Michael Dillon, Film maker
Not for downloadCopyright
For 40,000 years Mutawintji Gorge, with its reliable water sources, has been a gathering place for widely scattered aboriginal tribes.
Burke and Wills passed by briefly but the area was visited more thoroughly by their relief party that included the German artist Ludwig Becker. Here artist Les Sprague talks to Jonathan King at the spot where Becker painted his sketch Mutawintji waterhole.
JONATHAN: As they traveled North, Burke and Wills entered unknown country. But the Aborigines had been visiting this spot for 40,000 years. This was far from unknown. This was Mutawintji.
LES: G'day, Jonathan.
JONATHAN: What are you doing here, Les?
LES: Well, I'm just-- I'm looking at this gorge here that Becker painted. I'm working in the master's footsteps here. This is a picture that Becker drew back in 1861, and I'm just sketching something similar here.
JONATHAN: So Les, is that like the original one that Becker did?
LES: Well, in many ways, it is, because it's the same subject. But if you look at his-- I have a copy here. If you have a look at that, Jonno, that-- now, that's a sepia ink and pen drawing, 1861. It's a masterful representation of that.
That's a very, very difficult subject to draw, because it has lots of cracks, fissures, three-dimensional forms, shapes. It's got light and shade. He's got a lot of contrast and drama happening through in here, in this cleft. I haven't. I'm using a different material, in pencil. A lot harder to do it in pen, because you have one go, and your mark's there on the paper.
JONATHAN: Can't rub it out.
LES: No, and he's got that. I'm doing--
JONATHAN: His was very accurate. His-- Becker's drawing was very accurate, from what I can see right now. There's nothing's changed.
LES: It's so accurate that I can pinpoint the exact spot that he must have sat in order to get that composition.
JONATHAN: And are we sitting there now?
LES: Yeah. Just-- just here. But I do think that for compositional purposes, he's changed the position of those trees. That tree is certainly where it was, but there are two. There's another one up there which he doesn't show. So I think for compositional purposes, he has put two trees together.
Those trees, 150 years ago, were there. Local opinion has it that they could be upwards of 1,000 years old.
JONATHAN: The little cypresses?
LES: Those little white cypresses there.
JONATHAN: So in other words, you've come back here to sort of commune with Becker.
LES: Certainly, in a way. If you're doing something that he has done, you face the same challenge. And in finding a solution to successfully overcome that challenge, you are seeing the kind of decisions that he made.
JONATHAN: I see.
LES: So I can see--
JONATHAN: You can get really close to Becker by doing--
LES: Absolutely, yeah.
JONATHAN: A sketch in the same place that he did a sketch hundreds of years later.
LES: Yeah. Old Ludwig could be sitting here having a little sandwich or something with us. You feel very close to this bloke as you sit here. There's no one else here. You can almost commune with old Ludwig if he was here, yeah.
JONATHAN: 150 years later, this hasn't changed a bit. There aren't many things on the Burke and Wills track, as we travel from Melbourne to the gulf, that are so unchanged at Mutawintji Gorge.
LES: I'd have to agree with that, I think. This is in pristine condition. And the way it's looked after now by the Aboriginal custodians of the park and by the New South Wales Parks people, it's a real credit to them. They do have a problem with goats still, but that's a difficult one to overcome quickly.
JONATHAN: Why did Becker paint this particular spot? He could have stopped anywhere else.
LES: Mutawintji, ah, look it was known for its water supply. And it was a place that Aboriginal people came to, to assemble for various reasons, for thousands of years.
And you can see why. There's a body of water here, which is probably-- I don't know, it's probably here regularly. In any good year, this water would stay here for quite some time. And in an exceptional year like this-- I mean, it's all down the gorge in big water holes. This, from a water point of view, could sustain water supplies for a lot of people visiting this area.
JONATHAN: And as an artist, would Becker have said, that is beautiful. I must paint it.
LES: Yeah, yeah. Look, Becker-- you sort of hesitate to say he's a Romantic German artist, or an artist painting in the German Romantic way. But nevertheless, the sensibility of the man is quite clear in his other pictures. And I would say that he's come along to this place and said, what a great place. I'm going to-- I'm going to paint this. This has got to be recorded on this expedition. I want people to see what this is like. It's-- it is beautiful.
JONATHAN: Because they didn't have any cameras.
No cameras. Well, they might have had cameras. When did cameras-- when were cameras invented?
JONATHAN: '56, they were using them in Australia.
LES: What? So 1856, he didn't have a camera. No, he didn't. He had the old-- the same as I've got. A little paintbrush and some pencils and some ink and pens.
I think that the man's reputation is-- he's much overlooked. And the more interest in Becker, the more his reputation will emerge as one worthy of respect. He's already included in art history, but he's seen as a naturalist and the artist that went on the Burke and Wills.
And there's a lot of other stuff that he painted and things that he did. But it would be good if someone who spent the last months of his life recording with such dexterity and skill some of the features that they came across on this expedition-- remember, when did he do this? Anyway, just a few short months later, he was dead. He was dead. And he left behind the most beautiful depictions of some of these scenes.