Oct 2013 Journal
Art Notes (review)
This month’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, described as the most significant survey of Australian art ever mounted in the UK, offers a chance to study the light and the extraordinary colours of the world ‘down under’. To accentuate the point, some of the artists on show use natural earth pigments and other local materials. The sunsets and the vastness and flatness of this antipodean landscape all evoke something primitive and sensory, as well as exploring the pioneering spirit of the settler.
‘Australia’ (the exhibition ends on 8 December 2013) includes over 200 works from 1800 to the present day and covers paintings and drawings, photography and multimedia. Culled from major collections in Australia, these are mainly on show for the first time in the UK.
It is this connection with the landscape that most inspires the artists here. Sidney Nolan’s surreal enamel work on composition board presents the back of a horseman riding across a parched desert into blue skies filled with cloud, but his head appears to be a narrow window or mirror within a deep frame. The work, in a four-part Ned Kelly series, is described by this Australian artist and Royal Academician as ‘a story arising out of the bush and ending in the bush’. In this painting, the sense of endlessness and ‘beginninglessness’ is perfectly evoked by the strange and rather laconic rider who emerges geometrically from the horse itself.
Most of the artists have a narrative feel for the wildness and history of their country. Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern is a crowded beach scene, almost urban in its physical intensity, but there is a hint of the crucifixion in the background. Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer describes a rather British forest landscape in three scenes and has a touch of Pre-Raphaelite romanticism.
The 200 years spanned by the exhibition feature the colonisation of the indigenous peoples by the first settlers and include the works of 19th-century Aboriginal artists such as Albert Namatjira, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye and some from the Papunya Tula group of the Western Desert. The 19th century also spawned a number of works by European immigrants such as John Glover and Eugene von Guerard, whose Bush Fire is a mystical skyscape of black and red cloud with a tiny, helpless moon whose light is almost obliterated.
The Australian Impressionists drew their magic from the mythology of the Australian bush. These include Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin. Contemporaneous with them are the early Modernists, like Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Roy de Maistre. The show goes up to the 21st century with artists known and recognised internationally, like Bill Henson, Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt.
But for many of these artists, their message is their distinctiveness from European artistic tradition. They sought to break the rules and explore their own vision of their national identity, whether they are the indigenous peoples or those who came with external influences.