Becker and Burke
Becker and Burke – Same world, different eyes
Michael Dillon, Film maker
Not for DownloadCopyright
On the banks of the Darling River, Dr Jonathan King and the Environmental Expedition’s artist Ben Beeton discuss the dangerously different way Burke and his expedition’s artist Becker, viewed the environment that they passed through.
-So Ben, I know you've become very interested in the way that-- in the different way that Burke and Becker viewed the world. They had a different Weltanschauung to use the German word, a different outlook on life, didn't they?
-That's correct, Jonathan. When I think about it, I look at Becker, and Ludwig Becker was an incredible artist. But he wasn't just an artist when we think of artists in terms of painting canvases, putting them up in galleries, he was out in the environment, studying the environment, seeking to understand the different kinds of natural systems that he was passing through. Even the idea of a natural system was something that I believe he was aware of, but some people like Burke were absolutely not aware of.
So to me, when I think about Ludwig Becker, when I think about these types of people with inquiring minds, I see something like this, it's an open hand. It's a palm that is open towards learning about the world. And I think this is so important when you compare it with this, which is a closed fist, which is closed towards new ideas, towards seeking to understand the environment, and this is the way that I see Burke. It's two very, very different ways of thinking about the world. And I think that it's so important now that we be aware of the differences that these two ways of thinking, not only have on their immediate surroundings, but the impact that it has on potentially the future of our whole natural environment.
-Well, coincidentally the stencil negative paintings of the open hand by the aborigines at Mutawintji, which Becker painted, they are open hand, and he loved them, didn't he?
-That's right. And when you look at the way that indigenous people in Australia had come to live in harmony with their environment, it was that type of thinking. It was that awareness of the environment, which is so alien and different to the type of-- way of thinking of Burke. When he came into this world, he sought to dominate. He sought to conquer.
And what I'm interested in as well is what's happening to our children? How are we facilitating our children to become free thinkers, to think like Ludwig Becker as opposed to Burke?
-Well, Burke was responsible for seven deaths on this expedition. If Becker had been in charge, tell me.
-Well, I'm sure things would've turned out very differently. Ludwig Becker was the kind of person that not only had an understanding in terms of what was necessary to learn about the environment, he was also aware of the kind of potential future that the actions of a person have on the environment.
I mean, look around us now. Since we left Melbourne, we have passed literally tens of thousands of weeds, for instance. Now, Becker, with the mindset of Becker, I don't believe if the decision makers had had that particular way of thinking and looking at the world, we wouldn't have this problem now. These decisions were made frequently by leaders that had the kind of closed mind, closed fist mindset of Burke, and we see it all around us now. Again and again I become aware of the fact that the open mind creates all the tools and technologies that we have, but unfortunately because a sense of strength, determinism, it is the people with these closed fist mindsets that come to make the decisions about our world.
-And what we do about that? Can we learn from history's mistakes?
-Well, I hope so, Jonathan. I'm-- I hope so. I think it's absolutely critical, now more than ever, that we start with early childhood being aware that we actually-- Our brains are always changing. All through our lifetime, the brain isn't something that is set from when you're born to a certain way of thinking. Becker wasn't born into his way of thinking. Burke wasn't born into his particular way of thinking. It has a lot to do with childhood, early childhood, and it is so important if we are going to learn from Burke's mistakes. How are we going to facilitate that in the classroom, to make sure that we have children growing up with Becker's understanding of the world as opposed to Burke's?
-What do you think if we taught the Burke and Wills story with a set of opinions saying that Burke was wrong because he had this closed fist approach, and Becker was right because he had the open handed approach. Then, apart from learning the history, the kids would learn a lot about philosophical attitudes towards life, and which ones to adopt if they wanted to be more successful.
-Absolutely. The Burke, Wills, and Becker story is an analogy for, I believe in many respects, our planet. Look at the leaders that we've had. Look at the environment that we're leaving to our children. I was told that there's over 70,000 weeds in Australia. If the Burke and Wills and Becker story was taught in classrooms in a way that reflected on not only what happened, not only why it happened, but what was the way of being, what was the way of thinking that determined that tragedy, then I think that we would have a better chance of bringing people into power that could actually, really consider and look after our natural world.
-So if we teach this as a didac-- as a didactic story, then students learn how not to behave, and how to behave ideally. And then when they come to vote in the elections, they'd choose a Becker style politician, not a Burke.
-I think it's the only hope that we have for our future. The alternative is more of the same, more damage, more people in power that are so sure that they're right, but always end up being so wrong.
-And are you angry about Burke on behalf of Becker?
-I think it's an incredible tragedy. I think that there was-- there was so much potential, and it's always the potential that upsets me with these things. I guess I get angry. But it was a such a shame.
I mean, Becker, in terms of look at our species as a whole, look at the potential that we've got, the way of thinking in seeing the world, which is so different to any other animal that exists now, and look at the tragedy again and again. The Burke Becker tragedy is repeated across the world.
So it's not just Becker that I feel sorrow for, and the loss of such an incredible mind, I see it happening, as I'm sure you do, across the planet all the time. And the Burke, Wills, and Becker story is an example of something that is unfortunately still happening everywhere, but on a much larger scale.
-Well, we will call it the Burke, Wills, and Becker from now on, and what was Becker's legacy? I know he died prematurely of scurvy, unnecessarily, because his leader, Burke, threw away the limes that would have stopped the scurvy, but what did he manage to leave us-- Becker-- in terms of a legacy? Am I right in thinking his images are the main ones that give us the pictures of what happened back then?
-They are. They are. He leaves us with a pictorial record, but also through his decisions, through what he chose to document, we see a much deeper relationship with landscape as that we perhaps otherwise would have, if another artist had gone on the trip. So it's not just a legacy in terms of documentation, it's also a legacy in terms of encouraging perhaps other artists, aspiring artists to come to landscape very differently, and we look at artists such as, Mandy Martin, John Wolseley. People that appreciate, through Becker's work, through their own work, natural systems. And even that word, a natural system, a system that's in balance, this kind of thinking, which appreciates that balance and is sensitive to it, whereas this, where everything, unfortunately, because it's so sure that it's right, and it's so focused on itself and its on way of being-- results in everything being thrown out of balance.
-And you may add Bill Robinson--
- --to that.
-And so Becker is probably one of the greatest unnecessary deaths, but is he well-known in his native Germany, because I don't think many Australians would ever have heard of Becker, do you?
-No. And unfortunately, that again is a tragedy in itself. And it's got something to do with the way that we're brought up to think about the world. If we were brought up to think about appreciating nature, being more in touch with all of the smaller, the macrocosms and microcosms of nature, perhaps more people would be interested in Becker.
-But perhaps they just say, ah, he was only an artist.
-That's what the power structure says. Burke was leader. He was only an artist, yet he was probably more in tune, not only with the environment, but surely the Aborigines. Burke shot at them. Becker painted them with great sympathy, is that right?
-That's right. That's correct. And it's another example of a way of being and a way of thinking that is open to new perspectives, new people, new ways of relating to landscape. See this kind of thinking again, it's more malleable. If it has an idea it seeks out, is this correct? Is it not? And it weighs these things out. Whereas this way of thinking, because it has such clear ideas that are fostered outside of the natural world, these kinds of ideas are fostered in an environment where humans completely dominate the environment.
-We don't have time for that any more.
-We don't. We're running out of time.
-So you have created a new history lesson here. You say, let's study the Burke, Wills, and Becker story and teach the kids how we have to behave taking our cue from Becker to save the planet.
-I think it's absolutely critical. I think it's very timely as well. Across Australia, I mean, Joseph Campbell who wrote "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and "The Power of Myth" said that what we need now more than ever is a mythology that is dynamic, that can move and relate to the science as new science is developed around us. Not mythologies that are stuck within certain ways of thinking and being in the world. And I believe that the Burke, Wills, and Becker story for Australians, perhaps for almost the first time, is a story in which white people can actually, through a story of tragedy, give young people perhaps wisdoms that otherwise are unfortunately lacking, perhaps.
The Darling Pea Swainsonia greyana
Long haired or plague rat
The doctors and the artists tent.
Application – Ludwig Becker
Towards base camp
Two explorers with reports about life on a sand hill
Environmental Expedition Mission
Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition Artwork Melbourne to Menindee
Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition Artwork Menindee to Coopers Creek
Becker and Burke
Ben’s Ammonite Discovery
The Aussie Accent
Story education resources
Education Museum Victoria: Drawing on Nature
This education kit describes a range of art activities inspired by objects found in nature.
The kit seeks to encourage and inspire people of all ages to engage with natural science and their local environment through art activities. Participants will be able to closely investigate specimens they gather themselves, and to explore a range of drawing techniques, including some used by scientists and scientific illustrators in museums. It is suitable for both adults and children.