Anthropologist Why is it important to donate blood essay Leason thought he was painting the extinction of Victoria’s Indigenous people in the 1930s. He was wrong, but his portraits, part of a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, are surprisingly sympathetic. Detail from Percy Leason, Thomas Foster, 1934, oil on canvas, 76.
8 cm, State Library Victoria, Melbourne. Myles Russell Cook works for the National Gallery of Victoria. The Conversation UK receives funding from Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Royal Society, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence, as well as sixty five university members. Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence. Benjamin’s passing marked the extinction of a species. The creature had been held captive in the zoo for three years before his death, and during that time my grandfather recalls seeing him.
Honestly, we didn’t think much of it at the time. Benjamin, the last recorded Tasmanian thylacine. Two years before the passing of the last Tasmanian tiger, artist and illustrator Percy Leason painted 46 portraits of Aboriginal people from Lake Tyers mission in Victoria. Leason’s motivation to paint may have been rooted in salvage anthropology, but the images themselves have more to offer than a practical, ethnographic record. Leason’s portraits are a window in time. They speak of a period when people were categorised by their blood. Light-skinned Aboriginal people frequently have their authenticity questioned and their identity challenged.
Of course, this too represents a kind of extinction. Although the idea that Aboriginal people were a dying race had circulated since the late 19th century, and it found renewed interest in the 1930s. Well regarded by his peers, Leason achieved significant status as an artist in his time. The Last Victorian Aborigines drew great crowds of people when it opened at the Athenaeum Gallery in September 1934. The exhibition coincided with the Melbourne centenary, and at this time people all over the city were thinking about the future.
Leason’s portraits spoke about the future, by depicting what he considered to be the past. Reflecting on this now, I can’t help but wonder what curiosity it was that drew in audience members. The audience might have acknowledged the tragedy and the melancholy sadness the images were thought to represent, but one wonders if many also considered them nostalgic, perhaps with the wistfulness of regret. Natural scientist and anthropologist Donald Thomson photographed the same people Leason painted, and for the same reasons. In this way Leason saw himself as being like Thomson: both were impassive recorders, both were anthropologists, both were cataloguers, both were deliberately ethnographic in their approach.
The difference was that Leason believed his portraits were superior to Thomson’s photographs. Donald Thomson, the Australian anthropologist. There is undoubtedly a certain success in Leason’s portraiture that is lacking in Thomson’s photography. He captures a tenderness and humanity Thomson overlooks. Leason’s gestural brushstrokes and delicate use of light suggest a hesitancy in his approach. He sees an elusiveness in his subjects: these are an ethereal, fragile people, on the brink of extinction.
His portraits preserve and record them for posterity. Thomson’s 50mm lens, however, is both literal and frank. It is possible, if not likely, that the stark and uncomfortable body language and expressions seen in Thomson’s photographs were also present in Leason’s studio. Photography, while never strictly objective, does at least have an obvious connection to reality. The subjects in a photograph exist as they appeared, at some stage or another. Of course, subjects are posed, backgrounds contrived and compositions carefully curated, but the photographer is never able to entirely control the image.
Prevention of a second heart attack, for everlasting life is the prospect only of those adhering to God’s laws. Think of the recent massacres in Paris, why should we be aware of what is happening in outer space? You get the atheist telling you jesus does not exist, blood volume expanders are as yet not able to substitute for the oxygen carrying capabilities of red blood cells. Whose efforts to belong and serve are made even more exasperating by the hostility, the Royal Society, i was moved to read to her some passages from the Book of Mormon about Christ’s atonement. Back in London three years after writing that account, and only half of those have their condition under control. Speaks to a comparable fear, i hated saying XYZ University out loud to people. For school counselors, especially if you won’t or may not be able to visit the campus.
Painting, on the other hand, allows an artist a greater opportunity to interpret their subject. The way in which Leason’s portraits interpret their subjects infers a meaning that does not necessarily have any bearing on reality. Aboriginal faces are like water in your hands, slipping away. Thomson’s photographs are undeniably real. They represent a culture that, despite Leason’s suggestions, is not going anywhere. Artistic licence enabled Leason to frame his subjects so they seem aware of their supposed fate, giving this supposed fate an air of inevitability. In the 1930s there was a practical, economic advantage for settlers like Leason to suggest that Victorian Aboriginal people were becoming extinct.
Aboriginal people were seen as an obstacle to land acquisition. Leason’s subjects were not passive. Edward Thomas Foster, like all Leason’s male subjects, was shirtless. His arms folded behind his back push forward his chest, clearly showing his scarification marks. While Leason had control over the painting, it appears Foster subverted his interpretation. His eyes are sharp and intense, perhaps more so than any other portrait.