von Guérard’s painting Milford Sound, New Zealand (1877-79).
Tell me about you and Eugene von Guérard.
I first saw his works by accident. A tour of his works came to the Queensland Art Gallery in 2011. I was hanging around the arts precinct with family friends seeing what was up and stumbled into an exhibition, and I was so deeply affected. I’ve returned to his works a few times since then as I reflect on my life and my career. I’m drawn to and repelled by different things in it.
His father was a portrait miniaturist in the courts in Vienna and gave him his early years of training. A portrait miniature is finely detailed, it has a single subject and the resulting product is tiny. The works Eugene went on to become known for are enormous landscapes, but he very obviously has taken something of the miniaturist discipline, in its approach to super-fine detail, and applied it to the opposite kind of form.
The thing I got from Milford Sound is its vastness. It stopped me in my tracks. Without fail in his paintings, the humans are tiny. That’s a deliberate, repeated thing. The feeling I have in my body when I get to see it – one of the only other times I’ve experienced it is when I go out into the bush and I can see the stars properly. It’s the feeling of peacefulness when I’m reminded how tiny, temporary and insignificant I am in the face of the earth and nature. I keep coming back to that.
I’m interested in that feeling of awe and peace. It sounds like it comforts you.
Feeling small is so reassuring. I don’t believe in any god personally but what I’ve learnt is von Guérard was trying to capture grace. Whatever your belief is I see in it some spiritual bigger significance. It’s interesting to me – when I first saw it, what I thought of was the stars, and that’s as close as I get to grace and enormity.
He’s also a complex figure because he’s a European guy painting on the frontier during that time. There are some of his works where he has deliberately portrayed Indigenous Australians as the original and rightful inhabitants of the land. Because he knew his works were being accepted as documentary pieces, I think it was important that he was choosing to make that statement. At the same time, I’m wary of looking back at a figure like him and making that assessment.
It is possible, and easy, to be too generous – to look back on and interpret what he was trying to do and what he was able to achieve. He collected Aboriginal artefacts; he thought he was doing the right thing in documenting them for posterity. But then he sells them of course to European museums and galleries, when they were never his. This was a time when “men of science” were revered for “discovering” so-called new lands, going places man has never gone before, and he was one of them – and benefited too from being celebrated as an artist.
To go back to the miniatures, are these the kinds of things that would be displayed in an art gallery?
No. The types of miniatures his father did sit at a nexus between art and trades. It was what was used before photography. The portraits were commissioned, they weren’t considered art like how we would consider art now. Eugene learnt to paint from a gainfully employed tradesman, at a time when daguerreotypes were being developed. What must have been happening is him seeing his father’s craft being subsumed by technology.
The trajectory of his life as an artist has lessons. The paintings themselves make me feel small and when I read about him having to make money and still stand by his work, I also feel like my difficulties doing that exact thing are not original, they’re universal.
Looking back through the works of his father and then Eugene, from Europe to Australia, you see a grappling of art for commerce and art for an artistic purpose. When he first came to Australia, he worked in the goldfields for years to try to make money. Then he realised he could use his painting abilities to take commissions from the colonialists to paint their homesteads.
He developed this style and became very highly critically regarded in Australia. He was the master of the first college of art in Victoria and did well in Australia, with a vibrant salon scene for him and the other European artists. And then he keeps to his style even as it goes out of fashion – he becomes rigid, isn’t willing to move with the times, and dies alone and broke in London in 1901.
I’m obsessed with that grappling, the way that artists across time have had to negotiate it, to deal with this need to make a living without compromising their artistic integrity. I take it to heart when I think about my career and what I want to do, the pressure I feel to pick if I want to do law or writing. A pressure to specialise – what’s my single sentence bio line?
Are you finding as your career as a writer progresses that you’re feeling more challenged by that pressure?
It’s been consistent and it comes from all sides. I would say what I’m feeling most acutely now is the realisation I can do all these things forever if I decide not to have children. I don’t think I can keep doing legal research and advocacy, fiction, nonfiction and reportage and essays – plus a baby. I also want my next book to be fiction, which is not what I should be doing from a commercial standpoint. I now have established a relatively strong presence as an issues-based, nonfiction writer.
People respect your perspective on social issues. It would be hard to come out of that niche.
Yes. It makes me concerned that I get asked to write on and talk about all kinds of things I’m not an expert on, have no experience in. Something I’ve had to actively resist is this pressure to just have a take on every issue that comes up. There’s so much noise. One of the things I’m most terrified of doing is adding to the noise rather than making a contribution.
So I’m thinking, can I balance the reality of needing to make a living from my work with my artistic desires? That’s what I like about Eugene, these big questions. I feel less alone when I have to sit with them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 19, 2021 as "Bri Lee".
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