Dancing With Empty Pockets – Australia’s bohemians since 1860, explores the people, places and activities and activities of our bohemianism over the last 150 years and their relationship to each other as time has passed. Its written by Tony Moore, a writer, historian and academic at Monash university.
I read it as research for my novel, and its certainly achieved that aim but reading this I’ve learnt so much about our cultural and artistic history. Moore starts by defining bohemianism – a useful start because its a word often bandied about. The term was coined by Henri Murger, a struggling Parisian journalist, to describe the young and aspiring writers, painters, poets and philosophers that formed in Paris between 1830 and 1848.
Moore credits Marcus Clarke, the author of ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’ as the initiator of Australia’s bohemianism. He was a dandy and journalist who started his own club in Melbourne, known as The Yorick, primarily centred around journalists and publishers in the 1860s. In fact, Moore highlights that journalism was the driving force for Australia’s bohemianism until at least the 1900s.
He characterises some of the features of Australian bohemianism as an attraction to the working class, a carnivalesque clubbiness, particularly characterised by practical jokes and irreverence, our larickinism at work. What I found interesting was the progression of our writing and art as the country changed around Federation.
Moore places Henry Lawson at the centre of Australia’s bohemianism at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when Australia was searching for its own nationalism in a desire to break away from Britain. Thus the bush ballads, and the impressionism of the Heidelberg school of artists with their Australian bush landscapes, sprang from this need to develop our own distinctive brand of art and literature. Magazines like The Bulletin fed the country’s need for this, and at the same time provided income for writers, and artists in the form of illustrations.
Then came the interwar years, the twenties and the modernists. Artists like Norman Lindsay, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan rejected the impressionists in favour of modernism, thus setting up conflict between the new youngsters and their older bohemian predecessors that has repeated itself throughout history ever since.
Politics in the form of Communism starts to infiltrate bohemia in the 1930s, then avant grade art and a rising university presence. A lot of space is deservedly devoted to The Push in Sydney in the 1950s, which let loose Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Barry Humphreys on the world. Exploring The Push in detail sets up the contrast with the counterculture of the left that rose up in the 1960s. The Push were essentially libertarians who wanted sexual freedom, no censorship and were against any form of authoritarianism. As a consequence of this last one, they had no real interest in politics, which differentiated the 1950s Push from what came next in the 1960s.
The counterculture has been written about extensively and the bohemianism associated with it owes a lot to the explosion in university places in the 1960s. The themes of carnival, the larickinism of Richard Neville’s Oz are all characteristic of bohemians gone by, but with the added effects of consumerism and a steam of radical politics.
When Moore gets around to describing bohemianism in my own Gen X time, its to talk mainly about the music of punk, indie and the inner city vibe in Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent Brisbane in the 80s and 90s. He also focuses on the comedy, in clubs and on television, that really took hold in those years.
Moore concludes that as much as each generation sneered at the one that came after it, there’s are distinct and recognisable features of Australian bohemianism that can be traced right back to the 1860s.
This is a very readable, extremely well researched history of many aspects of Australian cultural life and for me it really explains how our culture has evolved, through the lens of our bohemians.