There are at least 18 books about Albert Namatjira, the Aranda artist who opened Australian eyes – and the Queen’s – to the talent and potential of our First Nations people. An important man, a skilled artist and a tragic figure.

But do we need another book about him, a mighty 450 page effort, costing $150?

The simple answer has to be ‘Yes’. For author Ken McGregor’s timing in publishing after the control of Namatjira’s copyright was wrested from the Legend Press, now vested in the Namatjira Legacy Trust, means that this is surely the best illustrated biography that could possibly be produced. McGregor has also worked closely with Albert’s grandchildren to get the facts of his tumultuous life correct, as well as sharing profits with the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre in Mbantua, which maintains the rage of the Hermannsburg School of watercolour painting into a third and fourth generation.

Oddly, the only area of this sad saga not covered in the book is that involving the copyright, held for so long by the Brackenreg family, who had originally appeared as white knights to take the business burden off Albert’s shoulders, but ended up up denying reproduction of his many works without unreasonable payments. McGregor doesn’t even mention the happy ending to this, involving Dick Smith and much joy with the creation of the Legacy Trust – mentioned only as the copyright holder of the approximately 425 illustrated paintings and painted artefacts,

Is this a catalogue raisonee? It’s not, even though they are shown and listed in chronological order – allowing a fascinating appreciation of the artist’s development from the fairly wan 1930s via increasingly idiosyncratic ghost gums to bold resolution and finally, an almost impressionistic ‘Mt Gillen Gums‘ in 1958. McGregor believes that now, all have their correct title, though dates are less certain. And he’s working on the catalogue raisonee, though suspects it will take years.

The strength of this cool rather than passionate telling of the Namatjira story is the multiplicity of sources – justifying a four-year research period – and the context in which the artist is placed. Did you know, for instance, that Albert’s father Jonathon – pictured a couple of times in old age in reverent attendance upon his son – came into the Hermannsberg Mission partly because it offered a refuge from tribal retribution by spearing for a wrong-skin marriage? Or that the Lutheran mission was named after the German town where its pastors had trained? Or that its choice of site was already an Aranda campsite, but the mission’s 2000 sheep soon ran it out of water?

In fact, Albert’s earliest artistic efforts on boomerangs and woomera – and it was Pastor Albrecht who introduced pyrography to the craft of Desert wood-working – helped to raise funds for a life-saving pipeline. And Namatjira was so busy with this art-making that he had five men cutting and sanding the wood for him to decorate.

At least the mission’s inhabitants – “those dark-skinned children of the Stone Age”, as the ‘Melbourne Argus’ delicately described them – were protected from the 1928 Coniston Massacre – just up the road.

For this was still a terrible time to be an Aborigine in Central Australia. Even in the 1950s, when Namatjira had been presented to the Queen, white folk in Alice Springs complained that they’d been forced to “share a ward with a coon” when Albert was hospitalised. Down at the Melbourne Olympics, a catalogue talked about “heralding the Renaissance of a race of primitive people”.

No wonder the artist’s downfall, following his very un-fanfared citizenship in 1957 – for him and his wife Rubina, but no one else in his family – was almost inevitable. Ted Strehlow was one of the few who seems to have come close to understanding the problem, along with writer Frank Clune, just possibly Federal minister Paul Hasluck, but probably not Pastor Albrecht, who preferred that Namatjira be imprisoned rather than lead other men from the mission astray with his drinking. Strehlow summed up: “(His) personal tragedy was an inevitable result of our failure to realise that no man can stand successfully on his own as an individual divorced from the group to which he belongs”.

But, paintings sold for increasing prices – and his fellow Aranda, including his sons, very soon joined the painting party – flying visits were arranged to exhibitions all over Australia, autograph hunters besieged a man who came to hate crowds and cities, and ordinary Aussies were much taken with his colourful and deeply understanding representations of the country’s largely unknown centre. The Art Gallery of NSW, however, sniffed “pot-boilers”; in Adelaide they credited him with “curiosity value” – while “primitive work found on caves was first class”!

From as far away as the UK, the great critic Herbert Read took up this dichotomy, admitting that Namatjira had “the artistic talent, the genius even” to become a Royal Academician. But that he’d “forsaken his own people’s art”. “The diffusion of culture is a devastating reality. Culture spreads like the plague, and where it ‘takes’, it always weakens. Namatjira’s now an academic painter of distinction, but he has lost his native sensibility”.

Ken McGregor seeks to balance this commonly-held viewpoint, pushing his own claim that Albert was “pioneering contemporary Indigenous art”. More pertinent, Strehlow believes Namatjira’s “choice of subjects often had mythological significance”. And anthropologist CP Mountford even pursued Albert to Hermannsburg to buy two paintings, “showing better than any European artist the brilliant colours of central Australia”, then sat down to watch him depict the Yalka Nut Dreaming story “dating from the dawn of time” in black and white drawings.

I’ve personally always believed that, apart from the appeal of an income from painting – which McGregor does admit motivated Albert – the time was just not right in his lifetime for the Elders to permit the depiction of such stories and images in public. And that restricted Albert. But he certainly knew them, and happily shared them with more appreciative whitefellars:
“When the old man got tired and properly old, he died. He made his camp and lay down and put his dilly-bag alongside himself”. That may well have been Albert Namatjira’s own chosen ending, rather than heartbreak and a heart-atttack at 57. For it was related by him as the ending to ‘The Old-man and his Six Sons, the Namatuna’ in a traditional creek-bed story-telling session to Roland Robinson for his book, ‘The Feathered Serpent‘. Intriguingly, Robinson records the storyteller as “Tonanga of the Arranda tribe”.

‘The life and times of Albert Namatjira’ is distributed by Douglas Stewart Fine Books at $150, and is also available from the Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre in Alice Springs.