Royal Academy of Arts

Until Sun Dec 8 2013

  • Rover Thomas

    Cyclone Tracy, 1991

    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1991, © the artist's estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre

    Rover Thomas
  • Eugene von Guérard

    Bush Fire, 1859

    Art Gallery of Ballarat , Gift of Lady Currie in memory of her husband, the late Sir Alan Currie, 1948

    Eugene von Guérard
  • Arthur Streeton

    'Fire's On', 1891

    Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1893

    Arthur Streeton
  • Sidney Nolan

    Ned Kelly,1946

    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977

    Sidney Nolan
  • Dorothy Napangardi

    Sandhills of Mina Mina, 2000

    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 2001. © Dorothy Napangardi. Licensed by Viscopy/DACS

    Dorothy Napangardi
  • Shaun Gladwell

    Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007

    © the artist

    Shaun Gladwell

Rover Thomas

Cyclone Tracy, 1991

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1991, © the artist's estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre

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Curated London

Capturing the entire artistic output of a country the size of Australia is no mean feat, and there are few galleries in London large enough to do so. The Royal Academy is one such gallery, and this blockbuster show does a pretty good job of distilling 200 years of art history into 200 works. The show opens with Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi Mundi, a film of the artist riding his motorbike through the outback. Coupled with the map on the wall, it serves to show the scale and topography of this vast nation. While the exhibition follows a fairly linear chronography, the first room consists of modern Aboriginal paintings that give a nod to the country’s pre-colonial times. This is the first of a series of slightly awkward acknowledgments of the contributions Indigenous Australians. The first settlers to Australia applied the skills and techniques they learned in Europe to the landscapes they found in their new home. The pieces from the early colonial (1800-50) and mid-colonial (1850-80) periods show the artists struggling to find a style fitting for this strange new land. Several pieces are reminiscent of Rousseau’s Surprised - as if painted by someone who had never actually seen the real thing. The so-called Australian impressionist movement (1880-1900) saw the emergence of a new colour palette and bolder style that showed an evolution from European traditions. Landscapes remained the subject of choice, but became more recognisably Australian, rather than simply exotic and unfamiliar. The mood of the paintings moves from awe, wonder and trepidation to exploration, bravery and discovery. The next few rooms document Australia’s early modernism (1918-40), which brought with it a high contrast colour palette and bolder modern style. Max Dupain’s Sunbaker - a stunning shot of a bronzed beach bum that came 50 years before Bruce Weber mastered the genre - is the first of several photos that peppers the exhibition. Late modernism (1940-50) brought welcome relief from the focus on landscapes as Australia’s population became increasingly urbanised and industrial. The city and the people who live there became acceptable subject matter. The curator’s choice to display bark paintings (one of very few types of Aboriginal art that is portable) alongside these metropolitan scenes seems to highlight the difference between the two. The Indigenous theme continues into the next room, entitled ‘Aboriginal modernism’. This movement, which started around 1980, sees traditional styles and motifs that would once have been found on cave walls now applied to canvas using more modern materials. Many of these large-scale abstract canvases are captivating, but their segregation serves to highlight the fractious relationship between people of Aboriginal and colonial descent. The contemporary period shown in the final few rooms starts to see a convergence of European and indigenous styles into ever more abstract canvases. Now it has become fashionable to recognise and celebrate Australia’s indigenous people, these new works often reference their traditional, earthy, ochre palette. A highlight of the contemporary rooms is Kathy Temin’s Tombstone Garden in white fur (complete with a frustrating do not touch sign). This forms one of only three sculptures in the whole show - something of a surprise given Australia’s space and abundance of raw materials. Another 3D piece - Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris - introduces some much-needed humour in the final room. These 26 intricate botanical sculptures fashioned from sardine cans at first appear to be very pretty, taxonomic decorations. On very close inspection, however, they reveal highly explicit engravings of different human sexual activities. A sort of John West Tuna meets the Karma Sutra. This enormous show charts the development of a distinct Australian artist style from humble colonial beginnings. Despite the heavy editing, there is still a huge array of content. It’s a bit of an endurance test, but well worth seeing through to the end. For more of the latest arts reviews, check out | @CuratedLondon


How can one possibly exhibit Australian art if its Indigenous Art is still lacking all the rights and respect it deserves. The indigenous had their lands robbed from them but no one should be allowed to rob them from their art. It is their land that inspired their artistic nature and should remain their right to exhibit.