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Damp, grey, industrial, miserable. No, not Walsall: Australia. That’s what the opening room in this show of Aussie plein air painting leads you to believe. If you’re expecting searing sunshine, baked earth and piles of discarded Castlemaine XXXX cans, you’re going to be disappointed, Crocodile Dundee. The three artists who make up the bulk of this exhibition saw something darker and greyer in their fledgling nation.
Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton were mates, three artists who’d seen glimpses of the cutting edge of European painting and wanted to adapt that visual vocabulary to the landscapes of home. And nineteenth-century Australia was a strikingly urbanised place. The early works here show cities in the rain, ships belching smoke into the harbour air, crowds of people gathered in grey swarms. Rainy England, where Roberts studied, weighs heavily on these images, as does the influence of the great James Whistler.
It’s only in the second room that the sun properly comes out. Streeton unleashes the blue and gold in an image of rock being blasted away for railways, Roberts whips out the dusty ochre to capture a shepherd herding breakaway sheep. There’s a sweeping vision of the Hawkesbury River, undulating hills, a sleepy vista of a burbling brook.
The thing is, most of these aren’t great paintings. There are glimpses of quality – especially in Charles Conder’s brilliantly bright and perfectly composed beach scene – but you can’t help but put these works in relation to European impressionism. Over here, artists like Monet, Whistler and Cézanne were innovating, pushing the envelope, inventing new ways of painting. Conder, Streeton and Roberts were undeniably more traditional, and objectively and simply less good. The difference is that this art wasn’t about innovation, it was about capturing the birth of a nation in artistic form. It’s up to you to decide if that sounds interesting enough to pay to see.
Thank the almighty giant koala gods then for John Russell. The fourth and final character in this story was friends with Roberts, but he stayed in France, and cemented a place for himself at the very edge of the European avant-garde. His swirling, chaotic sea-views are explosions of blue, green and white. They’re hazy, out of focus and feverishly intense, like the waves are about to come crashing out of the frame. They’re almost abstract and totally great. Russell is a rough gem, and worth the entry fee alone.