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Video Clip Synopsis:
Streeton’s eyewitness account of the death of a workman during the blasting of a railway tunnel at Lapstone in the NSW Blue Mountains. It becomes the inspiration for his painting “Fire’s on, Lapstone Tunnel”.

2min 36sec

Death of a Workman In A Streeton Painting is an excerpt from the film Fire’s On, Lapstone Tunnel, part of The Australian Eye Series : Australian Impressionists 1888-1896 (66 mins), produced in 1984.

Fire’s On, Lapstone Tunnel: The death of a workman during blasting of the railway tunnel at Lapstone in the NSW Blue Mountains in 1891 was Arthur Streeton’s inspiration for this painting. Streeton’s vivid description of the accident in a letter to his artist friend Tom Roberts is included in the commentary.

The Australian Eye Series: Based on the principle that the more one knows about a work of art the better one can appreciate it, this series makes a detailed examination of many of Australia’s most outstanding paintings. Besides scrutinising one key work in close detail, each film reveals, wherever possible, the artist’s drawings and studies for that work, and shows other related works. Many little known paintings from private collections have been included. Living artists have been recorded, talking about their techniques and the ideas behind their paintings. The letters and journals of earlier artists are drawn on, as well as the views of critics of the day. Every film was made in consultation with a leading expert on the artist, and scripts were discussed with the Education Department of NSW prior to production. The series consultant was Daniel Thomas, Curator of Australian Art at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra.

The Australian Eye Series was produced by The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales in collaboration with Film Australia.

Study Module

Curriculum Focus: The Arts
Year: 11-12
Theme: Artists at Work

Key Concepts

Art and nature; Tragedy

Curriculum Applicability Notes

ACT:Art and design: Research and thinking task (A Course); Conceptual task (C Course)
NSW:Visual arts, Stage 6: Art criticism and art history
NT:Visual arts Stage 1: Arts analysis and responses; Art in context
Visual arts Stage 2: Perceiving
Qld:Visual arts senior syllabus: Appraising
SA:Visual arts Stage 1: Arts analysis and responses; Art in context
Visual arts Stage 2: Perceiving
Tas:Art, draft and design appreciation: Criteria 2-6
Vic:Unit 1, Area of study 2: Art and society
Unit 2, Area of study 1: Exploring ideas and issues
Unit 2, Area of study 2: Art and the individual
WA:Art Year 11: Art history and criticism
Art Year 12: Art history and criticism

Context / Background Information

Arthur Streeton was one of the 'Heidelberg School' of Australian artists of the 1880s who popularised the painting of romantic yet realistic images of the Australian bush, in open air, in an 'impressionist' style that acknowledged and emphasised the Australian light and colour.

Streeton commented on this painting in a letter to a friend:

'This morning, hot, windy, and warm , as I travel down the line, and the mirage sizzling and jiggering over the railway track. I arrive at my cutting, "the fatal cutting", and inwardly rejoice at the prosperous warmth all glowing before me as I descend and re-ascend the opposite side up to my shady, shelving sandstone rock, perched up high. I wipe the wholesome moisture from my pale brow, and having partaken of a pull at my billy (like a somewhat lengthy and affectionate kiss), I look up and down at my subject: is it worth painting? Why, of course, damn it all! That is providing I'm capable of translating my impression to the canvas. All is serene as I work and peg away retiring under the rock a bit when they light any shots, then, 'Up with that b____ wagon, Bill.' 11.30: The fish train struggles over the hill and round to Glenbrook. 12 o'clock: The next shift comes toddling down the hot track with their billies, and I commence to discuss my lunch and tea (of which I consume over a quart every lunch), and now I hear 'Fire, fire's on,' from the gang close by; rest my billy on the rock, take out my pipe and listen for the shots, with my eye watching the bright red-gum yonder. BOOM! and then rumbling of rock, the navvy under the rock with me, and watching says, "Man killed." He runs down the sheltered side, and cries, "Man killed!" Another takes it up, and now it has run through the camp. More shots and crashing rock, and we peep over; he lies all hidden bar his legs - and now men, nippers and 2 women hurry down, a woman with a bottle and rags. All the shots are gone but one and all wait and dare not go near. Then someone says the last hole was not lit, and they raise the rock and lift him on to the stretcher, fold his arms over his chest, and slowly six of them carry him past me. Oh, how full of dread is the grey, mysterious expression of death - 'tis like a whirlpool for the eyes. Blown to death twenty yards from me and, as a navvy said, it was an '' 'orrible sight.' By Jove! a passing corpse does chain your eyes, and indeed all your senses, just as strongly as love.'

Discussion Pointers

  1. Watch the video clip with no sound.
  2. What does the video clip show?
  3. Watch the clip again with the sound. How does the filmmaker explore the painting?
  4. Does this control of what you see and hear help you to explore the painting, or force you to have a certain impression and reaction?
  5. What dominates the painting — nature or the human tragedy? Explain why you think the artist has done this.

Suggested Classroom Activities

  1. If you were at the scene today, what method of art expression would you choose to capture this event? Discuss the range of options you have and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Consider the role a camera – stills, video, digital - might play. Explain how you would approach the subject so the result is a work of art rather than a documentary or news clip?
  2. Choose a dramatic event from recent history and collect as much information about it in text and pictorial form. Create a work of art in any media which presents an aspect of the drama. OR Describe the event and explain how you would represent the drama including what you would include or exclude.
  3. If you are asked to make a short video sequence about the Lapstone incident, describe the scenes/shots you would use prior to, during and after the event. Write the story board for the clip.
  4. Listen to the words Streeton has used in describing the scene and events. List the key words in order. Do these words convey the story and the atmosphere? Use these words to write a poem in memory of the Lapstone accident. Use a selection of the same words to write a review of the painting for a newspaper of the era.
  5. Identify at least three different elements from the video clip which place the work in an earlier period of Australian history. These may be words or images. Use these to create a montage-like depiction of the period. Complete the work with sepia colour only, to replicate an old photograph. You may choose to introduce the aging of the photographic surface caused by wear and tear, natural fading or spotting. The finished art work could become the backdrop for a theatre production, the dust jacket of a history book, or stand alone. OR If these (words and images) were replaced with modern equivalents, describe the effect on the painting. What else may have to change to bring the subject and the style of painting into the 21st century?
  6. In the letter quoted above, Streeton wrote about “translating my impression to the canvas.” Look at the work of European impressionist painters. Compare the choice of subjects and the range of colours and their intensity to discover the distinctive Australian qualities in Streeton’s work. Suggestions: for subjects look at Jongkind’s, Demolition, Rue Des Francs-Bourgeois, Whistler’s, Old Battersea Bridge ,Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral, Degas’ racetrack paintings eg Jockeys in the Rain, and for colour, any of the above and Renoir’s, Road Climbing Through Long Grass or The Seine at Asni¸res. As an extension exercise, take a small slice of the Streeton painting, and colour it with European impressionist colours. Select a slice of a French impressionist painting and use the Streeton palette.

Modules That Use This Clip

The Arts Year 11-12, English Year 11-12, English Year 9-10