Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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