University of Tasmania
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Thick, dark strokes of romantic gloom and terror‚ÄövÑvp: William Charles Piguenit's Tasmanian wilderness

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posted on 2023-05-26, 03:25 authored by Gavan, CL
Tasmanian born artist William Charles Piguenit was a painter of landscapes in the Romantic mode. For Piguenit, nature was an inexhaustible source of primal and elemental grandeur. Whilst adhering to rules of good and correct composition in his paintings, Piguenit believed that it was the effects nature produced, most specifically those of a certain quality of light and of particular atmospheric conditions and the impression these effects had on the viewer that were paramount. Despite the fading popularity of Romanticism in Australia toward the end of the 19th century Piguenit favoured the soaring mountain views of an unpeopled sublime landscape that were the hallmarks of Romanticism. Whereas popular taste appeared to be following developments at the Heidelberg camp of artists such as Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder, Piguenit remained steadfastly loyal to his particularly Tasmanian way of seeing and painting the landscape. Whilst Roberts and McCubbin and others were creating the sun-blasted nationalistic landscapes of the continent, Piguenit rejected the vogue toward Impressionism which the Heidelbergers tethered to the ambition of Federation of the states. Whereas the Heidelbergers employed the motif of the heroic pioneer the purpose of which was to serve as an exemplar of nation-building activity, Piguenit sought to imagine through his landscapes a kind of tear in the newly woven fabric of national community. Piguenit's landscapes, the majority of which were of Tasmania, revealed the island colony to be subject to an entirely different aesthetic, one that owed as much to its climactic temperament as much as to the literary motifs and historical discourses cast upon it. Much has been made of the character Piguenit. He is known as the father of Australian landscape painting and he is lauded as the first homegrown artist of any note. But it is the assertion that amongst other credits cast posthumously upon Piguenit, that the artist was perhaps the first artist to also be a conservationist that raises historical difficulties. Amongst these is the difficulty of the historical contingency that attends to notions of conservation, of wilderness and of modern environmentalism. In other words, it is the values given to contemporary modes of conservation and preservation and the associations between these philosophies and the notion of wilderness that create problems when used as a lens to examine Piguenit's motives a century earlier. Indeed what little traction there is to the idea that Piguenit beheld and practiced a conservation ethic is more clearly understood according to the meaning conservation held in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Tasmania. It is argued in this thesis that Piguenit and his artistry both resist a simple historical trajectory from then to now, from the artist's scenic apprehension through to a conservation ethic that held a very different place in Tasmanian society one hundred years earlier.


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