Fish have been a recurring motif in Australian art since the first inspired Aboriginal daubed ochre on sandstone – but never before have so many representations of our marine friends been gathered in one place.
Art historian Stephen Scheding has been collecting fish-related Australian art for years, and he’s put a selection from his school of fish-painters on show at the Australian National Maritime Museum. The exhibition, co-curator Penny Cuthbert says, is much more than just a comprehensive examination of the role the fish has played as both metaphor and object in Australian art. “It’s a representative look at Australian art history. There have been books and exhibitions focusing on specific subjects in Australian art, including birds, botany, the beach, the suburbs, gardens, portraits and the landscape, but until this exhibition, no comprehensive look at fish.”
With more than 170 works by 120 artists, Fish in Australian Art doesn’t simply skate over the surface. It covers everything from the earliest known representation of a fish to video artist Craig Walsh’s Incursion (Water), an installation that turns empty storefronts into giant aquariums.
One artist in the exhibition whose work won’t have you floundering in symbolism is Roger Anthony Swainston, a zoologist and one of the world’s top ‘underwater artists’. Swainston literally paints underwater – hooked up to scuba gear, weighted with lead and perched on the reef edge, he uses a graphite crayon to sketch detailed scenes upon a plastic canvas, often drawing in the same spot for up to three weeks.
“I’ve been following five different reefs for 12 years now, drawing the sections of the reef like a mosaic,” Swainston says, “and by sitting very quietly in the same spot and watching what’s going on you get a much clearer picture of that reef environment – all the shy animals start coming out. For a lot of people the underwater world is out of sight and out of mind, but I think if you can bring the imagery and complexity of it to the public it can only help conservation, to make people aware of what’s actually there to be conserved.”