Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Pictorial snapshot of America exhibition shows differences

While I was down in Sydney I dropped in at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found the exhibition of American paintings that had been reviewed in the broadsheets. Maybe it's because I am generally starved for culture such as this, or maybe it's just that I saw things the reviewers didn't see but dropping by made me disagree with what those people said: this is a fascinating exhibition that rewards the visitor handsomely.

A wide-angle snapshot, the exhibition selection covers a range of eras starting in the mid 18th century. If charting the development of a native artistic legacy for America is your purpose - and why wouldn't it be? - then of course you have to wait until the mid 20th century to see anything specifically different-to-Europe as well as native-to-America. You think of names like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Your next step therefore might be to work out differences in what came before this watershed to what was produced in Australia, and it's here within the figurative tradition that we can see something interesting happening especially in terms of subject matter and style.

Compare for example these two paintings. The first is an American, Thomas Waterman Wood's The Yankee pedlar of 1872, and the second is Frederick McCubbin's Down on His Luck of 1889. The two paintings show a different relationship between the individual and society, and between the individual and capital. For me, they represent something inherently different in the way the two societies view labour and the nexus between labour and the individual worker. There's another painting in this exhibition, The young mechanic of 1848 by Allen Smith Jr, which serves to illustrate the same point especially if it's compared to a painting like Tom Robert's Shearing the Rams of 1890. In the first painting, the American one, it's an employee shown - as it is in the second - but the relationship between the individual depicted and his employer is markedly different than in the second one. We remember that the Australian Labor Party emerged in Queensland out of shearers organising to achieve better conditions of employment.

The other thing that struck me viewing the exhibition was the relationship between the individual and the land. To get to the nub of the matter, compare Winslow Homer's A huntsman and dogs of 1891 with Russell Drysdale's The Drover's Wife of 1945. There are plenty of landscapes also in the exhibition. What they show is a landscape very similar to Europe's, and it's one that gave up plenty to sustain the settler, as we see in the Homer painting. By contrast, what we see in many Australian paintings is a harsh, alien landscape where the individual appears to be out of place.

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