What is Tasmanian Gothic?

Am Land ist das Unheimliche zu Hause

The label Gothic evokes sinister images of mysterious figures, crumbling mansions, ancient curses and supernatural forces.

"Tasmanian Gothic - is that anything to do with that American painting, or is it about moody people wandering around in black clothing?" The answer is: probably all of the above. It is also the architectural style of many Tasmanian churches and an increasingly popular literary genre.

Gothic was a derogatory term applied in the Renaissance to outmoded artistic taste. It is the style of the decorative and vividly-coloured manuscript illuminations, paintings and tapestries of the Middle Ages, with their keen observation of nature, their humour and humanity, and of some of Europe's most wonderful cathedrals, but it has become much, much more. In fact, it can mean anything you want it to.

With the Gothic Revival of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it became a descriptive term for architecture in the Medieval style and romantic literature with sensational plots set in the past. In the twentieth century it was applied indiscriminately to movies, music, fashion and anything else that was influenced by dark, morbid, supernatural and horror themes. Romanticism, humour and parody are seriously part of it all.

My Tasmanian Gothic draws on all these influences, but mostly upon the landscape of Tasmania itself.

The Manifesto

photo: forest - Weld River In Tasmania, with a history of European occupation spanning barely three lifetimes, a new Gothic emerged. This form combined real and imaginary stories of cannibalism and deprivation from the State's early days as a penal colony with caricatures of Tasmanians as degenerate, inbred, brutal chauvinists. Two literary works were important landmarks in the establishment of the Tasmanian Gothic genre - Marcus Clarke's The Term of his Natural Life, (published in serial form between 1870 and 1872) and Louis Nowra's play The Golden Age, (first performed in 1985). The third, and perhaps most important factor in the synthesis is Tasmania's geography with its spectacular valleys and gorges, rugged mountains and impenetrable rainforests, isolated from the Australian mainland by the storms of Bass Strait.

In 1989 Jim Davidson published a seminal article Tasmanian Gothic in the literary magazine Meanjin (edition 48.2 1989). Most of the writers he mentioned observed Tasmania from outside; the Tasmanians among them were expatriates who wrote as if revisiting unsophisticated and slightly embarrassing relatives, and they perpetuated the stereotypical image. The ancient jokes about incest, deformed half-wits and two-headed babies have been told by one group about another all over the world. Even the majority of the convict stories are tourist-oriented sensationalism, already popular in the mid nineteenth century. This is not my Tasmanian Gothic.

Painting my own Tasmania

photo: Central Highlands, Tasmania As a sixth-generation Tasmanian (some of my relatives still own their ancestors' original land grants) and amateur historian I have a strong emotional attachment to this island. I am proud of my pioneering ancestors' achievements in establishing the colony and firmly believe the marks they made on the landscape - remains of quarries, mines, roads and homesteads - are as worthy of preservation and admiration as the natural environment. At the same time, I am appalled by the damage overgrazing, poor land management practices and indiscriminate forest clearing have inflicted.

I deplore the damming of Lake Peddar and many wild rivers, but I continue to use electrical appliances. I oppose the export of woodchips, but I use just as much paper as ever. And I am torn between the need to conserve resources and the desire to take advantage of twenty-first century technology. These contradictions are one source of the ambiguity and gothic escapism that make my paintings so discomforting.

Gothic need not rely on melodramatic grotesquery. When seen with a fresh eye the most familiar scenery becomes unexpected and exotic. Although painted from imagination, my landscapes are drawn from observed scenery, simplified to emphasize peculiar features and create stylised but unmistakably Tasmanian settings.

My Tasmanian Gothic returns to its true roots in the excesses of the landscape, and my current preoccupation is with revealing the Uncanny inhabiting our island.


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All content on this website © E.M. Christensen     contact the artist:  barsham@tasmanian-gothic.com