Pre­view: Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ists at Na­tional Gallery Lon­don, by Stella Downer


EACH TIME I VISIT LON­DON, ONE of my first calls is to Trafal­gar Square and The Na­tional Gallery. This must be my favourite gallery any­where – the tem­ple of my soul! Walk­ing through the gal­leries filled with the cen­turies of paint­ings that I would ac­knowl­edge with a nod, talk to with ad­mi­ra­tion and at times with love, I came to a smaller gallery in the cen­tre of the build­ing, the Sun­ley Room. Here is the Aus­tralia’s Im­pres­sion­ists ex­hi­bi­tion.

Th­ese much-loved paint­ings at home, icons of Aus­tralian art, seem to have shrunk in the pres­ence of their fore­bears. They seemed light years away from the 400 years of paint­ing that I had walked past. And “light” is the op­er­a­tive word.

Tom Roberts’ ‘Trafal­gar Square’ (c. 1884), strate­gi­cally placed op­po­site the en­trance, greeted me. Here was the Trafal­gar Square that I had walked through on that win­try early Jan­uary day. This small work on card­board, heav­ily in­flu­enced by Whistler, is seen in the mono­tones of greys and blacks against a pearly bright sky. There is a touch of Aus­tralian bright­ness in that sky, al­beit a win­ter’s sky.

Op­po­site is an in­stal­la­tion of 9 x 5 inch wooden cigar box pan­els. We in Aus­tralia are used to see­ing th­ese and their his­tory is well known, hav­ing been ex­hib­ited in Mel­bourne in 1889. Here in the very small se­lec­tion of the orig­i­nal 183 “impressions” I am re­minded that the im­pact of this 9 by 5 Im­pres­sion Ex­hi­bi­tion has been last­ing and it is re­garded as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant Aus­tralian ex­hi­bi­tions ever to be mounted. Re­search has been re­spected and this group has been hung as per the orig­i­nal 1889 ex­hi­bi­tion.

Aus­tralian art so of­ten re­lates to the land, and Aus­tralian na­tion­al­ism was hit­ting its stride around the cen­te­nary of Euro­pean set­tle­ment in 1888. With this came a grow­ing sense of na­tional iden­tity. En plein air paint­ing was em­braced first by Tom Roberts while trav­el­ling in Europe in the early 1880s. This pro­vided the ba­sis of a new school of paint­ing.

It can be ar­gued that the mag­nif­i­cent ‘Golden Sum­mer, Ea­gle­mont’ painted by Arthur Stree­ton in 1889 is the epit­ome of en plein air paint­ing of the late 1880s. If any paint­ing could be called “iconic” of Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ism, it could be this. Painted dur­ing a sum­mer drought when Stree­ton was only 21 years old, it breathes the hot, dry grass and in­tense blue sky that is a south­ern Aus­tralian sum­mer. Here is the high-keyed blue and gold pal­ette that the artist con­sid­ered “na­ture’s scheme of colour in Aus­tralia”. It is ex­cit­ing to see this paint­ing back in Lon­don. It was ex­hib­ited at the Royal Acad­emy Lon­don in 1890 and at the Paris Salon the fol­low­ing year where it won an award.

Close by is Arthur Stree­ton’s ‘Still glides the stream and shall for ever glide’ (1890), painted at Ea­gle­mont near Hei­del­berg. More ro­man­tic than ‘Golden Sum­mer’, it be­fits the ti­tle, which was taken from Wordsworth’s son­net ‘Af­ter-Thought’ from his poem cy­cle ‘The River Dud­don’.

A mag­nif­i­cent wall is a tri­umvi­rate of paint­ings: Charles Con­der’s ‘A Hol­i­day at Men­tone’ (1888), Arthur Stree­ton’s ‘Fire’s on’ (1891), and Tom Roberts’ ‘A break away!’ (1891). What a treat to see th­ese three out­stand­ing paint­ings hang­ing to­gether. ‘Men­tone’ and ‘A break away!’ hang in Ade­laide in the Art Gallery and ‘Fire’s on’ in Syd­ney in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Here is the full im­pact of en plein air paint­ing, preva­lent in Europe dur­ing this pe­riod but in the late 1880s hap­pen­ing in a very Aus­tralian way. I grew up in the Ade­laide Hills on a prop­erty with sheep and know­ing hot sum­mers. My fa­ther was a trustee of the Art Gallery of SA and he would of­ten take me to see the two paint­ings men­tioned here.

So I feel the hot, dry dust in my face breath­ing it in, know the cav­al­cade of sheep es­pe­cially when they need wa­ter, know the trunks of those eu­ca­lypts and can smell the leaves. ‘A break away!’ was painted near Corowa, NSW on the banks of the River Mur­ray but the scene can be trans­lated to so many parts of an Aus­tralian sum­mer.

Stree­ton’s ‘Fire’s on’ is the most loved paint­ing hang­ing in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Painted in the Blue Moun­tains, it de­picts an ex­plo­sion in a mine and an in­jured man being car­ried out. Again it is the heat one feels, the dry­ness and the gold rock and deep blue sky. A cou­ple of years ago, through my val­u­a­tion work, I found the wa­ter­colour study for this work. It had been in a South Aus­tralian col­lec­tion for many years. I con­tacted the Art Gallery of NSW, where it now lives hap­pily in its proper place with the fin­ished work.

I love the Morn­ing­ton Penin­sula south of Mel­bourne. The beach at Men­tone is sim­i­lar to many beaches along the penin­sula. Charles Con­der’s golden hues in ‘A Hol­i­day at Men­tone’ (1888) have been bleached with the in­tense sun, and the sky is very blue. This could be a scene from a Renoir or Monet paint­ing but Con­der has trans­posed it to south of Mel­bourne.

Here and in Charles Con­der’s ‘De­par­ture of the Ori­ent – Cir­cu­lar Quay’ (1888) is seen a pride in the paint­ing of Aus­tralian ur­ban scenes, but not the hot colour tones but beau­ti­fully muted tones of greys, dark reds and blues heav­ily rem­i­nis­cent of Whistler. As is Tom Roberts’ ‘Bourke Street’ (c. 188586), but hot and dusty.

Next I come to Arthur Stree­ton’s ‘Blue Pa­cific’ (1890). Liv­ing in Syd­ney this is a Syd­ney coastal scene I know so well. The in­ten­sity of the blue sea is jewel-like. This is the paint­ing that was the ge­n­e­sis of the idea of this ex­hi­bi­tion. On loan to The Na­tional Gallery Lon­don, un­be­liev­ably it is the first Aus­tralian paint­ing to hang in the gallery.

When asked why it has taken so long to ex­hibit art from more far flung coun­tries, al­beit a Com­mon­wealth coun­try, Christo­pher Riopelle, the gallery’s cu­ra­tor of post-1800 paint­ings com­ments, “We are 193 years old … we con­trolled the canon, so this no­tion that we should ex­pand what we look at was rel­a­tively slow to come about.”

The fi­nale is John Peter Rus­sell. He, most of all th­ese artists, im­mersed him­self with the

French Im­pres­sion­ists and be­came a bridge be­tween the two con­ti­nents. The most dar­ing of the four artists, and although he painted in the west and south of France mainly on the coast, his paint­ings are an un­nat­u­rally high colour pal­ette. Rus­sell’s brush­work is more ex­pres­sion­ist in style than the other three artists. He is more akin to the French Im­pres­sion­ists in works such as ‘In the Morn­ing, Alpes Mar­itimes from An­tibes’ (1890-1), and ‘Rough Sea, Morestil’ (c. 1900). Say­ing good­bye to th­ese four Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ists, I pulled my­self out into Whistler’s muted light of Trafal­gar Square. Thank you to the rel­a­tively new Di­rec­tor of The Na­tional Gallery Lon­don, Gabriele Fi­naldi, for in­tro­duc­ing Aus­tralian art into your gallery and to a wider au­di­ence. Thank you to Cu­ra­tor Christo­pher Riopelle for the un­der­stand­ing and sym­pa­thetic hang on neutral walls with clear and in­for­ma­tive la­bels. And for your ed­u­ca­tional video tak­ing us through the ex­hi­bi­tion. I look for­ward to see­ing more ex­hi­bi­tions of Aus­tralian art at The Na­tional Gallery in the fu­ture.

01 Arthur Stree­ton, Fire’s On, 1891, oil on can­vas, 184 x 123cm 02 Charles Con­der, A Hol­i­day at Men­tone, 1888, oil on can­vas, 46 x 61cm 03 Tom Roberts, A Break Away!, 1891, oil on can­vas, 137 x 168cm 04 John Rus­sell, In the Morn­ing Alpes Mar­itimes from An­tibes, 1890-1, oil on can­vas, 60 x 73cm

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