National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1991, © the artist's estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre
Art Gallery of Ballarat , Gift of Lady Currie in memory of her husband, the late Sir Alan Currie, 1948
Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1893
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed 1977
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 2001. © Dorothy Napangardi. Licensed by Viscopy/DACS
© the artist
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.
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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 www.curatedlondon.co.uk | @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.