McCubbin, in his great, ambitious, historical-narrative work
The Pioneer, invokes the in-vogue creed of nation-building:
with the colour green (forest/tent/dress/shirt) locking this in,
waltzing across the three big panels —
in the first and left-most of which the young wife is seen,
sitting slumped (dreamy? despondent?)
before a slackly pitched tent; with her husband crouched
setting kindling, behind.
In the second-and-middle panel, the bush is part-cleared:
the husband rests weary on a log with his axe,
while the wife stands before him, shouldering a babe-in-arms,
and a slab-hut smokes in tender contentment to the rear.
Then climactically, in the final-and-third of the painting’s panels
(with a taint of the comic, even,
in its sudden, dramatic, faintly hammy reverse),
the sky leeches blue through the green-dun frameway of the eucalypts
to reveal a distant city-view
which brandishes real estate signs almost …
as an innominate youth (the grown child, or someone entirely else?) —
is crouched parting ferns, to disclose a simple bush grave.
Resting place of the pioneer-husband —
of his wife, their child — or who? …
left behind at the previous century’s turn,
as he kneels in the glittering scar of cleared ground,
pledged to the bright-shiny new.
In response to The Pioneer, 1904 by Frederick McCubbin. Oil on canvas, triptych, 225.0 × 295.7 cm, National Gallery of Victoria.
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