Australia 1914 – 1973
not titled [Central Australian landscape with ghost gums]
Hermannsburg, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, watercolours, drawing in brush and watercolour and brush and gouache over black pencil Support: paper mounted on thick cardboard
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Otto Pareroultja was almost as well known as Albert Namatjira. T G H Strehlow, who grew up with the artists in Hermannsburg, commented in 1956 on Otto’s strong decorative sense. Strehlow attributed this to certain characteristics of painting for ceremony, noting:
His ‘tigerlike’ ghost gums are of special interest. It was [Rex] Battarbee who first thought of using curved lines running across the length of the trunks and limbs to indicate the rounded smoothness of the ghost gums. Otto Pareroultja has multiplied these half rings and placed them closely over the whole trunks and all the limbs of the trees. His ghost gums now show the common alternate black and white rings … on the trunks of many sacred totem poles.
This iconic image positions us high on a red rocky mountain slope: ancient twin gums frame our view across to a central peak in a range that is crossed by a dry sandy river bed, which drops down to a watercourse. The curved trunks of the massive ghost gums in the foreground are dynamically simplified to accentuate the distance between us and the mountain ranges beyond. The painting simultaneously presents a spatial illusion of two distinct territories yet it evokes a unified world, a sustaining spiritual reality that unites the present with the past. Dramatic shifts in scale in the elements which animate foreground and distance may be responsible for this illusion, nevertheless colour unites them: the yellow watercolour which underlies the washes of grey sweeping around the trunks of the ghost gums also defines much of the country beyond.
 T G H (Ted) Strehlow was the son of the German Lutheran pastor Carl Strehlow. After studying at Adelaide University, he became the first government patrol officer in central Australia and was a noted authority on central Australian material culture.
 T G H Strehlow, Rex Battarbee: artist and founder of the Aboriginal art movement in central Australia, Legend Press, Sydney, 1956, pp 30–1. Rex Battarbee trained as a commercial artist in Melbourne and became a mentor for Albert Namatjira and the other Western Arrarnta (Aranda) watercolourists during visits to the mission in the early 1930s.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010