Michael Dillon, Film maker
Not for downloadCopyright
Bamamaro Creek, now called Pamamaroo Creek, was where the entire Burke and Wills party rested for a week on the way north, and where some of the party held back to maintain a depot, stayed on for several months.
The artist Ludwig Becker was part of this later group. Artist Les Sprague talks about Becker and his work, about other characters in the original party, and about our interpretation of history. Becker's sketch of this location was called The Depot Junction.
-Any evidence of Burke and Wills expedition around here at all, Les, do you reckon?
-Yes. Well, this is the sight of the depot camp, and if we look around here, we should be able to find the vantage point from which Becker painted this delightful painting here, Jono, have a look at this.
-Now. If you look closely, if you look closely at this picture here, you can see the spit, which is at the very junction of the Darling.
-The pointy bit of sandy land there.
-Yep. And beyond that is the old Darling.
-And here's the stream coming in from Lake Pamamaroo. So this was-- The title of his painting is "Depot Junction, the Pamamaroo Creek with the Darling"
-That's the old Darling, but it's now been blocked off by Lake Wetherell. It's now a water catchment and storage area for the Menindee lake system.
-That's a bit of an insult to the Darling.
-One of the greatest rivers in this country.
-Don't you reckon that's wrong?
-Yes, but you know, this is now in the service of agriculture and so on.
-If I've had a good look at these trees, as we've been standing here, have a look at this. In Becker's painting, it's got this limb with a dead stump coming out of it at the top, exactly like the painting. Have a look. Right? It's also got a split and a fork going that way, exactly like the painting. I reckon that could be the tree that that aboriginal man was standing under with the possum skin on him and the spear. What do you reckon?
-Well, that's a literal interpretation of a painting by an artist that may not have even used that tree in that position. But let's say that it is, and we'll go with that for the moment.
But yes, there's this old chap standing here. And this is the interesting thing about this painting. He's standing here. He looks a bit crippled. He's got a spear or a stick. And what he's watching is a fire in an adjoining tree.
Now, I don't know that the degree of flame that's coming out of that tree there. You can not really say that that's a campfire for the camp, nor can you say it's smoking possums out, because it's just far too much. That tree is alight. And that tree almost certainly will burn and die.
There's the presence of an absence here, because that tree's no longer there. That fire was so big, I reckon it burnt the tree down, the possums, the birds, whatever else was in it. The possum probably flung itself into the nearby Pamamaroo Creek, all singed, and he gave chase. But whatever it was, what Becker has done is to place man diminished by nature into the painting here, and this is a typical romantic German ploy if you like.
JONATHAN: Do you like it?
-It's a fabulous painting, and the more you look at, the more you see. And that's a feature of Becker's work. If you look closely at his paintings, you see far more than you would imagine you'd see when you just give a quick glance. Here, we can see that there's a big blaze off the tree, probably taken, perhaps for a canoe, because the nearby painting here shows them in a canoe made of bark, calmly sort of paddling across the creek. There's a shield piece missing from up there. Or maybe it was another canoe, or a coolamon. But whatever it is, this is a very peaceful scene of man in harmony with his environment.
-Well, what do you think of Burke?
-I think Burke was a man with a passion for success. He wanted to conquer. He wanted to find. He wanted to discover. He wanted to appropriate. He was 19th century man wanting to contain the landscape for purposes of his own, map it, draw it up, divide it up, sell it, possess it in fact.
-In a nutshell, or in a word, what do reckon Burke was like?
-Arrogant. Totally arrogant. And to expand on that, not at all reflective. Becker was. And had Burke reflected a little instead of dashing through the landscape, he might have survived. Sturt did. Sturt was a very reflective person and a good bushman. Burke was neither of those.
-Did Burke love Becker and his artist work?
-He had no time. History, if we can rely on it, records that he did not like Becker's work, or rather he didn't value the work that Becker was doing above the work that had to be done on the expedition, which was the daily work, the grind of loading camels and moving onwards through difficult terrain. A hellish place from here on, if there was a hellish place. And Burke had no time for scientific observations.
He even asked people on the team to reduce their personal effects to 40 pounds in weight. And this meant that Becker had to get rid of things. Hermann Beckler, the doctor, had to get rid of things. And it was a mad race. If you remember, it was a race with Stuart to go to the gulf. And that really drove what Burke was doing, this race. A stupid thing to do in a country as hostile as this proved to be.
Becker painted late into the night, and he had to do camp duties. He was already sick when he left here in 1861. But his job was to do that, to make observations, but also to pull his weight in the camp, but he wasn't with Burke beyond here. Burke had already gone. He followed up with Bray up to the-- up to Bulloo with Beckler and the others. And that's where he subsequently died of scurvy in April 1861. So not long after he painted this beautiful painting, and the others here, he died.
And if you go into with a micro-- with a magnifying glass, into looking at some of these things, or these days, bring them up on the web, look through the pictures on a zoom, the most minute brush strokes, which bring to life things like bird's eyes, and beaks, and legs, and feathers. And the detail that he puts into some of these things is just amazing. I think he's a much underrated artist. I cannot understand.
So he's well-known in the context of Burke and Wills, but beyond that, very little is known about Becker's work, and certainly very little is understood about the man himself. Who was this man, Ludwig Becker? That's the thing that interests me. And as I look in his paintings, I look to see just what he's done, which goes beyond the real into the unreal.
I can't imagine that Becker, who was such a civilized man-- Did you know for instance that he found the death mask of William Shakespeare in Europe. He found a death mask of William Shakespeare, and kept that, plus a first edition of a play, and he collected Roman coins. He spoke various languages. He was a very good artist. He painted portraits. He was a lonely man, though. He didn't seem to have many friends. He certainly had supporters in the German community in Melbourne, and they helped him apply for and get a position on the expedition. But the man himself remains a little bit of an enigma. And you can see, I think, some of the German romantic ideas coming into some of his pictures.
-Well, this is a beautiful spot according to Becker. Is it just as beautiful today, this campsite?
-I think it's a dump. I think the way they've let this develop without any planning is appalling. Today, it's how much of Australia is. It's worn out by tourism. And more and more people are traveling throughout more and more of these areas, and you can call this remote, but go to the big tree, you'll see the same worn out surroundings. Everyone's got a four wheel drive and time to drive it, and they do that.
JONATHAN: But is it beautifully presented? By the local authorities?
-No, I think that, that for something as iconic-- This that stands along with ANZAC, it stands along with exploration in Antarctica.
-Absolutely. It's one of those iconic pieces of Australian history. This was a significant part of the trip, this site here, and I think that the local-- I don't know, what do you reckon? The local people and Australians in general could jazz this up a bit. They could actually get rid of the camping here, replant some of that there, plant some native flora around there, and put in some decent interp panels, and look after it. Get rid of the barbecue and the toilets. Move those somewhere else. This is a major site. But they've already-- they've got a remnant of it here.
But mostly, like any historical thing, history lives in our heads. Landscape is something that really we carry as memory. This is a memory of something that Becker depicted as a beautiful spot.