A glimpse into the past: can Australian landscape paintings be used as ‘guiding images’ for environmental rehabilitation?

A glimpse into the past: can Australian landscape paintings be used as ‘guiding images’ for environmental rehabilitation?

The Australian landscape is complex, charismatic and staggeringly beautiful. It is unsurprising that the natural world soon found a prominent place in the hearts of landscape artists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The artworks produced in this period are often appreciated for their aesthetic qualities – but can they also provide an important glimpse into the past for ecologists and environmental managers?

Guiding images can be enormously helpful in environmental rehabilitation for many reasons. The rehabilitation of a landscape is an inter-disciplinary task often involving stakeholders from a wide range of backgrounds and specialisations, including government, politicians, private industry and the local population. While ecologists use their own scientific parameters to set rehabilitation targets, this multitude of acronyms and numerical measurements can cause difficulties in communicating the aims of a project with the wider groups invested in it. Guiding images offer a shared vision, one which is immediately accessible for every person involved in site rehabilitation.

Another common problem in environmental rehabilitation is projects stalling prematurely for one reason or another – lack of budget often being a key factor. Though rehabilitation ‘success’ may mean different things to different stakeholders – aesthetics, species richness, number of trees planted, and so on – a carefully chosen guiding image which displays a high level of ecological integrity can increase the chances of a project continuing until stakeholders see a landscape that resembles that guiding image. This could drive rehabilitation efforts on until there is a firm foundation for ecosystem recovery.

Beyond their benefits in providing a shared vision of a goal, guiding images can also provide vital data for scientists. Even with a variety of metrics at hand, scientists often lack data on the specific arrangement of the landscape they are trying to restore. Sure, we might know there are stands of River Red Gum in our landscape, but where exactly, and how sparse were they? Or perhaps we know there are various acacias in the understorey structure, but what are their relative abundances? These are the kinds of questions that a glimpse into the past can answer for us.

It only takes a morning stroll through the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne’s Federation Square to see the vast impact of the Australian landscape on early colonial artists. Though it is easy to simply gawk at some of the works on display at the Ian Potter Centre, a careful, analytical eye over the nineteenth century landscape pieces can provide sharp insights into how Australia’s environment has changed over time.

Frederick McCubbin The pioneer 1904
Frederick McCubbin, The pioneer (1904). Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Some paintings record the Australian landscape with great accuracy. For artists Fredrick McCubbin and Eugene von Guérard, painting outdoors allowed for greater precision in the rendering of landscape characteristics. Preferring greater intimacy with the landscape, McCubbin’s work captures details that provide a sharp insight into vegetation structure in works such as Lost (1886) and The pioneer (1904).

Von Guérard is similarly known for his precision in capturing the geological and botanical features of the landscapes which he painted, though not without some troublesome influences of romanticism. Mount Kosciusko, seen from the Victorian border (1866) is rendered from such a flattering aspect that the mountain, barely a bump in the landscape on a world scale, is depicted as bold and muscular enough to rival the great mountains of the world. Even here, though, the vegetation is authentically rendered in great detail.

Von Guérard’s work has in fact already been used to support contemporary environmental rehabilitation. Tower Hill (1855) shows a landscape in its relatively undisturbed state, and has been used as a guiding image for the rehabilitation of Tower Hill on the south-west coast of Victoria. From the painting, scientists have been able to identify thirteen plant species, and the painting itself has be used as a ‘template’ for the rehabilitation of the landscape. This is thanks to von Guérard’s insistence that precisely recording geographical and botanical details would be of value in the future – and he was absolutely right.

Eugene von Guérard, Tower Hill (1855). Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria. Photo: Alex Mullarky.

Although some of these early landscape paintings offer a wealth of detail, it pays to acknowledge their limitations as guiding images for rehabilitation. It is unfortunate for ecologists that these artists happened to be, well, artists. Some landscapes are rendered in such a way that they could be mistaken for the fertile farmlands of Europe; others can’t shake the stylistic mould that holds them, whether it be romanticism, impressionism, or anything else. In some cases, the composition of the landscape has been completely altered to appear more pleasing to the eye.

But should this stop us from seeking out these landscape paintings as guiding images for environmental rehabilitation? I say of course not! Even less-authentic paintings can tell us something about the arrangement of components in a landscape which can be difficult to access through the language of quotas and percentages. Guiding images are also far more effective in communicating a vision to the wider demographic of stakeholders that is often involved in large-scale rehabilitation projects.

Of course, we need to carefully distinguish between usable, authentic paintings (such as von Guérard and McCubbin) and less-authentic paintings (Russel Drysdale’s surrealistic works, for example) before we incorporate them into rehabilitation projects. When useful works of art are identified and verified, they can be invaluable tools for environmental rehabilitation.

And of course, there is an undeniable romance to the merging of art and science in pursuit of a better world.

Banner image of Eugene von Guerard’s ‘Mount Kosciusko, seen from the Victorian border (Mount Hope Ranges)’ (1866). Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

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