Arthur Streeton ‘Golden Summer, Eaglemont’, 1889; Oil on canvas; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Purchased 1995; © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Impressions of Oz

9th December 2016

At a time of year when we could all do with a dose of sunshine, Jack Watkins enjoys some of Australia’s finest artists and gives their light-filled landscapes long overdue attention in the National Gallery’s latest exhibition.…

In the lead-up to this fascinating exhibition I made a list of all the things I knew about Australia’s contribution to global culture. It amounted to the following: Neighbours, Barry Humphries, Men At Work (the rock band best known in the UK for the early 1980s hit Down Under), Chips Rafferty (a much loved actor who starred in a few films for Ealing Studios after the war), Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, and the Baggy Green Cap, respected symbol of Australia’s role in keeping alive the traditions of Test Match cricket. The shortness of that list and its nature undoubtedly says more about me than it does about the country itself, but I bet few readers of this magazine would be able to name a single Australian Impressionist painter, or even knew there ever was such a thing.

And that’s fair enough. When the National Gallery acquired a painting entitled Blue Pacific, done in 1890 by Arthur Streeton, on a long-term loan last year, it was the first piece by an Australian artist ever to be displayed by this august institution. It seems to have been enough to inspire the curation of Australia’s Impressionists, which features many prize works on loan from Australia’s leading art galleries, as well as Streeton’s Blue Pacific.

It’s a small and specific show of only around forty pictures, and focuses on four Australian artists: Tom Roberts (1856-1931), the aforementioned Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and John Russell (1858-1930). The earliest work is dated 1888 and the latest 1905, meaning they all come from a key period in the development of Australia’s national identity, at a time when the number of people born in the country was exceeding that of the colonials.

Of the quartet, Roberts, the most senior, seems to have been one of the main motivators. He’d travelled to England and studied at the London Academy Schools. His admiration for the art of John Abbott McNeill Whistler inspired him to create his own studies of the foggy Thames. He spent hours in the National Gallery looking at the Old Masters, before lingering on the famous steps to paint the views across to Nelson’s Column. While the Australian artists must have been aware of developments in France at this time, the show is at pains to emphasise the debt owed to Whistler.

Back in Australia, Roberts lost no time in transferring what he’d had learnt to subjects in his home country. Allegro con Brio, Bourke Street West – the title was a conscious nod towards Whistler’s celebrated Notes-Harmonies-Nocturnes exhibition which had captivated Roberts – has distinctly Impressionistic touches, even if the street scene depicted has more the look of a frontier town than a Parisian boulevard. This sort of thing found a ready Australian audience. Contrary to what you might think,

Australia was a highly urbanised country by the 1880s, with Melbourne the second largest city in the British Empire and one of the wealthiest. Sophisticated museum-goers were attuned to modern developments in art, even if they had never seen such a thing as a Monet in the flesh.

In 1889 the city hosted a show organised by Roberts, Conder and Streeton, entitled the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, and to this day it is regarded as a landmark event in the development of Australian art. It introduced those who attended to a distinctly Australian version of Impressionism. Many of the works displayed had been painted on cigar box lids for ease of transportability, and the subjects reflected ideas about capturing the ‘impression’ of simple, everyday moments, such as a horse and cart coming down a street, a man crossing a road, or a tugboat billowing smoke on the river. While generally well received, there were inevitable brickbats, with one reviewer suggesting the experience was akin to having a box of paints thrown in your face.

If Roberts had carefully honed his craft on distant shores, Streeton was just a natural homebred talent, who absorbed foreign influences from books. By the age of twenty-one he was already attracting plaudits. His The Railway Station, Redfern, could easily have been some European terminus, the Impressionist touch apparent in the glistening road, and a man’s shadow reflected in the wet.

Gradually, however, came the desire to respond more obviously to the natural grandeur of the Australian landscape, and the ‘glare aesthetic’ that you see in many of these paintings – a response to the brightness of Australian light – is something that makes them entirely distinct from European paintings. Perhaps the standout work from the period in the Australia’s Impressionists exhibition is Streeton’s Fire’s On, painted in 1891. A work of monumental verticality, this oil painting shows the construction of a tunnel, carved through the Blue Mountains near Sydney. It was a massive engineering project, and, as he sat sketching the scene on a hillside vantage point, Streeton was an eyewitness to the horrific incident depicted in the painting. Essentially, workers had to dynamite their way through the rock, and the call ‘fire’s on!’ would be issued to ensure everyone got out well before the explosion. Tragically, one individual couldn’t get out quickly enough and the painting shows the navvy being carried out of the tunnel. The vastness of the landscape is overwhelming, however, meaning this is a landscape painting, not a narrative piece – but does it show man’s heroic efforts at bringing the land under his control, or is it depicting nature striking back at our desecration?

We may be largely ignorant about Australian art, but in fact there were attempts to expose European audiences to the best of it at the time these masterpieces were being created. Works that made it to Britain included a couple of appealing small-scale landscapes by Roberts, with one of them, A Quiet Day On Darebin Peak, being a piece of great calm and serenity in which the light and greenery seems more Scottish than Australian. Also included was Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont, a bucolic work which, were it not for the glare and the blue skies, could have emerged from the English landscape tradition.

Another monumental eyecatcher, Roberts’ Break Away! which, in a swirl of dust, shows a couple of horsemen desperately rounding up a flock of tearaway sheep, seems more reflective of the outback spirit. The curators of this show suggest that these painters used their skills to create a sense of myth in the Australian landscape, which contrasted with Impressionism’s use in Europe, where it was more associated in its day with registering change.

Yet they were just as at home painting coastal or beach scenes. Charles Conder’s A Holiday at Mentone has sand so dazzlingly white you almost wince. Yet the immaculately attired figures which populate it could have been dawdling by the Seine. All these artists were fond of painting en plein air, but you could argue that the ‘fourth man’ in this exhibition, John Russell, wasn’t really an Australian artist at all. He spent forty years as an expatriate in Europe, and associated with Toulouse Lautrec and Van Gogh. One day on the coast of Brittany he met Monet, and gushed: “Are you the Prince of Impressionists?” to which Monet replied: “Are you an American?” Russell was a worthy disciple, though, with a unique sense of colour. His paintings of places like Antibes and Monte Cassino are the most obviously European in the entire show, and he ended up exhibiting alongside the early twentieth-century modern artists known as les Fauves.

There was hardly a painting in this exhibition I didn’t like. Anyone who has enjoyed the works of the Impressionists or just loves good landscape paintings will derive much pleasure from this show.

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ continues to 26 March 2017 •

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