Tom Roberts is a renowned nineteenth-century Australian painter, part of the Australian impressionist movement (also known as the Heidelberg School). The National Gallery of Australia is currently staging an exhibition of his work, which many Australians would be very familiar with – think Bailed up, or Shearing the Rams.
Roberts’ work, alongside other members of the Heidelberg school, has been influential in shaping an Australian national identity. However, it wasn’t just painters who were engaged in projecting a particular (white, Anglo, masculine) identity. You may recall a previous discussion on this blog about the Australian bush ballads, written during the same era that Roberts et al were painting. The fact is that both the artists and poets of this period have left a legacy that continues to define Australia’s identity over a hundred years later.
Art historian and comedian Hannah Gadsby believes that these artworks function as a cultural indicator of Australia’s obsession with masculinity, and argues that the figure of “the macho macho Australian man isn’t questioned enough.”
Seeing the Tom Roberts exhibition I was struck by how frequently the horse features in his most iconic works, what the Gallery terms his “national narratives”.  Works that incorporate the horse include A Breakaway (1891), A Mountain Muster (1897-1920s), Bailed Up (1895, 1927) and In a Corner of the Macintyre [The Bushranger] (1895)
So while Australia’s most well-known and best-loved art-makers were constructing “works that are now embedded in the Australian psyche, as intended”,  our bards were doing the same, via poetry. In the works of ‘Banjo’ Paterson in particular, the horse is most visible via the figure of the stockman. Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, Clancy of the Overflow, and The Dying Stockman to name but a few all idolise the figure of the stockman, to whom the horse is intrinsic.
The horse here is inherently linked to these constructions of a very masculine Australian identity. While there is no overt assertion that the horse belongs solely to a male-dominated world, the assumption, both in the poems of the bush balladists and the artworks produced by members of the Heidelberg School such as Roberts, is implicit.
This tacit acceptance of a very narrow and particular vision of Australia suffuses the NGA’s exhibition. Perhaps it’s my over-exposure to Roberts’ work through my PhD, or perhaps it’s my critical thinking at play, but I couldn’t warm to the exhibition.
However, an idle Google image search delivered a real gem in the below work by Anne Zahalka. Zahalka, by adding a long plait to the rider, immediately repositions the figure as female. The jolt this small addition delivers serves to highlight at least part of what is missing from these works, which have entered the Australian canon unquestioned. And that makes for a refreshing change.
 Hannah Gadsby, Hannah Gadsby’s Oz Episode 2, Closer Productions 2014.
 Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia, 4 December 2015 – 28 March 2016.
 ‘About’, Tom Roberts exhibition website, National Gallery of Australia. Accessed 16 February 2016 http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/Roberts/Default.cfm?MNUID=6