The kangaroo in Australian painting

Aboriginal Wall painting in X-Ray Style, N.Australia Aboriginal wall painting of kangaroo in X-Ray style. Aboriginal artists in general have continued to depict the kangaroo seriously in their paintings. From time immemorial to now.

Kangaroos are popular in some places…

Since I’ve been living in Sweden, I’ve found out how many people love australian animals. I had no idea that people all over the world love them.

When I was young, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, it seemed to me that nobody cared much about australian animals in Australia. Well I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, though here’s the appalling extinction stats here. 

I remember going on a painting trip, when I was about 19, to the outback of New South Wales. We went to a pub one night after the days painting. It was filled with a bunch of rowdy drunk roo (kangaroo) shooters. Kicking back after the days shooting. Regaling us with the days stories.  I remember being horrified by their glee about it all.

'Kangaroo' by George StubbsGeorge Stubbs painting above was commissioned by the botanist and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks.

Banks brought back to England, from his australian journey with Captain Cook in 1770, kangaroo skins and skulls. Stubbs used them as a basis for the painting.

Horror stories

There are routinely, in the australian news, horror stories about someone torturing kangaroos or other animals.

On the outskirts of Melbourne or any place in Australia, where there’s open bush, you’ll often see kangaroos. Many people see them as a menace. (They often jump across the road while you’re driving at night in the country.)

When I last lived in Melbourne, some young men in the outer suburb of Bundoora, decided to use them as shooting practice using a crossbow. They were caught, luckily. Perhaps if the negative attitude wasn’t so ingrained, you wouldn’t get this kind of insanity.

I think this attitude stems from the fact that, in Australia, images of kangaroos are used on everything from coins, coats of arms, films and tv, cartoons, clothing, children’s books, Qantas, football teams etc. Mostly they’re represented as a bit of a joke. Many people take them for granted.

gary shead 'From his series 'kangaroo'

Garry Shead ‘Kangaroo’ Oil  This painting is part of a series Shead completed in 1993 which was inspired by D H Lawrence’s novel ‘Kangaroo’.

A joke?

Just doing a google search many of the images (not photography) are comical and ridiculous.

In general, I found very few established australian painters that have used australian animals in their art in a non ironic way. Clifton Pugh, Garry SheadJohn Olsen were some old school artists that depicted them. There are others, but not many.

A few contemporary artists have used them as a way to raise political issues. And this is perfectly fine, but what I’m interested in is trying to capture the actual spirit of something. Not as commentary for something else.

john olsen 'kangaroo'1978 mixed media on paper

 John Olsen ‘Kangaroo’ 1978 Mixed media on paper

Drawing of Kangaroo and Bird by Reg Mombassa

Reg Mombassa ‘Drawing of kangaroo and bird’ 2004

Having gone through the process of art school in the 80’s, there was a belief that painting any animal at all was considered unworthy of a serious artist. Except as a joke or as political statement.

But it’s no joke what happens to kangaroos in Australia.

Perhaps that’s why australians find it difficult to represent them in a serious way, because they’re in collective denial about how they are actually treated?

Of course I haven’t done a painting of a kangaroo either. Something I’ll have to fix at some stage, because they really are the most amazing, unique creatures. 

The Endeavour Journal (1768-1771) by Sir Joseph Banks 

Captain Cook’s Kangaroo comes out of hiding.

Images of the kangaroo on Red Bubble 

Australian Society for Kangaroos

From De Bruyn to Pasteur: Early Illustrations of the Kangaroo

Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns’ kangaroo sanctuary

Center for Compassionate Conservation

‘An artist is not paid for his labour but for his vision.’

James Whistler

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4 thoughts on “The kangaroo in Australian painting

  1. I think we all remember Skippy with happy memories. I had heard that they were badly treated and a pest on the roads in Australia.
    They are such strange animals.

  2. Thanks Angie. I think Skippy’s still playing somewhere in the world. They are definitely unique.

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