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Literature & Art

Australian literature and art

Libraries and Museums

The development of library services after World War I was facilitated by state subsidies to local authorities. The establishment of library schools by the National Library of Australia, the Library of New South Wales, and the State Library of Victoria has raised the level of professional training of librarians. 

The National Library of Australia in Canberra serves as the library of the nation, the library of the federal parliament, and the national copyright-depository library. In the early 1990s its holdings exceeded 4.5 million volumes. It has extensive collections of both Australiana and general research materials, and provides bibliographical and reference services to the federal government departments. The State Library of New South Wales (1826) is the oldest and largest of the state public libraries and contains a noted collection of Australiana. The State Library of Victoria (1854) includes collections on painting, music, and the performing arts. All states maintain public libraries that are, in effect, state reference libraries. Rural areas have been relatively well served by international standards, except in the most remote locations. However, the economic recession which began in the late 1980s led to cutbacks in state spending that reduced many rural services. Each state parliament is served by a library, and important research collections are maintained at the various university libraries. The major scientific libraries are run by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). Important special libraries are maintained by industrial concerns and by national and state government departments. 

Australia has a variety of museums. The Australian Museum (founded 1827), in Sydney, features notable natural history and anthropology collections. The National Maritime Museum (1985) is also in Sydney. The National Gallery of Victoria (1859) in Melbourne houses excellent exhibits of European and Australian paintings, as do the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1874) in Sydney, the Queensland Art Gallery (1895) in Brisbane, the Art Gallery of South Australia (1881) in Adelaide, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (1895) in Perth. Also of note are the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (1880) and the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities (1860), both in Sydney; the Queensland Herbarium (1874); the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1852) in Hobart; and the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, incorporating the former National Museum of Victoria (1854) and Science Museum of Victoria (1870). Melbourne’s renowned Botanic Gardens houses the National Herbarium, a research centre with specimens and documents dating back to the mid-19th century. The Australian National Gallery opened in Canberra in 1982, and the federal capital will also be the site of a new national museum, scheduled to open in 2001. 


Australia’s Aborigines had a rich oral tradition. It included not only sacred mythology, but also ordinary tales and stories—some oral history, or presumed to be so. A number of the stories existed in several versions; the version used depended on the situation and the storyteller. See Also Australian Literature. 

Long before
the arrival of Europeans, the Aborigines had developed unique and highly distinctive art forms, usually associated with sacred ritual. Sand, rock, and cave painting and the carving of wood and other materials were widespread. Ochre bark painting was predominantly associated with Arnhem Land; the style of western Arnhem Land was particularly naturalistic, showing figures against an open background. Body decoration was also used; the ritual body painting of central Australia was particularly elaborate. 

The value of early paintings by European immigrants lies primarily in their importance as a record of the settlement of the country. Not until the 1880s did the first generation of white Australian artists, unhampered by the restrictions of European discipline, capture the unique Australian scenery, its light, and atmospheric colour. It included Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, and Sir Arthur Streeton. From the early 1940s the work of Australian artists reflected a gradual transition from the generally accepted traditional school to the modern style. Australian painters of the 20th century include Sir William Dobell, known for his portraits; Sir George Russell Drysdale, noted for depictions of the isolated inhabitants of the interior of the country; and Frederick Ronald Williams, whose landscapes and seascapes were notable for their quality of light. The work of Sir Sidney Nolan, based on themes derived from Australian history and folklore, has achieved world renown, as has that of Brett Whiteley and Arthur Boyd. Aborigine artists, drawing on traditional styles and themes, have found receptive audiences in Europe and North America in recent years. (See Aboriginal Art; Australian Art and Architecture.) 

The oldest music in Australia is that of the Aborigines. Music plays a central role in both their social and sacred life. During social gatherings called corroborees, singing and dancing provide the major form of entertainment. In sacred ceremonies, songs serve as the vital link with the realm of the Dreamtime spirits who fashioned the earth and created all living things on it. These songs, sung in sacred ceremonies, ensure the survival and propagation of all plant and animal life. In the north of Australia, accompaniment was provided by the didgeridoo and by clapping sticks. In southern and central regions, boomerangs or clubs were used to provide a rhythmic beat, while in south-eastern Australia women used skin beating pads. Tunes and rhythms varied from region to region. The history of European-based music in Australia begins with the British settlers of the country, who were influential in initiating public concerts. Today, each major city has a symphony orchestra, affiliated with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Distinguished artists and conductors from many countries regularly tour Australia. Australia has made notable contributions to the world of music through the sopranos Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland, the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, and the composers Arthur Benjamin, John Antill, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Peter Joshua Sculthorpe. Classical ballet was brought to Australia by the famed native-born dancer and choreographer Sir Robert Helpmann, who was one of the founders of the Australian Ballet Company. 

There was a vibrant Australian film industry during the "silent" era, which catered for the domestic market and provided Errol Flynn with his first taste of screen acting. However, the coming of sound, with its associated costs, the economic depression, and growing competition from the US industry, had brought about its decline by the 1930s. Film-making then became primarily a state activity, based on the production of documentaries and propaganda. The Australian Commonwealth Film Unit (established 1958), however, proved a vital training ground for the film-makers who, supported by state funding, emerged in the 1970s to bring about a renaissance of the Australian feature film. They included directors like Peter Weir, whose Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was one of the first films of the new generation to garner an international audience. 

Since the 1970s Australian films have proved remarkably successful, both at home and abroad. They include George Miller’s Mad Max series (1978, 1981, 1985) which made a top Hollywood star of Mel Gibson; the first Mad Max film, was also the first Australian feature to gain a mainstream release in the United States. Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman; 1985) was also a huge hit in the United States. More recent successes include; Strictly Ballroom (Baz Lurhmann; 1991), released internationally in 1992; and Muriel’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan; 1993) and The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliot; 1993), both released internationally in 1995. Apart from Errol Flynn and Mel Gibson, Australian actors who have gained Hollywood success include Judy Davis, and Nicole Kidman.



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