SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 173 November 2013

Into the art of Australia


Royal Academy of Arts, London

To 8 December

Reviewed by Niall Mulholland

With over 200 works by 146 artists, Australia is the most ambitious survey of Australian art to have been shown outside the country. From indigenous to colonial art and the contemporary, it succeeds brilliantly in some areas but falls short in others.

After Shaun Gladwell’s film of a motorcyclist on a desert road – indicating the enormity and natural landscape of the island-continent – the first of five sections considers modern Aboriginal art. This is often produced from natural red and ochre pigments on bark or canvas, representative of the 50,000 years of indigenous settlement before the arrival of Dutch and then British colonialists in the 17th and 18th centuries.

These pieces represent the intimate link made by indigenous people between the land and their ancestors, reflecting the rhythms of life in pre-colonial hunter-gather societies. The abstract works of swirling colours and intricate patterns, with some pieces laid out horizontally, are often mesmerising.

Later in the exhibition, we return to Aboriginal painting and its growing popularity in the 1970s (on board and canvas, using acrylics) that sprang from the modern Aboriginal art movement in the Western Desert. It is not spelt out by the exhibition notes, but we can assume that the background to this renewed flourishing was a revived spirit of general resistance, including strikes, of Aboriginal people in the 1940s and 1960s. This radicalisation led to a more collective and confident response to their oppression.

Not all the modern Aboriginal art presented is successful however. Some of the works feel derivative – only to be expected after the last two decades of heavy commercialisation of indigenous art.

Overall, the exhibition lacks a rigorous, historical narrative that would have placed the development of Australian art more in context. The early colonial art (1800-1850) on show only hint at the catastrophic impact of colonialism on the indigenous people – disease, genocide, land grabs and, effectively, slavery. Pieces by ‘convict artists’ (the first transported prisoners were drawn mainly from the British and Irish poor) focused on the early colonial settlements. These may be quite basic paintings by people who never had the opportunity or means to develop their talents, but are fascinating topographical and historical accounts; a few dozen houses and public buildings under an azure sky make up the early Sydney settlement. Later, western artists began to study Australia’s landscape. John Glover, already an admired painter in his early 60s, arrived in Australia in 1831 and replicated the wild, natural beauty of Tasmania.

The 1850s gold rush transformed Australia and its art. There was a strong influence of German and Swiss craftsmen and artists, who brought received European ideas of art with them. Eugene von Guerard and Alexander Schramm broke new ground with their sympathetic depictions of Aboriginal life. Adelaide, a Tribe of Natives on the Banks of the River Torrens (1850), is one of Schramm's best known paintings, depicting the Kaurna people in Adelaide parkland.

The end of the 19th century saw the Australian Impressionists enter the scene and a turn to the ‘human narrative’ in outdoor landscapes, although they tended to idealise the hard life of rural labour. Frederick McCubbin’s large triptych, The Pioneer (1904), about the toil, tragedy and hopes of a bushman, is a good example.

The exhibition does not make comparisons, but Australia did not produce artists comparable to their American contemporaries, like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, who were among the greatest of 19th century realists. The late Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, wrote about Australian artists’ desire for independence while, at the same time, coming under the huge influence of European and American models. In contrast, Hughes remarked, the mighty impulse of the "American Revolution… held, deep in its heart, the vision of a corrupt Europe… its embrace of elitist against ‘democratic’ cultural value". However, Hughes added that there are "fine painters in Australia, at least since the rise of the Impressionist school in the 1880s".

As Australia became more urbanised, art reflected new class and social tastes and attitudes. The rising middle classes were able to buy art which, in turn, cast back to them images of their lives and sentiments – busy city street scenes, playtime at the beach.

Around this time, female artists finally gained the recognition of the official art establishment. The works of painters like Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Dorrit Black are notable for their carefully fashioned shapes and strong colours, and often their willingness to tackle society’s more contentious themes. Preston’s The Expulsion is a dramatic reworking of the Bible’s Eden myth, with Australian Aboriginal culture and economy facing destruction at the hands of colonialists. Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in Building (1929) depicts the construction of the world famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, a major New Deal-style project.

The idealised sentiments of artists like Max Dupain and Charles Meere were seriously undermined by the onset of the great depression. Nonetheless, Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940) shows athletic young bathers symbolic of a young, self-confident capitalist Australia.

Apart from this, the exhibition gives little scope for the depiction of the active lives and resistance of working people during the inter-war and post-war periods. The exhibition concentrates on landscapes and not on figurative paintings. It is hard to believe there is no artistic representation of the titanic wave of class struggles in 1919, for example. And, for such an all-sweeping exhibition, it fails to show the works of Australian war artists, Expressionists and Surrealists.

During Australia’s involvement in the second world war, art in the hands of people like Albert Tucker, the Expressionist Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, became darker in subject. These are among the highlights of the exhibition and more from them would have been welcome.

Nolan’s paintings of the iconic Ned Kelly show, at least in the short life of the 19th century ‘outlaw’, that working people were not just passive victims. To generations of Australians, Kelly is a folk hero, a symbol of Irish-Australian and working-class resistance to the Anglo-Australian ruling class.

The paintings, which are almost child-like in their apparent simplicity, show Kelly’s violent encounters with the Victoria police. One poignant piece captures the loving care of Kelly’s sister sewing cloth to the inside of the rebel’s homemade plate-metal helmet before his final gunfight with police. Nolan’s most celebrated painting of Kelly, on horseback in armour and helmet, starkly captures the impending battle that would see Kelly caught and hanged.

Early contemporary art (1960-80) is characterised by much closer interaction between Australian artists and European and American artistic schools. This was a period of heightened political radicalisation and class struggles internationally. Influenced by this, and with funding from the Australian Council, artists were able to experiment with new methods and forms, such as Jan Senberg’s revival of print-making. Images of landscape and public advertising are utilised by Wesley Stacey, Mike Parr and Robert MacPherson to express facets of Australia’s modern capitalism.

Politics reasserts itself in artistic works from 1970 until today, albeit largely a representation of ‘identity’ and ‘issue’ politics rather than collective and class concerns. A photograph of the Franklin River, Tasmania, by Peter Dombrovskis, became a popular protest symbol of environmentalists in the 1980s. Race and violence are examined by Tracey Moffat, in Up in the Sky. Abo History (1988), by Robert Campbell Junior, challenges the official version of the colonial impact on Aboriginal communities. An Elysian City (of Picturesque Landscapes and Memory), a haunting pastel and pencil drawing by Danie Mellor, supposes that the natural environment and Aboriginal peoples will eventually reclaim modern, industrialised Australia.

Unfortunately, the exhibition loses its way at the end. Too many individual artists are represented with a single piece. It sometimes feels routine and tokenistic. That aside, Australia is a unique collection giving revealing glimpses into Australian art, history and society.

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