‘Untold stories’: The relationship of word and image in the work of Shaun Tan

Original Research

Keywords: Shaun Tan, animal studies, Heidelberg School, Indigenous, settler colonialism, drawing, postcolonial


Primarily known as a children’s book author and illustrator, Shaun Tan has repeatedly resisted this label and rather positioned himself between the fields of literature and fine art, emphasising that his training and primary interest are in the latter. This essay approaches Tan’s work via his idea of ‘untold stories’, articulated in the eponymous section of his book The bird king and other sketches (2011) and in the 2018 solo exhibition at Beinart Gallery in Melbourne, Untold tales. Untold essentially means unpremeditated in Tan’s vocabulary and relates to his evocation of Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. Using his idea of untold stories as my central point, the essay foregrounds the untold critical story of Tan as a fine artist, focusing in particular on works that have received minimal to no critical attention: his 2015 series of paintings Go, said the bird, his 2003 public mural The hundred year picnic, and his ongoing 9x5 inch series of observational works in the tradition of the Heidelberg School of Australian Impressionism. The latter is a particularly strong and formative influence on Tan’s career as a painter, allowing for a discussion of his work in the broader context of postcolonial art history and settler colonialism.