Friday, 20 June 2014

Australia at the Royal Academy

It might be rather late given the exhibition finished in December but here goes nonetheless. My blog has been hijacked by a rather simple art lover...


Right from the first moment of entering Australia at the RA it is apparent that this exhibition was going to be a nostalgic trip. Shaun Gladwell’s, Approach to Mundi Mundi reflecting the vastness of the country and the distances people will travel to get around. The first thing I learnt in coming to the UK over 17 years ago is that Australia is not the centre of the universe; although many of my friends back home still struggle to believe me when I try to explain this.

One of the biggest regrets I have is never being brave enough to take the step to study Aboriginal Art as it meant committing to Anthropology and moving away from Art History; a discipline that I felt at home with. Sadly the Australia I grew up in dismissed Aborigines and their cultural heritage with suspicion, more because we did not make an effort to understand it, however I digress.

The first topographical images of Australian cities highlighted the British tradition that was first brought to the colony. Produced quite early, in the European part of the nation’s history just over 10 years after the first settlement they depict the development of the country, showing just how isolated these little snippets of old England were.

The fascination with Romanticism; and the overwhelming sublime quality of the harsh landscape comes to the fore in the works of Von Guerard especially Mount Kosciusko and Bushfire. These paintings could hold their own in the extraordinary catalogues of both Friedrich and Church respectively. This was a country that was harsh yet beautiful. The representation of the first contact with the indigenous people is something that was not always properly discussed in the tradition of Australian Art History. For all of the beautiful landscapes of John Glover which include native inhabitants, by this time Tasmania was devoid of the land’s custodians.[1] Yet in the same room there are some more naive works of art which show the Aborigines in a more sympathetic light. William Barak’s depiction of an Aboriginal tribe is quite touching in its crudeness. This is all the more interesting by his writing to Queen Victoria to enquire about the better treatment of his people, as he himself was a Native Police tracker.

Artists such as Roberts and Streeton are firm Australian favourites and are well represented. Monumental images such as Fire’s On! by Streeton show the unforgiving qualities of the Australian landscape so much show that the rugged painterly brush strokes which represent the rocks are repeated in the blue sky to create a warm yet unbreakable wall of monumentality. Despite the attempts to break down the wall with explosives their efforts are futile as can be seen by the casualty being stretchered out of the mine’s entrance. The mythology of Australia being a land of rugged outback heroes has been eulogised for many a year and Tom Roberts with paintings such as A Break Away! showing a drover hurtling through a desert landscape to catch a stray sheep is one such key image. Frederic McCubbin’s Lost represented the realities faced by the pioneering families, that the desolation and loneliness of the landscape was a frightening prospect. The futility and sadness that often attempted to suppress the strength of the white settlers was never more beautifully produced in such a sentimental way than in The Pioneer, an ode to the family. For all of these images of the outback there is also a small collection of burgeoning images of the city with the cigar box lids of the “9 x 5” exhibition including street scenes and even one of an Australian Rules football match representing the changing interest in the emerging urban landscapes of the country. Roberts showing his interest in not only the outback but also the bustle of the city in his small painting, Allegro con brio, Bourke Street. This attempt to create an Impressionism in Australia comes to the fore with Charles Conders water scenes, including the iconic Holiday at Mentone, which would not be out of place with Monet’s early beach scenes.

Placed at the behind  McCubbin’s monumental triptych was Grace Cossington-Smith’s  immense polyptych, creating an interesting dialogue between the traditional representations of the Australian outback and the early modern focus on everyday life in the cities. The iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge showing how Australia does also have a heritage of producing industrial landscapes not just ones inspired by nature. This is an area where the exhibition excelled showing works by other early leading women artists including Clarice Beckett’s Tonalist urban landscapes with trams and also the exquisite The Expulsion by Margaret Preston, replacing Adam and Eve with aborigines, native flowers (Sturt Desert Pea) and animals (a kangaroo and koala).[2] It was touching that these were next to the exquisite landscapes of Albert Namatjira, incidentally one of the few aboriginal artists we looked at in Art History classes as he worked in a recognisable style.

The interest in the Australian family was brought to the fore again through John Brack’s The Car featuring family with two children undertaking a journey within the cramped confines of their vehicle. The isolation of a man and an abandoned pram, in Jeffrey Smart’s beach scene is ambiguous in that the viewer is unable to work out whether the man is the owner of the pram and whether there is a child within. This ever modernising landscape and the people in it further highlighted by the increasing interest in the beach which I guess came with the urbanisation of the cities and the interests of the workers especially in the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Max Dupain’s photograph, Sunbaker, exposing a more modern view of Australian’s as bronzed and sporty.

The early modern painters of the cities are perhaps where my interest waned especially as I have very little knowledge or understanding of what comes after. Nevertheless the paintings of Second World War Australia are where it started to show gaps in the survey. Whilst paintings like Albert Tucker’s Bathers more than ably represented the Angry Penguins group and the interest in Surrealism it this section began to be more noticeable for its omissions. Painters like John Olsen, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh, Joy Hester, Vic O’Connor and William Dobell were noticeable absentees (and I could mention others). John Blackman’s paintings of the aboriginal bride would have been an excellent way to show that Australia’s attitude to its indigenous population did not advance much from the early settlers to the 1950’s.

Nevertheless the Nolan paintings showed the mythology of Australia’s past, a heroic way and iconic way of representing of the historical infancy of the country (granted white). Ned Kelly being an Australian figure, equal to Britain’s Robin Hood in that he was worshipped by those less fortunate. Arthur Boyd actually creating a biblical, apocalyptic vision of Australia, “Brueghelian”[3] if I may use the word I learnt from the RA’s label drawing on Pieter the Elder’s Tower of Babel for his horrible, haunting mess of the town’s inhabitants in The Mining Town (casting Aside the Money Lenders from the Temple). I am not sure why the RA added an “h” to this term; it does remain a mystery. One of perhaps the best known artists in Australian homes, Russell Drysdale’s landscapes depict the beauty and desolation of the outback.

It seems as though the exhibition was brought together with Australian galleries to display the ever changing landscape of the country. Yet there is a focus on the people within these landscapes and the lack of portraiture does tend to let the show down. It would have been fantastic if the exhibition could have been broken down into eras rather than one large survey. However we really should be thankful that the RA has been able to highlight the art of Australia and put on, what for me was a fantastic nostalgia trip reminding me that the art of my country does matter.


For more about the exhibition please see here


[1] Glover sadly being a supporter of Governor Arthur who was a part of the clearance of the Aborigines from Tasmania.
[2] Sadly there were no examples of Preston’s native wildflower images.
[3] Not sure why the RA added an “h” to the term, it will remain a mystery to me as Pieter Bruegel the Elder was Boyd’s starting point.

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