A message in the art that hung in most schools?

Have you ever thought about the level of indoctrination you encountered at school? No, I don’t mean whether you had a deranged history teacher who thumped the desk and labelled communists as bad people, or whether you were subtly encouraged to find a career that followed the capitalist ethos, something to fall back on rather than pursue your passion.

I am thinking of something more innocuous, but certainly powerful, and it came to me as I wandered around the National Gallery of Victoria. I turned the corner and was confronted with Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams. So what, you say? Of course, I knew it. It is famous, but I had a strong visceral memory of that painting hanging in one of my schools, maybe outside the principal’s office. The memory was strong, warm and comforting; familiar, like an old episode of Friends or Frasier.

I remembered that wall after wall at both my primary and high schools had a variety of prints of Australian artworks.

I realised I had been exposed as a young child, again and again, to many iconic Australian paintings. I assume that some bureaucrat somewhere in the education department of my youth, had made the decision to run off countless prints of these Australian treasures and send them out to all schools – a kind of mass cultural indoctrination in the arts.

There was the glorious portrayal of the Little Girl Lost, a moving representation of a young child, head drooped, dressed in late 19th century clothes, standing sobbing in the bush. The eucalypt trees and bush were captured in exquisite detail and accuracy, the colours of muted greens and the denseness of the bush surrounding the child, clear to see. The smell of the bush seemed to seep from the painting.

This fraught idea of being lost was presented to us in primary school. Perhaps we were also given the message that Mother Nature and the bush is a formidable place and not to be taken for granted.

The Shearing of the Rams presented the hard-working ethos of the pioneers of this country, the shearers bent over in labour, adding their shorn fleece to the wealth of this land – a land literally riding on the sheep’s back.

Historical concepts were fed to us via a painting, a picture version of cultural osmosis.

That day in the gallery I also revisited The Pioneers, that triptych by Frederick McCubbin, showing the change of years and fortunes of a new settler family to the Australian bush. The last panel, of course, shows the sadness of life and the passing of time. The city in the far distance is encroaching on the bush and the widow is tending her husband’s grave.

We were taught the impermanence of life, its fragility and the inevitability of change, all through the power of visual art.

Are they all forms of a not-so-subtle indoctrination just as the never-changing portrait of Queen Elizabeth, in a pale yellow gown, hung in every school office, presented us with a reverence and connection to the monarchy?

Art has been used as a means of education and indoctrination through the centuries. Illiterate peasants were fed scenes of the Bible via murals and stained glass on their church walls and later through the skills of the Renaissance painters and sculptors to represent the lessons of Christianity.

We were lucky to see so much good art and I bow in thanks to the unknown civil servant.

Do you recall any of those prints in your primary or secondary school? Did you stop to consider whether there was a message in the selection? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Trigger that turned me into a grumpy older person


  1. Your views need to be put in context. When these paintings were purchased we were a young country which was proud of its achievements and its beauty. What is wrong with show casing such a country? What is more challenging… and very dis-heartening is the current trend to make us feel ashamed of our colonial history. Nineteenth century Australian History is NOT taught in NSW Secondary schools (no bushrangers, convicts, explorers and gold seekers). I am NOT racist but I do question why so much time is spent on Aboriginal history… and so do the students in the classroom. We are in a parlous situation whereby we will be ill-informed on our own cultural background.

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