Thinking through the brush, Old Masters – Australia’s Great Bark Artists

Given it was a dull and foggy day with no prospect of seeing the sun before midday, we decided to go to head for the warm interior of the National Museum of Australia (NMA) to see their current major exhibition, Old Masters, Australia’s Great Bark Artists. Holding the largest collection of bark paintings in the country (and I’m assuming probably the world) the Museum has access to some truly great masterworks. If possible, I’d urge you to see the works in person, however if that’s not possible you can explore a large number of these works online, through the link above. Caution: The NMA website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Painting on bark seems to have become the forgotten form of Aboriginal art, at least to the Australian public in general. The works in this exhibition are all by male artists from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Some were collected in the mid 20th century and some of the artists represented, like John Muwurndjul, are still actively painting today. The works are all painted in ochres, clay and charcoal on sheets of bark from a stringybark tree, Eucalyptus tetrodonta.

One of the features of paintings from this region is the rrark, the fine cross-hatching that is an integral part of many works. The quality of the fine, fine rrark just stunned me. Some lines are just 1 mm thick and are consistently painted across the large  barks in steady lines. I only learned at the show that the brushes used to make the fine lines are made from human hair.

Narritjin's Brush, 1970's, a gift to the National Gallery of Australia, 1986 from Professor Howard Morphy.

Narritjin’s Brush, 1970’s, a gift to the National Gallery of Australia, from Professor Howard Morphy in 1986.

One brush used by Narritjin Maymuru is included in the show. The brush, called a marwat, is only about 10cms long and is used for the cross hatching at the final stages of the bark painting. Just in case you can’t read my pencil notes the explanatory note said:

‘See this marwat, it is very clever.’… Narritjin explained to Morphy that he ‘thought with’ or ‘through’ his marwat brush.


When I came home I couldn’t resist having a go at cross-hatching for myself. While I started with watercolour I quickly ran into trouble with getting sufficient opacity in my whites. So I just used my acrylic paint markers instead. I also tried some different colours, such as blue and clear red to see how they might work. I hasten to add that while I am interested in exploring how this technique ‘works’ I am not attempting to appropriate specific patterns that are the cultural property of the artists in the show.

A page of cross-hatching inspired by the work in the Old Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

A page of cross-hatching inspired by the work in the Old Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

There is so much that any artist could learn from in this show. The array of compositional devices that the artist’s use would be a lesson for most of us. The striking portrayal of a kangaroo being stalked by a hunter through the bush, Hunter and Kangaroo, 1974, by Bob Balirrblairr Dirdi, I found particularly impressive – the painting  is the first image in this set. My partner also commented that these works demonstrate just how high the levels of invention can be taken when starting from such a limited range of materials.

This is another one of the amazing shows that the NMA has mounted that seem to be completely under-rated by the viewing public. I understand from the staff at the museum that visitor numbers are lower than hoped for. Much as I love the bold and bright acrylics and wildly expressive brushwork of contemporary Aboriginal art, this exhibition amply demonstrated to me the ability of these artists and the true quality of their art.

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