Australians are usually not comfortable with metaphysical speculation. We distrust institutions and anyone who appears to be too ideologically driven. To speak of an Australian spirituality or more specifically an Australian theology sometimes seems to verge on the oxymoronic. At least, this is the accepted wisdom.

But for those who have looked at little deeper at the question it begins to seem that this unease may point to a deeper spiritual intuition, one that favours the language of silence or a sense of the mystical. The two of course are not the same but they are related. There are two sides to what are commonly conceived to be Australian virtues, or vices. For example, one might consider the Australian inarticulateness before the sacred to be a virtue, a lack of speculative hubris. Or it might simply be an upshot of our national predilection for anti-intellectualism and a lack of spiritual ambition.

Still, theology and spirituality must at some point consider the big picture. Yet “big picture” theorising is not very fashionable now that meta-narratives are “on the nose”. But the need for the big picture remains as has been made abundantly clear by “September 11”. The problem with the response of the Western powers in the wake of September 11 is that it has lacked any self-critique or reflectivity. Experience suggests that this is often the problem with big picture theorising.

One of the strengths of what one might call an Australian spirituality has been its concern for ordinariness, which in its pathological state one might call parochialism. Nonetheless, I feel Ignatius of Loyola’s insight that “to be divine is not to be encircled by the greatest but rather to be touched by the smallest”, finds a resonance in the Australian spirit. But the big questions remain.

My intention here is not to trace the debates about what an Australian theology might look like. Rather, it is to look to one Australian artist who I believe presents a model that is both uniquely Australian and appropriate to the theological endeavour.

William Robinson is a new sort of religious painter in the Australian artistic landscape that doesn’t shy away from the attempt to describe the world as a whole, but without any of the pretensions that we are prone to associate with such “big picture” theology.

It is the ambition of Robinson’s recent work that suggests to me the kind of approach that an Australian theology might pursue. Robinson’s creation landscapes attempt to capture the rhythms of time - a whole day in a moment - or creation in its freshness in which the cosmic and the human mirror each other. Robinson’s landscapes paint a sense of the whole that includes the human perspective. One might say that in its twists and turns their perspective is perichoretic in that the human, the cosmic and the divine are imbricated in each other. [1]

What is most striking about Robinson’s landscape is that the painter – or the viewer - is not separate from the landscape. Robinson has reinvented perspective such that it no longer claims a Euclidean objectivity. Time and movement have been included within the visual field. In Ancient Trees, one of my favourite Robinson landscapes, one can imagine oneself inside the painting that offers a perspective much like that of a bush walker walking along the track through the rainforest.

Ancient Trees

Creation Water and Land

Earth and Sea

 
In one of his earlier landscapes Robinson evokes the traditional portrait of the gentleman on his estate. However William and his wife Shirley are not so much masters of the landscape but co-inhabitants with the other animals. For Robinson the artist is very much a part of the landscape. The landscape is not simply a document but a testimony. As an Australian what Robinson is trying to do is to make a home for himself in the landscape. Only then can one hope to be attentive to the sacred in and of the land. One might say that Robinson does not paint landscapes a such but environments.

It is my contention that the grandness of vision of Robinson’s work rings true because it is grounded in the ridiculous. I consider his self-portraits to be an important preface to his landscapes; especially in as far as they capture some of the ambiguity of the Australian character.

Robinson first came to prominence when he won the Archibald prize in 1987 with his equestrian self-portrait. Satirising the pretensions of the Marcus Aurelius style of imperial portraiture Robinson, without reins or bridle, cuts a ridiculous figure riding off not to conquer some new territory for the Empire but rather his own private domain. 

Robinson, I feel, has inherited the positive aspects of that Australian scoffing at self importance, but not its negative side, for Robinsons quest is to seek the spiritual heart of things, and make a place for himself there, to feel at home. Perhaps it is precisely the seriousness of the undertaking that makes such satire so important, to keep oneself grounded.

Self portraits traditionally are supposed to express a sense of the artist’s own identity. Robinson rather than attempting to portray himself in accord with his occupation presents himself amidst the insubstantial and transient. In Goose Feathers he is encompassed by cloud and reflection. Rather than holding the tools of his trade Robinson holds only feathers, suggesting that he knows that his hold on reality is flimsy. On his head he wears a chaff bag. Are Robinson’s ambitions no more that chaff and straw?

Manning Clark once described the Australian experience in terms of the “kingdom of nothingness”. Robinson, however, has turned this experience into a koan. His is the zen of foolishness as he strains to grasp the insubstantial evanescence at the heart of things. This is the experience of the no thing that eludes us and evades all expression and embodiment. Such a mystery invites us to the “something more”, albeit unwittingly perhaps. But to the extent that the sacred is inexpressible we should not trust any too confident assertions as to its nature.

In Professor Robinson and his brother Robinson is joined by his brother, a professor of mathematics. But here I think, Robinson has turned the suspicion of elitism that lies behind the tall poppy syndrome into something positive. While contextualising his brother’s academic robes, his own dressing-gown borrows dignity and authority from them. We have a juxtaposition of the public and the private, of external recognition, and private achievement in such a way that they are not so much opposed as they are complementary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I will conclude my discussion with one final self-portrait. In Robinson’s Unanimous self-portrait Robinson shows that even in agreement we are still divided amongst ourselves. Not even the self is a unity. But this does not render identity impossible. Critical self-reflection shows that identity is not uniformity. Authentic identity should embrace difference and not fall prey to easy binaries that project a shadow, or demonised other, in order to feel confident of the self-assured positivity of one’s own identity. The “them” is always already amongst us. We are a thou even unto ourselves.

Self-reflection reveals our limits. The irony is that it is in the encounter with the limits that the possibility of transcendence really presents itself. I suspect that the sublime pointed to by Robinson’s more recent landscapes could not have been possible without a good healthy dose of self-critique, reflection and ridicule. Robinson’s example, I believe, provides a good model for an authentically Australian theological method.


[1] In correspondence with a colleague, Robert Tilley, Robinson accepted Tilley’s suggestion that his landscapes evoked a Trinitarian divine.


Damien Casey is a Lecturer in Theology at McAuley Campus.