SWAGGIE

Inspiration for this series came from the book, 1932 by Gerald Stone (2007), read earlier in the year. It chronicles the pivotal year in Australian politics in the midst of the Great Depression when state governments were forced to urgently repay enormous loans to British banks, depriving them of means to undertake public works or maintain adequate social services. It precipitated a federal crisis and made Australia’s depression especially stark. What struck me most was the policy of forcing mostly young, single unemployed men into a life of nomadic isolation, in order to receive the most meagre of rations. Men were compelled into the life of a ‘swaggie’ or swagman as they are known in Australia, roughly the equivalent of a hobo (that term derived from ‘hoe boys’ denoting itinerant farm labourers). Like hobos, the term swaggies took on a quite different meaning in the Great Depression.

The term originated with the gold rush of 1851 and initially denoted a roving tradesman or labourer, his possessions gathered in a bundle or ‘swag’. At first the image was benign; a stoic battler with slightly comic overtones, much as tramps are commonly perceived. But as the numbers of swaggies swelled with successive depressions from 1890 onward, the image became more troubling, less of amusing independence than guile and opportunism. The popular song Waltzing Matilda written in 1895 by A. B. Paterson perfectly captures this growing irritation. I’ll say more about that at the bottom of the page. By the thirties, most swaggies were hardly more than vagrants and beggars, driven on a relentless schedule through lesser cities and country towns in order to receive weekly benefits, regardless of the lack of seasonal work, abilities or means of transport. It was an endless, futile trek. The government’s aim was firstly to disperse a large and vigorous segment of the workforce, to prevent them from forming a political voice in the face of spiralling unemployment, bankruptcy and evictions. Secondly, the aim was to protect the labour market for trade unions. Ultimately it was a measure to allay the prospect of socialism, even as this gained in popularity as a legitimate democratic option.

Literary inspiration is unusual for me and while the image of the outcast obviously struck a chord, initially it was the idea of historical content that most appealed. I wanted to simply locate and contrast the figure of the swaggie with actual historical settings, with the outskirts of towns, country roads, railway lines, bridges and farms rather than some mythic bushland retreat. So much of my work has focussed on the present or possible futures I was uncertain how my approach would handle pictures set in the past. I soon discovered it made little difference. Versions and revisions to period details in architecture, fashion and transport survived source photography, still allowed an irrealist play between style and substance.

While the landscape nodded to a specific era and geography, the swaggie was intended as no more than a stereotype. Part of that was flagged by having the figure turn away and lead into the distance, remaining faceless or anonymous. Partly it is flagged by more stylised treatment that highlights a crude assembly or collage of elements. The swaggie here is more like a scarecrow, an effigy or puppet. It gives the figure a flimsy, ad hoc quality that sums up desperation of circumstance, arch manipulation and of course, a key aspect of my approach to depiction. The swaggie is a figure propelled by hope and pretence. The pictures thus confront an ahistorical, mythic figure with a specific time and place. That was really as far as I wanted to take any political meaning or to question folklore. And the series would have been smaller and briefer had I been able to stop there. But these things take on their own momentum.

More notes at the bottom of the page.

N.B. The series uses sub-pages for more than three variations on a composition in order to streamline the number of works on this page. Links to sub pages are supplied below the example on this page.

SWAG-01

Swag-01

SWAG-02

Swag-02

SWAG-03

Swag-03

SWAG-04

Swag-04

SWAG-05

Swag-05

SWAG-06A

Swag-06A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-06

SWAG-07A

Swag-07A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-07

SWAG-08A

Swag-08A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-08

SWAG-09

Swag-09

SWAG-10

Swag-10

SWAG-11A

Swag-11A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-11

SWAG-12

Swag-12

SWAG-13

Swag-13

SWAG-14

Swag-14

SWAG-15A

Swag-15A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-15

SWAG-16

Swag-16

SWAG-17

Swag-17

SWAG-18

Swag-18

SWAG-19

Swag-19

SWAG-20A

Swag-20A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-20

SWAG-21B

Swag-21

SWAG-21

Swag-22

SWAG-23A

Swag-23A  – VARIATIONS ON SWAG-23

SWAG-24

Swag-24

SWAG-25-2

Swag-25

As the series progressed I found scenes of later and earlier eras equally effective. If anything, the sense of deliberate marginalisation and dispossession to the swaggie was heightened. He did not belong anywhere, anytime. The landscapes still retained an historical sense, an Australian location, but the swaggie became one construction too far or where the pictures faltered. He became an outsider even to his pictures. This broadening of parameters obviously makes the swaggie about more than Australian folklore. He is cut off not just from politics or history but any sense of belonging.  Early in the series it occurred to me I might use Australian landscape painting from the twenties and thirties as settings, since much of it favoured an idyllic pastoral, precisely the vision that was supposed to support an army of circulating swaggies. But this soon seemed as false as Waltzing Matilda. Similarly, in creating an image of the swaggie, the unsettling regional themes of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker suggested precedents, perhaps reassuring allegiance, but these too were resisted. My swaggie denies tradition as much as is denied it. He passes it by perhaps, but like everything else it remains implacably hostile.  This made the theme even more acute. Source imagery ranging from the 1950s to the 19th century took on a potent nostalgia, not for something I had actually experienced but for something I was only dimly connected to, but which nevertheless exerted a mysterious allure, an immaculate completeness. The swaggie became my guide to a lost world. Yet even as he set foot within it, it became corrupted, illusory and lifeless.

The swaggie began to feel like Orpheus. The elegiac tone I think is particularly carried in the restrained colour, sometimes recalling hand-tinting, elsewhere simply faded photographs. As with SAYING FLOWERS, the true source is not hard to locate.  But SWAGGIE (the series) projects this melancholy far more ambitiously and if I don’t anticipate revisiting such bleak territory, the exercise has at least extended my means. Unlike previous series where the foreground figure had relegated the landscape to just a background, here the subject is properly a landscape that the figure occupies rather than dominates. Consequently, the pictures became more elaborate, not just in content but as Photoshop files. Until now I hadn’t used a lot of layers, perhaps half a dozen, preferring to subsequently modify things as JPGs. Here I found I was often amassing 30 or 40 layers, carefully building up a scene that had enough flow or interest. It made for complex, expansive pictures that often beg greater scale as actual paintings. That bothers me as a practicality but as pictures they allow a far more graded or nuanced approach, perhaps not quite as I’d expected, but offering new flexibility.

Historical Notes

Obviously I recommend 1932 for viewers seeking more background, but it’s worth repeating a few of the statistics for those not familiar with Australian history. In 1932 Australia’s population was only 6.5 million, so its economic fate hardly rated mention as the Wall Street Crash echoed around the world in 1929. As the Great Depression gained momentum however, Australian bankruptcy and unemployment saw 700 jobs a day disappear, everyday; up to 5,000 a week. In just May 1932, 20,000 workers were laid off. Australia’s economic collapse ranks second only to that of Weimar Germany amongst Western nations. Even before 1929, unemployment had been running at around ten percent or 230,000, due to rolling economic ills stemming back to the depression of 1890 and disguised only briefly by World War One. By mid 1932, the figure had rocketed to 700,000 under the most cautious of estimates. As Stone points out, many segments of the workforce like youths and immigrants were deliberately omitted, while casualisation and underemployment – as they are now – were another way of simply disguising the true loss of earning and spending power. No accurate record was kept of the number of men forced into the life of a swaggie, but it would probably have been around 100,000, as state-backed work camps and ‘self-employment’ schemes failed. The life of the swaggie was the last resort. No serious effort was made to record their numbers much less their deaths by starvation, illness, suicide, misadventure and violence from the lawless life on the road. It is an omission not of incompetence but indifference.

On Waltzing Matilda:  the standard lyrics are –

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boil,
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boil
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
 ………………..
 Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda,
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me,
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
…………………
 Up rode the squatter mounted on his thorough-bred
Down came the troopers One Two Three
Whose that jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

Waltzing Matilda Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me
Whose that jolly jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker-bag
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
 ………………….
 Up jumped the swagman sprang in to the billabong
You’ll never catch me alive said he,
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

 Waltzing Matilda Waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong
You’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
…………………..

Significantly, the song is based on the violent outcome of a sheep shearers’ strike in 1894 at Dagworth station in Central Queensland. One of the strike organisers, Samuel Hoffmeister, was pursued to a nearby waterhole by the station owner, Bob Macpherson and three mounted policemen. Hoffmeister eventually shot himself rather than surrender. This was only months before Paterson visited Dagworth in his quest for local folktales. Some interpretation sees his use of the incident as a way of smuggling topical content into popular song since the incident was widely reported. At best this makes for fairly compromised, indeed feeble allusion. More to the point, it demonstrates how forced and unconvincing the project of collecting ‘authentic’ Australian folklore was, indeed the social order implied from it. The implicit lure or entrapment with a ‘jumbuck’ (a young lamb) by the ‘squatter’ (Australian landed gentry) and three troopers is recounted as perfectly matter of fact, as is the swaggie’s subsequent despair and suicide. All is reconciled by the refrain ‘Waltzing Matilda’ the meaning of which remains uncertain. It was not a phrase in wide or consistent use before the song appeared but presumably carries some irony for the impulsive embrace of serendipity. Stripped of any other sense, the song merely celebrates deceit and persecution by the privileged.

Posted 03/08/2016 by gerrybellart

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