Eyes on the ball: images of Australian Rules football, 1995

Having pursued the topic further since this article was first published in 1995, I’d modify some of my comments. The issue of what precisely was meant by ‘national’ in Arthur Streeton’s The national game is still to be resolved but there are strong leads. Contrary to what I state below, ‘national’ could mean ‘geographically expansive’; football was played across the colonies and reports of inter-colonial matches were common in the 1880s. The fact that teams travelled extensively was a register of modernity and mobility (transportation systems) but also of the potential for unity among the colonies. The idea of federation is implied in the suggestion that colonial boundaries were permeable. In addition, the idea of a sport as a ‘national game’, representing the preference or character of a people, is mentioned in newspaper reports (both in terms of football and, comparatively, of baseball in the USA). Recognising the link between colonial modernity and football as a popular spectacle, I’m more inclined to understand Streeton’s title as referring to national capacities such as inventiveness, go-ahead spirit and modern urban experience.

What should Australian artists paint? This question was first posed, in print at least, in 1890, and is one which continues to preoccupy artists and critics alike.1, in Bernard Smith (ed.), Documents on art and taste in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1975, pp 247-50.] Responses frequently assume that a national art will be constituted through style (an artistic practice peculiar to a nation) or through content (a motif specific to a culture); the more common tendency has been to seek it in the latter. And if an image of national character is required, what better one than Australian Rules football (which, with apologies to supporters of other codes, I will subsequently refer to simply as football). A code invented in and unique to Australia, Aussie Rules has, since its inception in 1858, been touted as the embodiment of the Australian character—a popular game featuring strength, courage, skill, wit, teamwork and occasional individual brilliance.

Yet surprisingly few artists have successfully forged football into a national emblem. Many have been drawn to the game—as fans, as mythographers, as disinterested observers—but the results have none of the assurance of those staples of nationalist iconography, the pastoral landscape and the rural labourer. Football draws together key ingredients of a sense of nation—parochialism, masculinism, class, community, gender and ethnicity—but in the visual arts these are present in complex and unstable ways. Rather than distilling national identity into a seamless, natural form, images of football register the fissures in national mythology. Ultimately, artists’ difficulties in envisioning national identity through football suggest that identity is necessarily fugitive. Indeed, it may well be that the search for an icon of national character is doomed from the outset; not only is national character always an artificial construct, but the languages available to artists heighten the conflicts at the heart of this construction rather than resolving them.

This is not the case merely because football hasn’t the substance to sustain a national mythology. At an abstract level, the root of the problem lies in the way in which national identity is constructed. National identity, and images of it, exist as rhetorics, systems of belief, and discourses, rather than as concrete entities.2 Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, Simpson and his donkey did, of course, exist, but their status as emblems of national character rests in large part on the exclusion of the complexities of history, society and experience in favour of a totemic simplicity; the function of myth, as Roland Barthes suggested, being to render the cultural natural. 3 In effect, if an artist is successfully to generate an image of national identity the complexities that plague the idea of nation must be bracketed off. 4 Once again, football seems well suited to the task; why is it, then, that images of the game tend to reveal rather than conceal fissures in the fictions of nation?

Arthur Streeton, 'The national game', 1889, oil on cardboard, 11.8 x 22.9 cm, Art Gallery of NSW.

Arthur Streeton, ‘The national game’, 1889, oil on cardboard, 11.8 x 22.9 cm, Art Gallery of NSW.

In its very title, Arthur Streeton’s The national game (1889) self-evidently tables the issue of national identity; since football was not played nationwide at the time, the word ‘national’ operates at an ideological rather than geographical level. It might be assumed that national character could be readily manifested through football. As a local invention, Australian Rules football revealed an innovative and independent culture. The game was understood in terms of its difference from other codes; difference being both the sign and measure of qualities peculiar to Australia. While certain innovations have been attributed to local climate (limited tackling and the elimination of the scrum intended to avoid injuries on the parched antipodean fields), on the whole the tenor of the game was seen to derive from Australian masculine character (then as now the symbolic figure of identity)—a combination of muscular Christianity and the ‘new man’ emerging on the frontiers of the colony.

From the outset, the game was linked to nationalist discourses and was quickly tied to the bush legends of the 1880s and 1890s, and eventually to the ANZAC myth.5 But in Streeton’s painting the connection between football and national identity is not so readily drawn. The national game is identified at the very time at which the idea of nationhood was up for grabs. The image was entitled The national game twelve years before Federation, prior even to the first constitutional convention. Football, then, does not illustrate a known national character; rather, it appears as part of an effort to determine that character. Streeton’s is an ambit claim, his image of national character necessarily tentative.

The idea of nationhood preferred by the Heidelberg School artists was one common in the literature and popular illustration of the day; national character was forged at the frontier and was represented in bush and pastoral imagery. Streeton’s The national game is unusual in locating national identity in the city (in the Richmond Paddock on the Melbourne’s city edge). It might be argued, however, that this urban game permitted the theatrical enactment of the bush ethos, its players emulating the lauded qualities of the frontier—strength, masculinity, bravery, community. But here’s the rub; none of these are evident in the painting. In marked contrast to popular illustrations of football, Streeton shows no action. We see the very antithesis of football; no packs, no marks, just a full back and full forward frozen out at one end of the ground with the play barely visible in the distance.

The task of a national art is to produce an iconography that papers over the cracks of contemporary life, depicting an as-yet unformed nation as if it had always already been there. Streeton’s failure to produce a national image in The national game tells us a good deal about the problems underlying the signification of national character. That he was unable to signify national identity with an urban motif lends weight to the contention that national character is generated at rhetorical sites, rather than being an all-pervasive geist. Australian myths locate national identity at a distance, out there in the bush. But the inadequacy of The national game suggests that a temporal distance is also required. It is the contemporaneity of football that is its shortcoming; football’s heroism is that of modem life, the rural worker’s that of tradition and legend. In The national game both content and form (the ‘impression’) reek of modernity, with all its connotations of instability and uncertainty. Where Heidelberg School artists succeeded in gen­erating national imagery they did so by a series of distanciations: geographical (rural motifs), temporal (depiction of the recent past rather than the immediate present), and formal (the elevation of motifs from popular illustration to the lofty realms of academic classicism).

There is a further reason for Streeton’s lack of success, hinted at by his uncharacteristic avoidance of antecedents in popular illustration. At the time The national game was painted a football league had been formalised, large crowds attended matches, admission fees were charged, and newspaper coverage was extensive. Football was a public spectacle and, as a staged event, could not be pre­sented by the artist as a natural materialization of national character; to do so would be to imply that nation itself was a contrivance. Where artists have succeeded in making football function as a symbol of national character, they have done so by avoiding the spectacle of the game, concentrating on the players and unquestioningly deploying common mythical tropes. Robert Juniper melded players and landscape in Football, Mount Magnet (1965), suggesting a union of man and earth that resonates throughout Australian mythology. Harald Vike’s Footballers (1967) likens the players to gladiators, elevating Australian manhood to the legendary status of antiquity.

L F Reynolds, 'The Coventrys of Collingwood', Table Talk [Melbourne], 9 October 1930.

L F Reynolds, ‘The Coventrys of Collingwood’, Table Talk [Melbourne], 9 October 1930.

Although Streeton’s attempt hardly put paid to football as a motif in Australian art, the subject remained uncommon until quite recently. (Or perhaps works dealing with football were made, but not deemed sufficiently serious to display.) Works executed prior to World War II tend to filter the game through the stylistic devices of Vorticism. The result is an emphasis on aspects of football which generate overlapping forms and dynamic force lines; the high mark, for example. While the high mark is one of the unique features of Australian Rules, there was little interest in the singularity of the game: the motif seems more an opportunity to celebrate energy as an abstract concept. This is evident in the football imagery of Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers, Margaret Preston and Mary Alice Evatt. Only in the case of Evatt’s Footballers (1936–37) can the game be identified as Australian Rules (and even then some poetic licence is taken with the players’s guernseys); the other artists’ works are somewhat ambiguous but are most probably of Rugby. What is striking, however, is that all follow the lead of the popular press in two respects. First, in their concentration on the high mark, suggesting that newspaper photographs may have been source images. And, second, in the tendency to emphasise both the strength and grace of the players, endowing players with classical physiques and oddly effeminate postures. Such an effect is similar to that of newspaper caricatures, some of the 1930s work of L F Reynolds in Table Talk evoking Tom of Finland more than Phideas.

Even where an artist engaged with football more closely problems remained. Football met both personal and political demands in the case of Noel Counihan. A rabid South Melbourne fan, he repeatedly painted the Swans battling their (and every other team’s) nemesis, Collingwood. At the same time, a work like The high mark (1947) was an opportunity to address the demands of socialist aesthetics. Football represented working-class culture, while the dynamism of the game averted any lapse into the rote poses of socialist realism. Furthermore, the fact that football amounted to a struggle within the working class meant that he could avoid the formulaic treatment of working-class culture that plagued Soviet proletcult theory. More significantly, given contemporary debates in socialist aesthetics, football allowed Counihan to present not the naturalism of the worker oppressed but the realism of the worker struggling, aspiring, transcending.6

But symbolic effect is achieved at the expense of the specificity of the game. In contrast to his contemporary newspaper caricatures of players, Counihan’s painted footballers remain faceless, even generic. Of course, it could be argued that the generic is precisely what national myth seeks; all the same, one is left with a fundamental paradox—the generality of an effective symbolic elevation of footballer to national type contradicts the individual acts that are touted as a hallmark of the game. The division between Counihan’s paintings and caricatures inadvertently marks the conflict which national imagery always seeks to conceal; the elision of individual into archetype, of the specific into the generic.

It is this problematic that plagues football imagery in the years immediately after World War II. It is as if an artist could be either the myth-maker or the fan, but never both. (And this is in marked contrast to the literature of the game which thrives on a combination of the two.) A small group of drawings made by Fred Williams in 1947 is a case in point. Each is a bust portrait, characterised by a sober, almost classicising mood. Williams eschewed both the Vorticism of action imagery and the eccentricities of caricature. He sought national character not in the action of the game but in the qualities of its players; if these are football heroes, they have that subdued, self-effacing heroism beloved of Australian myth. Faced with a Collingwood team stacked with legendary names—Mann, Fothergill, Richards, Twomey, Kyne—Williams chose little-known players like Charles Utting (a back pocket) and Ray Horwood (the shortest player in the league). These are the peculiarly personal heroes of a connoisseur of the game, a fan with a preference for the small man, the quiet achiever rather than the show pony. Once again the discursive conflict arises; while Utting and Horwood might have the ‘right stuff’ for Australian legend (toughness, modesty, self-effacement) they cannot function as such if the artist conceives them within a private rather than public vision.

The examples of Counihan and Williams mark the conflict between public and private in the search for a national imagery. It is the nigh on impossible task of combining both in the one art work that results in only partially successful images; Counihan’s is public but generic, Williams’s is specific but private. Football, so the coaches’s cliché goes, is a team game, yet I suspect the fundamental problem confronting artists is that national imagery seeks a type while football thrives on individuals. It may be that artists cannot resolve this conflict, that heroism cannot be adequately figured. Such a case is suggested by John Brack’s Three of the players (1953). The image is insistently generic in tone. None of the players can be identified; I suspect that they are composites of several Collingwood footballers rather than portraits. Their physiognomies, too, are archetypal rather than individual —the beefy defender, the streamlined rover, the flinty-eyed veteran. Even the slight inaccuracy of the image—the collars of the guernseys are depicted as striped whereas in reality they were solid black—suggests that the artist is interested in a formal pattern as much as verisimilitude. All of this is accentuated by the deliberate blandness of Brack’s paint—flat, unmodulated colour and crisply outlined forms.

What makes this all the more surprising is that the 1953 Collingwood team were ripe for elevation to mythical status; a working-class side, with its glory days behind it, Collingwood went into the Grand Final as underdogs and pulled off a surprise win. But all the rhetorical potential that these circumstances offered is ignored by Brack. It is not just that he seems distant from the game itself; it is. as if he was sceptical of the very possibility of generating an heroic motif. By the time Brack painted Three of the players the social realist search for working-class heroes had been pushed aside by the more poetic mythical style of the Angry Penguins. More significantly, it is as if, in spite of the best efforts of his peers, Brack no longer finds any relevance in the national myths of the nineteenth century and their twentieth-century variants.

Brack’s sceptical eye is the first sign of the fragmentation of the myths of national character that had fuelled football imagery thus far. Until the 1950s, the artist-mythographer had to pull together the diverse threads of Australian experience into an image of tenuous unity. The social upheavals of the post-war period (modernisation, migration, mass media, the emergence of post-modernism) gradually made fragmentation the very subject of art, rather than that which it sought to conceal. Football became a metaphor not for the essence of Australianness but for its absence. Michael Shannon’s Deserted footy ground (1971) is the first of many images that use the abandoned football ground to signify the decline of tradition, the loss of community and the failure of myth in the face of post-war change. (Other artists who have pursued this theme include Greg Ades, Cathy Drummond, Eamonn Scott.)

Ironically, for all its destabilisation of identity, post-modernism has unleashed a flood of football imagery in recent art. With its questioning of the division between high and low culture, its pleasure in mass culture and its concern for regional experience, postmodernism has made football a legitimate subject. Whereas it is difficult to locate much in the way of football imagery in the visual arts prior to 1970, literally hundreds of images are now in circulation. 7 But contemporary artists approach football in ways that differ significantly from the conventional conception of national imagery. Culture is understood not as natural but as mediated; football is viewed as myth, as media spectacle, as commerce. Culture is understood not as singular but as mobile and multiple; football is no longer presented as the sign of an homogeneous Australia but as the site at which such an idea is questioned.

Contemporary artists love football no less than their predecessors, in fact, they are more ready to show their colours. But their football images have a revisionist impulse, football now offers a chance to explore marginalised experience and to question previously dominant identities. Elizabeth Gower’s Recollection (1994) is more than a memory of that moment of epiphany for all St Kilda fans, their sole Grand Final victory in 1966. With the ecstatic abandon of the crowd comes a dawning recognition of the strictures of family and gender roles. A spontaneous moment of filial love is remembered for its uniqueness, its absence from everyday life. The displacement of this affection—she is perhaps hugged as a St Kilda supporter rather than as a daughter—emphasises the formality of the family in the 1960s. Gower addresses a thorny question for women artists, and women in general: why is it that something as masculinist, as steeped in patriarchal values, as football is so appealing? Is this merely false consciousness, or is it an effort to explore difference, to lay claim to gendered territories? 8 Gower, like many other artists, sees football as part of the patriarchy but also as its Achilles’s Heel.

Where earlier football imagery concealed the politics of national identity, subsuming its tensions within ‘natural’ icons of Australianness, contemporary artists register identity as something unstable, born out of conflict and controversy. Alan Tucker records the politics of race, past and present, in his narrative paintings. Football, he suggests, is more than a game; it is a site at which real acts of racism occur and theatrical efforts at reconciliation are staged. Racism in football (1994) traces the effects of an incident in which the Aboriginal footballer Nicky Winmar responded to racists taunts by baring his torso to the spectators and declaring that he was black and proud of it. What followed is evidence of the ways in which myth, media and politics mingle in the game. One Melbourne newspaper fell back on the conventional script of football reportage; since it was inconceivable that politics would overtly enter the game, Winmar was reported as saying that guts had enabled his team to win the game. While Collingwood president Alan McAllister’s media comments only exacerbated the issue, Aboriginal activists turned the controversy to good effect, parodying both the media circus and white misconceptions of Aboriginal culture by ‘pointing the bone’ at the Collingwood football club. Tucker’s image of Aboriginal footballers in this and other paintings are iconic. His Portrait of Stan Giles,(1930) presents a heroic role model in the spirit of conventional football imagery. Yet his narrative technique, his fragmentation of the myth into myriad details and conflicting voices, suggests the constructed quality of legend and identity at the same time. Indeed, viewers must work through the textual fragments and visual signs, constructing the myth themselves rather than accepting it as a given.

Contemporary artists have found a solution to the problem that plagued Streeton and many other artists. A national art is built up by confronting the tensions and para­doxes of Australian culture, not in papering over them; artists live with contradictions (even revel in them), they do not attempt to resolve them. As the commercial forces that now control football strive to maintain old myths and create new ones in their image, it is all the more important that artists contest the reduction of the game and its audience to a passive, homogeneous Australia. Art historians, too, be they football fans or not, might also pay heed to the lessons that can be learned from football art. Much has been written on the successes of those artists who sought to construct a national mythology, perhaps now the time has come to examine their failures.

Original publication: ‘Eyes on the ball: images of Australian Rules football’, Art and Australia, vol 32, no 4, Winter 1995, pp 90–101.


  1. Sidney Dickinson, ‘What should Australian artists paint?’ [1890
  2. For discussions on the discursive construction of national identity see Richard White, Inventing Australia: images and identity 1688–1980, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981; Anne-Marie Willis, Illusions of identity: the art of nation, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney, 1993; Graeme Turner, National fictions, Allen &Unwin, Sydney, 1986.
  3. See, for example, Peter Cochrane, Simpson and the donkey: the making of a legend, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1992.
  4. See, for example, Leigh Astbury, City Bushmen; The Heidelberg School and rural mythology, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985; Ian Burn, ‘Beating about the bush; the landscapes of the Heidelberg School’, in his Dialogue: writings in art history, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991, pp 19–36.
  5. T.W. Wills’s letter to Bell’s Sporting Life of 10 July 1858, generally accepted as initiating formal football competition, suggests that football was seen as an aspect of defense preparedness. He notes that if a football club cannot be formed a rifle club should be inaugurated since young athletes ‘may some day be called upon to aid their adopted land against a tyrant’s hand’; see Leonie Sandercock and Ian Turner, Up where Cazaly?; the great Australian game, Granada, Sydney, 1981, p 19. Prime Minister Alfred Deakin drew a similar connection between the national game and national defense in 1908; Sandercock, p 70.
  6. For a discussion of Counihan’s position within Left aesthetics at the time see Bernard Smith, Noel Counihan: artist and revolutionary, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, esp. pp 209–17.
  7. In 1994, for example, the following exhibitions featured works dealing with football; ‘Giant Monster Footy Show’, Artists’ Garden, Fitzroy; ‘Girls’ Own, Boys’ Own’, Linden, St Kilda; ‘Sport: the most accessible art’, Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre.
  8. For further discussion see Deb Verhoven in Brian Nankervis, Boys and Balls, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1994, pp119–23.

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