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Art review: Australia, Royal Academy

Tom Roberts’s Allegro Con Brio: Bourke Street West (circa 1885-86)

It has been a bad fortnight for Australian art in London. First, four major newspaper critics were vitriolic in their comments about the much-publicised autumn exhibition, Australia, at the Royal Academy. Secondly, the high-profile sale of Australian masters at Christie’s was, as one Australian newspaper put it, “a flop”. Results stunned many Australian investors. Sales hardly made half the estimate of around $A12.7m. Many lots did not meet their reserve.

The Christie’s sale, like other smaller exhibitions of Australian art currently in London, was hoping to capitalise on the publicity generated by the first major survey of Australian art in Britain for 50 years. This blockbuster raises the question: can two centuries of art from an entire continent be squeezed into an exhibition of 200 works by 146 artists? Although the show aims to “uncover the fascinating social and cultural evolution of a nation through its landscape art” the result does not form a cohesive whole. It would have been more true to its name, Australia, if it had included a large amount of the fascinating pre-colonisation Aboriginal art, which stretches back more than 30,000 years. There is a large amount of exciting Aboriginal art on display but it is post-settlement to modern times.

The reasons for the savage criticisms of this exhibition are quickly apparent. One of the strongest is that the works have been “badly chosen and badly hung”. Others were that the show was “visually not enticing” and “unfocused and uneven with dubious works beside those of merit”. Some Australians have hit back at these negative comments. The 85-year-old artist John Olsen dismissed these remarks as an attempt “to put colonials in their place”. Despite the controversy, though, there is much on display that is compelling and interesting. For me as an Australian, seeing dozens of landscape paintings ranging from early settlers to the 21st century evoked the enormous pleasure of being in the bush. I could almost feel the heat of the sun and hear the crunch of dry eucalyptus leaves underfoot. Yellow Landscape by Fred Williams (1927-1982), one of Australia’s most important artists, presents an almost eerie sense of space and scorched earth.

My favourite paintings were those of the late 19th-century Heidelberg School of plein air painters, the Melbourne-based impressionists. Prominent among these at the exhibition are Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On (1891) and Tom Roberts’s Allegro con Brio: Bourne St West (1895-96). Like that of many Australian artists, the life of Tom Roberts was intermingled with England. Born in Dorchester in Dorset in 1856, he died in London at the age of 76. Although his paintings, like Streeton’s, capture the feeling of isolation of the great Australian outdoors, both men were prominent members of the Chelsea Arts Club in London.

Dominating the show is the brilliant light of the Antipodean sky in Sidney Nolan’s famous series of the bushranger, Ned Kelly (1946-7). Replicas of these masterpieces of the Outback are currently seen scattered over London as they have been used in the posters advertising the exhibition. Nolan, like Streeton and Roberts, spent many decades of his life in England – from 1951 until his death 31 years later.

Strangely, what hangs in the air of the exhibition is the myth of Australia being the last frontier, rather than a highly urbanised nation living mostly on the coast. I wish there had been more extending the exhibition’s theme of land and landscape to beachscapes adorned with people. Among those hanging on the walls on the Royal Academy was the one used on the cover of the press invitation – Charles Meere’s famous figurative and busy beach scene of surfers and bathers, Australian Beach Scene (1940). Another which evoked the feeling of the sand and sea was Albert Tucker’s Sunbathers from six years earlier.

The harsh criticism of the Royal Academy show raises two questions. What exactly is Australian art, and does it make any sense to cover it comprehensively in a broad panoramic sweep? Although the qualification for a work being labelled Australian is whether it is of Australia or by an Australian, it is not confined to those who are Australian-born.

Such a wide spectrum of artists supports the comments by Jane Ure in the Financial Times, about whether there should there be such a category as national art. Indeed, her challenging of this definition caused me to ponder the idea of national artistic identity. Could any single show really encapsulate the art of Britain over the past two centuries? Or the art of America or China? Today the majority of art shows are usually confined to paintings of one artist, or artists from a particular period or school. Exhibitions are strongly themed.

I asked Australian-born Dr Tim Hunter, an art adviser in London, whether he thought that the poor results at Christie’s had been affected by the fiercely critical reviews of the exhibition. “We need to question the validity of Australian art as a whole concept,” he said. “This has all been very, very damaging.” He added that possible new buyers may read reviews and begin to doubt that Australian art is a viable category.

Australia runs until December 8

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 4/10/13