Monday, 6 March 2017

Australia's Impressionists:Swagmen of the sunburnt country.

A rather boring cliché, and one I once subscribed to, is that Australia is a land with no culture. Admittedly eighties imports like Home and Away, As Mental As Anything, and Paul Hogan didn't exactly show the country in its best light but as one definition of culture is 'the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society' you could hardly argue the case for those things not giving us limeys a taste of that.

More highbrow Australians (Nick Cave, Clive James, Germaine Greer) seem to get co-opted, willingly or not, into British or European culture. Shared languages and shared histories make this inevitable and the National Gallery's rather lovely show of Australia's Impressionists won't so much change that as it'll shine a light, almost literally in some cases, on a small group of painters who, between the four of them, don't receive so much as a single mention in their fellow Australian Robert Hughes' almost encyclopaedic book of art criticism Nothing If Not Critical.

I was glad I paid to get in the Sunley Room (it's normally free) because it was a crash course in a period of art history that's been written, correctly, in a French accent for over a century now. Fantastic though he was Monet's was not the only style of plein air art happening at the time.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931) had been impressed by Whistler's Nocturnes on a visit to London and was inspired, on his return to Australia, to make Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-1886) showing 'Marvellous Melbourne', then one of the richest cities in the world and fast becoming the second largest in the British Empire. The musical title that Roberts employed was a direct nod to Whistler.

Tom Roberts - Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West

Arthur Streeton - Between the Lights, Princess Bridge
Whilst Roberts looked out to the London domiciled, Massachussetts born 'coxcomb' Whistler his contemporary Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) had more in common with the French. The combination of rural riverside in the foreground with billowing smoke in the background of Between the Lights (1888) reminiscent of the more industrialised Paris.
That was also painted in Melbourne but Charles Conder's 1888 Departure of the Orient (whose use of a high viewpoint is influenced by Hiroshige and Hokusai) set his scene of maritime goings on not far from the spot where now the Sydney Opera House stands. Streeton's Fireman's Funeral (1894) features Sydney Town Hall and the flooded railway station of Redfern also stood in the suburbs of that city. They're all clearly of a type with the French impressionist and yet somehow other. They're not as sun dappled as you might expect, some could almost be Manchester, but they do show something of the frontier spirit that would've been necessary to thrive in Australia at the time. Not something Conder himself managed. His friends recalled 'a sick man, unable to face reality'. He had problematic bouts of intemperance which, eventually, gave him the DTs - not exactly helpful when trying to keep a steady hand for painting. He ended up dying of a syphilis in a sanatorium in Virginia Water aged just 40.

Charles Conder - Departure of the Orient, Circular Quay

Arthur Streeton - Fireman's Funeral, George Street

Arthur Streeton - Railway Station, Redfern

Away from the bustling, cosmopolitan cities Australia, of course, had awesome landscapes - and on those landscapes the sun certainly did shine. Groups of painters would often camp out together for days on end feeling that to truly capture the immensity of the outdoors they had to utterly immerse themselves in it. In fact the Australian impressionists are sometimes called the Heidelberg School after one of those camps.

Streeton's Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) was the first painting exhibited at the Royal Academy by an Australian born artist and even received a Honourable Mention at the Paris Salon. These upstarts from the other side of the world were making the European art establishment sit up and take notice.

Conder (1868-1909) revelled in the everyday, depicting holidaymakers enjoying the sun and the surf in 1888's Holiday at Mentonne. Streeton's Blue Pacific, from 1890, took a more dramatic viewpoint as its starting point. The blues are so rich, so deep, you almost want to reach out and feel the cool water soothe you. From a distance The Camp, Sirius Cove (1899) by Tom Roberts almost looks like a photograph, a postcard. Its realism was almost unsettling and I found myself constantly returning to it to see if my mind was playing tricks on me.  

As if to evoke the vastness of the Australian countryside some of the canvasses themselves stretch out wide revelling in their sublimity. Streeton's Purple Noon's Transparent Night (1896) being a prime example of this. You gaze upon it with a similar satisfaction to that you get when you take in a view after walking up a steep hill. It might even leave you breathless.

Tom Roberts' Morning after Rain (1885), again, shows him paying heed to his great hero Whistler and, like Whistler and his contemporary Conder, you can trace a direct line back to the Japanese school of ukiyo-e.

Arthur Streeton - Golden Summer, Eaglemont

Charles Conder - Holiday at Mentonne

Arthur Streeton - Blue Pacific

Tom Roberts - The Camp, Sirius Cove

Arthur Streeton - The Purple Noon's Transparent Night

Tom Roberts - Winter Morning after Gardiner's Creek

Whereas the work of Conder, Roberts, and Streeton (fantastic though it all is) can, in places, seem a little interchangeable to anyone but an expert there's no mistaking the paintings of John Russell. Russell (1858-1930) was something of an outlier to the group having moved to Europe in his teenage years and staying there for most of his life.

Despite a friendship and correspondence with Tom Roberts he was never really part of the gang and he earned himself the soubriquet of Australia's Lost Impressionist. Whereas the others worked impressionism into a uniquely Antipodean style Russell kept up with new movements in European art. You can see in his work traces of fauvists like Derain and Vlaminck. Russell was friends with Van Gogh and even tutored Matisse. Clearly his position in art history has been severely underwritten.

Van Gogh thought Russell and Gauguin were of a kind but Russell was as unimpressed with this claim as he was with the work of Gauguin. He preferred, as did many of the French men he worked with and around, the proto-impressionist late canvases of Turner and you can see that both in his nautical subject matter (Cruach en Mar dates from 1905 and Aiguille de Coton from five years earlier, both set in and around the Breton artist's colony he'd established) and his dreamy rendering of them. Of course nearly half a century after Turner's death his colour palette was bolder than the deathly mud tones employed by Turner.

John Russell - Cruach en Mar, Matin, Belle-Ile-en-Mer

John Russell - Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Ile

Russell showed in London, Turner's home city, with the likes of Monet, Degas, Sickert, and Sargent. The fauvism that his impressionism begat would sometimes look like the expressionism of his friend Van Gogh and, though he couldn't admit it, Gauguin. Even at times, witness Les Terrasses de Monte Cassino from 1889, below, seeming to point the way to Cezanne's proto-cubist period.

This was a fascinating little show. It was like finding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that you didn't even know was missing and that, when put in the right place, made the whole picture both look better and make more sense. Australia's got culture alright and I for one, am stoked that I spent my arvo looking at these rippers.

John Russell - Les Terrasses de Monte Cassino


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