What an oddity Australia is – a veritable platypus among nations. Consider this: how many countries the size of Oz would be thought small enough to fit inside an exhibition? Despite some marvellous Indigenous art – the first room is a breathtaking whirl of dots and swirls – the organisers follow a conventional path by starting our journey proper around 1800, with John Lewin and William Westall. The original Australians are immortalised – and immobilised – in various paintings by white men, but they don’t look happy about it. And, why would they?
Australia’s first white artists struggled to squeeze this endless, unruly land into the orderly frame of European landscape painting. Later artists like Margaret Preston would strip back to the bleached brown palette of Aboriginal painters. By the late nineteenth century, Arthur Streeton is glorying in Australia’s blues and golds, although Charles Conder is still trying to make Mentone, Victoria resemble the banks of the Seine. Fifty years later, the trend is the other way: Sidney Nolan’s startling depictions of Ned Kelly place the outlaw in an arid landscape more obviously ‘Australian’ than the wooded Victoria he actually moved through.
All this tussling over so much space. The exhibition does at least have some fun with the hang: in one room, we look down on the op-ish chevron patterning of Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s painting, laid flat on a low pedestal; in another, John Olsen’s insanely joyous ‘Sydney Sun’ canvas is suspended from the ceiling, blazing above us. Where better to turn things upside down than a show about Australia?
Still, the basic premise is arse upwards. Australia doesn’t fit into a single exhibition. And the chronological approach avoids argument when there are many fascinating arguments to be had. Go anyway. You won’t learn much about the terrain, but you will see strange wonders on your travels. And that, at least, is true to the spirit of the place.