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Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Missed opportunity: Australian painting seen through British eyes

The Royal Academy show held now, titled Australia, presents an opportunity to see our country's art through foreign eyes. I've read three reviews of the show, including one in the Sydney Morning Herald that focuses most on the curatorial side of things. There are two others: one in the Telegraph and one in the Guardian. These two last reviews try to make some decisions about Australian art as permitted by the exhibition although unfortunately the latter is so relentlessly negative about the exhibition itself that opportunities are lost to say much of interest.

For such an exhibition - the last similar one was held 90 years ago - can only be a matter of intense interest to people in both countries; for Australians, hearing the reactions of British critics must be fascinating.

In the two British reviews there are some commonalities, notably the rejection by the reviewers of early, Romantic, attempts to convey in paint the reality of the Australian bush. Those early landscape artists are pretty thoroughly belittled and you can almost hear a sigh of relief when the likes of Streeton and McCubbin appear. The reviewers note how Australian Impressionist artists were derivative but also remark on the novelty of their accurate depictions of the bush. Australians, of course, have long been aware of these things and themselves wonder at the naivety of von Guerard's funny trees when compared to the dessicated landscapes captured more accurately by such later painters as Roberts.

Most Australians will feel a queer sense of pride in being familiar with a landscape that evaded the talents of so many for so long but nevertheless those early landscapes also tell the story of the Europeans' sense of alienation and anxiety in such a forbidding place. No wonder Modernism took so long to reach Australians' hearts, you might surmise, when the familiar forms of the Old Country and Europe gave the settlers the sense of identity that they did not find while walking down scrubby Aussie tracks scattered with eucalyptus bark where the chirring of a thousand cicadas throbbed in their heads like a headache. No wonder the Art Gallery of New South Wales, started in 1892, was so "colonial" with its stone columns and Old Masters friezes (incomplete through lack of funds ... !), and Hyde Park just down the way was planted with imports and bedecked with the classical-mythological horror of the Archibald Fountain. Taken out of this context, those early landscape painters seem totally out-of-it, but to really understand Australian art in the 19th and early-20th centuries you have to walk from the old Mark Foys building on Liverpool Street in Sydney through Hyde Park and down the tree-lined parade to the Gallery.

The dessicated, alienating landscape returns, of course, with Nolan, Smart and Drysdale in the 40s but captured with the new visual tools of Modernism. Brits are usually aware of Nolan at least and he offers something familiar to reviewers over there who otherwise struggle with the constraints and limitations of pre-WWII Australian art. Modernism was tentatively embraced in the 30s and 40s by local artists but it's a Modernism-lite, one that like Australian Impressionism makes an obedient nod to the underlying conservatism of the Australian art context, and where you are still largely relieved by realism from having to make too many judgments. As I've discussed before on this blog, the ability to share and participate as a community through art is one of the defining characteristics of the Australian aesthetic experience. You might go further and say that the etrangement that European artists sought through Modernism was otherwise supplied by the still-alienating landscape here. Artists who dealt with that landscape - and the thousands of kilometres separating Australia from home in Europe - in a meaningful way were rewarded by the community. Even Smart and Boyd ended up living out their dotage in Europe.

As for Aboriginal art, this current of local product began to emerge in the 70s, a time when Australian artists were still travelling to Europe to find their feet - like Conder or Bunny three generations before - and hone their craft. It's this odd relationship between Australia and Europe that has been missed by the reviewers of the current show. This is unfortunate as it's a fecund place from which to start discussing Australian art.

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