May 17, 2013

London Exhibition of Australian Art Holds Up a Mirror to Our Nation: More Iconic Images - Updated 2014


Art does indeed imitate life.

"THE first terra's, lawns and grottos, with distinct plantations of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any nobleman's grounds in England, cannot excel in beauty those w'h nature now presented to our view. The singing of the various birds amongst the trees, and the flight of the numerous parraquets, lorrequets and cockatoos and macaws, make all around appear like in enchantment; the stupendous rocks from the summit of the hills and down to the water's edge hanging over in a most awful manner from above, and form'g the most commodious quays by the water beggar'd all description." 
THE excitement and wonder expressed in the January 26, 1788, diary entry of Arthur Bowes Smyth, surgeon of the convict transport ship Lady Penrhyn, is as palpable today as the moment his eyes fell for the first time on Port Jackson, before anchoring in Sydney Cove.

The young surgeon's marvel, expressed eloquently by comparing the familiar - the art of English landscaped gardens - with the savage, pristine beauty of the NSW coastline became what Bernard Smith, the great Australian art historian and critic, identified as the "dominant stereotype" that has shaped and determined British attitudes, not only to nature but Australian art and culture as well.

Landscape - and the culture-nature contrast defined by Smith - remains a perennial font of negotiation and reflection on Australian identity: from the intimate relationship with the land of the continent's indigenous inhabitants, to the earliest convict and colonial artists sending back images of unimaginable flora and fauna, to the explorers and pioneers who pushed inwards to "tame" the wilderness, create pasture and forge cities.

In the early art (and literature) of the nation post-First Fleet came awe, passionate curiosity and enchantment but also a deep strain of nostalgia and melancholy for Europe that collided with the settlers' sense of disillusionment as the reality of Australia's harsh land and cruel seasons sank in.

Throughout the 19th century, however, artists started to exploit the passing of time and distance, beginning the shift away from European traditions and artistic canons and embracing the freedom to forge and shape artistic identities of their own.

In September, this rich, vast and continuing story of Australian art and its inextricable links with the landscape will go on show at the Royal Academy in London. Titled simply Australia, the exhibition represents the most complete survey of art produced on the Australian continent in the two centuries from 1800 to 2013.

In a 21st-century echo of Bowes Smyth's diary entry, the academy's introductory notes for the show also enthusiastically spotlight the influence of an "ancient land of dramatic beauty, a source of production, enjoyment, relaxation and inspiration, yet seemingly loaded with mystery and danger".

Kathleen Soriano, the academy's director of exhibitions, says Australia has been several years in the making, a professional journey she says opened her eyes not just to the distinctiveness of the landscape but "the complexity of its indigenous and colonial history, the extremes of its nature and, above all, the power of the art that has been created around it".

The last important exhibitions of Australian art in Britain opened more than 50 years ago, at the Whitechapel (curated by Bryan Robertson) and Tate galleries in the early 1960s. Both focused on the contemporary art of their day and the Tate show attracted controversy. Before that came the Royal Academy's 1923 exhibition but, again, this concentrated on Australian contemporary works of the period. Even then, the academy's catalogue recommended that "it is to landscape that we must look for whatever is fresh and original in Australian art".

"So 100 years on this survey is long, long overdue," Soriano tells Review. "Britain should get to know more of the important Australian artistic figures as part of its broader art historical canon, not least of all because so much of it relates directly back to this country, but even more so because there are some tremendous artists we should be aware of, that we should be able to enjoy."

Charles Saumarez Smith, an art historian who is the academy's chief executive, puts it rather more bluntly: "People in this country have been historically, shamefully ignorant of Australian art ... this will be, for everyone [in Britain] a great revelation."

A NATION'S art, as history has shown, reveals much about its people, how they see themselves and how they wish to be understood by the world. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, film and television allow nations to strut their characters, reveal the past and hint at national desire and destiny. Australia may aim to open British eyes to the rich artistic panoply of a now proud and independent former colony but will the 200 works chosen by its curators and the way they are displayed fit with Australia's view of itself?

Soriano stresses her curatorial decisions are collaborative, describing Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia, and Anna Gray, head of post-1920 Australian painting at the NGA, as her "spirit guides".

"They patiently and generously allowed me to look, unprompted, to digest and to pronounce while carefully supporting and challenging, occasionally teasing me, in the selection of artists in this exhibition."

The initial list, collated during several visits to Australia, contained 400 works. This gradually was whittled down by half. Discussion was lively, Soriano says: "Of course there are certain passions that run stronger in each of us than they do in others but you will expect that in any exhibition where you have more than one curator."

Significantly, however, neither the British nor Australian side will provide the definitive list of works to be hung until the morning of the opening. Soriano insists the list is closed and her reticence is because she doesn't want to be drawn into the "old who's in, who's out" discussion. This also could suggest that there is still negotiation about exactly how the Australian story should be told. Review has been able to pin down some artists and works that are expected to be in the show (see box) and can also reveal that author Tom Keneally will write an essay for the catalogue.

It is understood in its earliest incarnations the academy's plan was for the exhibition to be called Land, with scene-setting and more literal depictions of Australia's distinctive flora, fauna and topography expressing "Australian-ness". 

Hung loosely in schools, paintings, prints, drawings, watercolours, photographs and multimedia works would tell the story of the development of Australian art history, with its references to Europe, the US and Asia. The big theme was landscape, supremely dominant over chronology.

Soriano says while the exhibition now will begin with a "grand display" of recent indigenous painting, it is to be installed largely chronologically to ensure art-historical developments of indigenous and non-indigenous art through time can be clearly understood. This also will allow the mapping of periods of rapid and intense change, from the impact of the first settlers and colonisation on the Aboriginal people through to the pioneering nation-building of the 19th century and the enterprising urbanisation of the past century.

So will the big theme, landscape, be dominant over chronology and schools in the final hang? "I'm loath to comment on that at the moment, to be honest," Soriano says. "If I start to describe the installation too much it will take away some of the key moments."

And what of rumours that discussion among curators has not been just about emphases, thematic and chronological, but also what this would mean for indigenous works: do they appear separate from the rest of the national art-historical canon?

"The Aboriginal art is mixed and not mixed at varying points ... that is the answer to the question the Australian audience will want an answer to," Soriano says rather cryptically.

ROBUST talk and even disagreement about how best to curate a national exhibition or retrospective outside the country is to be expected, but even more so when the relationship between host and the exhibiting nation is as complex, and imbued with post-colonial sensitivities, as that between Britain and Australia. This gentle tension was evident last year in an exchange between Soriano and Radford when The Guardian newspaper first reported the academy's plans.

Asked if it was fair to say that if average Britons were asked to name an Australian artist they would struggle to name anyone beyond Rolf Harris, Soriano agreed: "People who know contemporary art might say Shaun Gladwell, but no, I don't think they would."

Radford replied: "That doesn't matter. A lot of Australians don't know much about British art but they do know a lot about their own art, that's something that's changed in the last 50 years. Australians are quite passionate about their own art."

In fact, 50 years ago, when the previous significant Australian art exhibitions in London were being planned, there was less 2013-style learned and polite debate among friendly curators and much ferocious, behind-the-scenes argument between the government of the day, led by Robert Menzies, and Australia's curatorial and artistic cognoscenti.

Research by historians, among them Stuart Ward, a specialist in imperial history now at the University of Copenhagen, and Australian art historian Sarah Scott has provided insights into the image of the nation that Menzies, acting through the Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board, decided he wanted to promote to the outside world, particularly in Britain.

The Tate show - and the paintings the board selected, shutting out leading curators in Australia and London - were used to communicate Menzies' attachment to the concept of Commonwealth and his belief that traditional links between Australia and Britain should be maintained and strengthened.

Implicit too in the deeply traditional and "picturesque" aesthetic choices was Menzies' desire to seize the opportunity to entice British migrants to Australia, depicting the nation in a dynamic and attractive light.

Preparations for the Tate show unfolded as London had become home to a lively expatriate community of Australian artists. Many had arrived with travelling scholarships, excited to live and work in the British capital with their young families.

It was the late 50s and 60s and Sidney Nolan had already had a great success in 1957 at the Whitechapel Gallery. In the years that followed, a loose-knit group of friends and associates coalesced to work - and play - around Highgate and Hampstead in north London and Ladbroke Grove near Notting Hill. The group, which included Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and Lawrence Daws as well as actors and writers such as Barry Humphries and, a little later, Clive James, were attracted by a London emerging from its post-war tedium and starting to look out to the rest of the world.

Simon Pierse, of Aberystwyth University in Wales, a specialist in post-war Australian painting and British perceptions of Australian art documents, paints a vivid picture of this period of art history when Australian contemporary painting was reaching the height of popularity in London. The artists' company was sought after, seen as a breath of fresh air, and they mingled happily with a wide mix of London society, drinking with fellow Brit artists in local pubs and bars as well as receiving patronage and invitations to aristocratic soirees in Mayfair.

In a chapter titled Australian Artists in London: The Early 1960s (in Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Carl Bridge, Monash University Press, 2009), Pierse writes that as a group they enjoyed an unusual degree of immunity from the British structures of class when the nation was looking to its former colonies for new vigour and a fresh approach:

... the Australians were more than simply an amusement for aristocracy. While they were in a social position roughly equivalent to British working class or, as one expatriate artist put it, "like the Scots or the Irish ... outside the pale, but rather charming in an odd sort of way", a certain degree of waywardness and unconventionality was accepted simply because they were artists. 

Added to this was their status as rough-diamond "colonials" who were expected to break all rules and conventions. As part of a broader picture of changing attitudes towards the Commonwealth, a directness and simplicity of approach was indulged - even welcomed - from the people of Britain's former colonies.

Titled Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary, the Tate show's first incarnation would be given an earlier outing at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1962 as Antipodean Vision.

While the controversy was widely reported in Britain and Australia at the time, the release of significant government papers in the wake of the 30-year rule has allowed the political tussle over the show to be scrutinised and researched by Australian art historians, including Sarah Scott of the University of Melbourne.

Scott argues that despite the strong links between the nations and receptiveness to Australian art in London, Menzies' vision for the Tate show was perceived by many as flawed from the outset. She writes in Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World (Monash University Press, 2008):

The CAAB's decisions not to include Aboriginal art, limit the medium of the artworks to oil paintings, favour paintings with Australian narrative subject matter, and to include a sizeable section of colonial and impressionist works alongside contemporary ones were all part of Menzies' attempt to present the British public with a 'positive' image of nation. 

This caused massive disputes between the CAAB, the Tate Gallery authorities, the Australian Contemporary Art Society and the progressive state gallery directors Eric Westbrook and Hal Missingham. At issue was the question: Who should have the right to decide the external representation of the Australian nation through art exhibitions?

Scott believes the Tate show "was at best a partial success", for its original role as an official showcase of an independent and ever more prosperous Australia also served to promote imperial ties to Britain when interest in the concept of a "New Commonwealth" was diminishing. This ambivalence, she argues, was reflected also in the lukewarm critical responses to the exhibition in Britain.

Soriano says: "It's rather different when you are working with art spanning 200 years ... no, I don't think I'm going to like being me come September ... oh, all criticism is good criticism!"

A HALF century has passed and the world and Australia's relationships with it have changed dramatically. While notions of "Australianness" mean something very different today than they did in 1963, an international collaboration to select the very best and most expressive works of the past 200 years remains a difficult aesthetic and diplomatic feat.

The personalities and politics may well have changed but there is little doubt that when Australia opens on September 21 it will not only define a new chapter in antipodean art history but open a window into 21st-century national considerations as well.

Aboriginal artists: Albert Namatjira (1902-59), below; Rover Thomas (c.1926-98); Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-96); a number of artists from the Papunya Tula group of the Western Desert.
19th-century European immigrants: John Glover (1767-1849); Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901).

Australian impressionists (mythology of the Australian bush): Arthur Streeton (1867-1943); Tom Roberts (1856-1931); Charles Conder (1868-1909); Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917)

Early modernists: Margaret Preston (1875-1963); Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984); Roy de Maistre (1894-1968).

Grouped with leading 20th-century painters: Arthur Boyd (1920-99); Albert Tucker (1914-99); Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-99); Fred Williams (1927-82); Sidney Nolan (1917-92); Brett Whiteley (1939-92).

21st-century internationally recognised artists: Bill Henson (b.1955); Gordon Bennett (b.1955); Tracey Moffatt (b.1960); Fiona Hall (b.1953); Shaun Gladwell (b.1972); Christian Thompson (b.1978); Simryn Gill (b.1959) (will represent Australia at the Venice Biennale).

Paintings: The Pioneer (1904) by McCubbin, National Gallery of Victoria, top picture; four paintings from Nolan's Ned Kelly series (1946), National Gallery of Australia; Cyclone Tracy (1991) by Thomas, NGA; Big Yam Dreaming (1995) by Kngwarreye, NGV.


Video: Approach to Mundi Mundi (2007) by Gladwell, Art Gallery of NSW, John Kaldor Family Collection.

Sculpture: Judy Watson has been commissioned to create a new sculpture for the Royal Academy's Annenberg Courtyard, which will resonate with the themes of the exhibition and with the context of its British setting.

With many thanks to The Australian

Update: Show left London less than thrilled

THE Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was the first survey of Australian art in the city in decades, but it fell several visitors short of a blockbuster.
The show attracted 125,038 people during its September 21-December 8 season, averaging 1582 tickets a day.

By comparison, a smaller exhibition at the Royal Academy last year, Mexico: A Revolution in Art, drew 70,000 people. A David Hockney show was seen by more than 600,000, making it one of London's most popular exhibitions of 2012.

Australia was organised with the National Gallery of Australia and featured some of the nation's iconic images, including Ned Kelly pictures by Sidney Nolan, Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer and Max Dupain's Sunbaker. 

A large gallery was devoted to indigenous art, with canvases by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

Critics greeted the show with enthusiasm and with scorn. Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times was especially narky, describing John Olsen's ceiling painting Sydney Sun as a "cascade of diarrhoea", and indigenous art as "tourist tat".

At home, some said the exhibition was a missed opportunity to make a strong statement.
Summer exhibition attendance in Australia is led by the National Gallery of Victoria's massive Melbourne Now survey of local art and design. The show has free admission across two sites, and by last week had attracted more than 212,000.

At Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Spectacle show of music videos has drawn 16,000 people. The James Bond show Designing 007 has brought 68,000 people to the Melbourne Museum.

An installation of replica animals by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art has attracted 45,000 visitors.

In Sydney, Yoko Ono's War is Over (If You Want It) has been seen by 56,000.



With thanks to The Australian

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