Sunday, December 29, 2013

Endless Horizons

John Brack, 'The Car', 1955. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The Royal Academy in London recently hosted a wonderful exhibition of Australian art. To wander through the galleries was to walk through a retrospective of Australian history, with illustrations. (The exhibition closed on 8th Dec 2013). I was left feeling both enlightened and homesick, and clutching a large catalogue.

Here's some extracts from the Academy's website. The curator chose the theme of 'landscape' to unify things, and a very good choice it was too. Those endless horizons...

Eugene von Guérard, 'Bush Fire Between Mt Elephant and Timboon, 1857', 1859. Art Gallery of Ballarat.
John Glover, 'A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land', 1835. Art Gallery of South Australia . 
Rover Thomas (Joolama) 'Cyclone Tracey' 1991. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
The exhibition was so rich that it's impossible, with just a few examples, to do it justice. Just about every Australian artist of any significance was represented. The early colonialists (including my favourite John Glover) were there, with their very European reactions to the landscape. The Aboriginal artists were very strongly represented, and wonderfully curated with excellent explanations of the various schools and how they arose. Off 200 works, one third were by indigenous artists. Then the nineteenth century big guns, all the names (Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton, Drysdale), and so into the twentieth century. Three of Sidney Nolan's 'Ned Kelly' series were hung (though go to the National Gallery in Canberra and see (up to) 25 of them together for the full impact).

Russell Drysdale, 'The Drover’s Wife', c.1945. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 
Max Dupain, 'Sunbaker', 1937. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Perhaps the most talked-about painting was John Brack's 'The Car' from 1955, but many other twentieth century big names were also shown: Authur Boyd, Grace Cossington-Smith, Fred Williams, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Max Dupain...a cornucopia. I found the exhibition a little weak as it wended its way to the very present day, but perhaps just a bit more perspective is needed on the recent works.

However, let me add some kudos for the video work that opened the exhibition as you walked in: Shaun Gladwell's 'Approach to Mundi Mundi'. He sits on a motorcycle and rides straight along a straight road in a flat landscape, the horizon stretching as far as the eye can see. When you arrive at the Sidney Nolan 'Kelly' paintings and contemplate that one where Ned is riding in a similar landscape, the links are obvious.

At this point perhaps the sentimental amongst us (including homesick Australians) should break into a rendition os Dorothea MacKellar's "I Love A Sunburnt Country"...I jest. A bit.

Still from Shaun Gladwell's 'Approach to Mundi Mundi'
A bad reproduction of Sidney Nolan's 'Ned Kelly', but you get the drift....
And the reviews? Mixed, it seems. The ones that the Academy likes to quote:
"Not just a long overdue show but a powerfully atmospheric evocation of a country seen from myriad facets" - The Times

"Australia’s most treasured art comes to London for the biggest show yet seen in UK" - The Guardian

"★★★★ Detailed, comprehensive, omniscient, in places beautiful” The Daily Telegraph

But apparently some reviewers found it necessary to dis the whole lot. While I can sympathise with comments about the limitations of such review-style exhibitions - it was often disappointing to see only one or two works by the really big names - that's inherent in the type of exhibition. Yes, it would be great to see an RA exhibition showcasing just one great Australian artist periodically - as they so often do for, shall we say, 'less-great' Europeans - but they just don't do it. Here's The Guardian's review - displaying not very much knowledge of Australian art history, and agreeing with me on the contemporary stuff.

Brett Whiteley 'Big Orange (Sunset)' 1974

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