As one of the first Australian forays into the arthouse genre, Peter Weir’s 1975 feature, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is an enthralling triumph that marries ethereal aesthetics with a tremendous sense of unease. Adapted from Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel of the same name, Picnic details the disappearance of three Appleyard College schoolgirls and their governess at Hanging Rock on St Valentine’s Day 1900. The film’s emulation of Australian Impressionism, both aesthetically and thematically, is central to its narrative, one that rests on the disparity between beauty and danger. An examination of the film’s cinematography (Russell Boyd) is enhanced when done so in conjunction with the artistic output of painters such as Charles Condor, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton. Congregating in the bushlands of Heidelberg, Victoria, in the late nineteenth century, these Heidelberg School painters composed lyrical studies of the Australian landscape and its visitors a mere fifty miles from where the film takes place.
The preoccupation of the Heidelberg painters with light differed considerably to the French Impressionists with whom their work is so often compared. Unlike the French who calculated light in a palette rooted in the colours of the spectrum, the Australians considered light in more romantic terms. Lacking the French compulsion to submit it to scientific analysis, the Heidelberg School perceived light as the purveyor of mood and emotion, as William Splatt maintains, ‘they saturated themselves in the sensations they received’. The result are works flooded with a somnolence that carefully constructs Australia's vistas as those of swamping heat, aureate glow and romantic virtue. Streeton’s Impression for ‘Golden Summer’ 1888 is figured as a valentine to light, this panorama of illumination capturing the warm sunlight on the drought-stricken hills in a blur of ochre and amber paint. The trees are executed in strokes of burnt sienna and the livestock just dashes of flaxen yellow: everything is set alight by the sun in this golden hour.
In Picnic light is a visual and tangible affair, manifesting itself into a contagious lethargy that affects the visitors at the base of Hanging Rock. Permeating through a canopy of eucalyptus leaves onto an undulating carpet of stone and native flora, the Australian sun plays the role of creator and muse. Not reduced to mere method of illumination, Boyd diligently captures the way light dances upon the rock, drips through the foliage and shimmers upon bodies of water: light itself is a subject. Shot through a vintage bridal veil, Weir’s lens captures the physicality of the Australian light and pronounces it a mist of lustre that softens each surface it reaches.
The proximity of beauty to danger is a theme that dominates the output of the Heidelberg School. Compositions detail figures lost in the bush, trees towering over sheltering lovers, and workmen with their livestock barely discernible in a sun-drenched haze of dust. Prevalent in these works is a dialogue that contrasts passivity with power, age with modernity, and Eternal Nature with Mortal Man. It is through an adoption of these themes that Picnic becomes an ode to, rather than reflection of, Australian Impressionism.
Taken into consideration alongside Picnic, McCubbin’s Lost 1886 and Roberts’ A Summer Morning Tiff 1886 become blueprints for a film that is characterised by its images of fin de siècle dress in a timeless and distant land. McCubbin’s work presents a child, not dissimilar to an Appleyard student, clad in pale robes and straw hat. Dwarfed by the uprights of the bushland, McCubbin denies the figure salvation, subsumed by her environment into its fray of blistered bark and sprays of blossom.
Tiff is compositionally and thematically similar. Framed between the limbs of blue gum eucalyptus, Roberts attempts to relate the central figure to her surroundings, the white of her gown echoing peeling bark and tussock grass tips. Both works are unsettling. They revel in the contrast between the native and the outsider. Here careful descriptions of antipodean vegetation are reframed into backgrounds for European desires, inadequacies and ideas of domesticity.
The dress donned by both Heidelberg and Weir figures cements them in a specific time yet their surroundings are ancient and bear no markings of any recognisable era. Removed from the architecture of their Appleyard College and its provision of period, the schoolgirls are made solitary in their efforts to provide reference points of time, society and formality. In the bush they are outnumbered and overtopped by the proliferation of flora and the verticality of the rock faces.
The result is a tense fluctuation of power between the visitor, encumbered by their personal epoch, and the visited, untethered to distinct age and experience. Thus whilst rich in beauty, the panorama of petticoats and parasols of film and canvas alike, seem positively anachronistic despite any historical accuracy. Desperate attempts to hold onto European notions of bourgeois decorum are made unsettling and incongruous. A picnic in a land so unforgiving and unfamiliar is thus sheer discordance, a sensibility placed too far outside its proper temporal and regional domain.
When reduced to being a temporal and spatial gauge, the figures entered into this landscape are engulfed by an environment that forever maintains its presence in their actuality. Whilst French Impressionism is characterised by its transiency, the works of the Heidelberg School seem in a state of suspension. Their sunsets, schoolchildren, workmen and strollers are frozen within compositions that have no apparent expiration, stuck within landscapes that capture fleeting moments yet fail to imply ensuing events. The result of such preservation sees the figures bound in a relationship with a land that proffers them little desire or chance to escape. In Weir’s Picnic, this is figured literally. With their disappearance unexplained and their bodies unrecovered, the schoolgirls remain fixed to the site in which they were last seen and heard. However the effect of the bushland extends beyond this physical manifestation and develops into a mental incarceration experienced by the peers and tutors of the missing. Hysteria, depression and paranoia linger in the halls of Appleyard College, the architecture which once accommodated them with such suitability, now breeds their contagious distress.
Drawing on the thematic and visual successes of the Australian Impressionists, Picnic is a film that enhances Lindsay’s text and exists as a work of unmitigated majesty. Resuming a dialogue set nearly a century before, Picnic deftly conflates a painter’s eye with a filmmaker’s scrutiny, resulting in a work that embellishes danger with an intoxicating romance. In a subtle yet felicitous comment on colonialism, sexuality and conservatism, this ode to Australian Impressionism flourishes as a film of seductive equivocality and timeless sublimity.
'Give me one summer again with yourself and Streeton - the same long evenings, songs, dirty plates, and last pink skies. But these things don't happen, do they? And what's gone is over’. - Letter from Charles Condor to Tom Roberts, 20 August 1890