Im­pres­sions that linger

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - GREG SHERI­DAN

IN 1985, in Bei­jing, I was priv­i­leged to be­come friends with a group of aca­demics at the Cen­tral China Art Academy, when I was this pa­per’s China correspondent. It was a good friend­ship, but one at crosspur­poses. They wanted me to write tech­ni­cal art crit­i­cism of their work. I was com­pletely ille­quipped to do this, but I found fas­ci­nat­ing ev­ery­thing they told me, in­ci­den­tally as it were, about their lives and the pol­i­tics of Chi­nese art. But of course I couldn’t write about that as it might have harmed them.

By then the gov­ern­ment had eased up a bit on the old Stal­in­ist in­junc­tion that art must serve the peo­ple — which meant dreary so­cial­ist re­al­ism and heroic po­lit­i­cal scenes — and had gone as far as sanc­tion­ing im­pres­sion­ism, but noth­ing more ad­ven­tur­ous than that.

When I got back to Aus­tralia and de­scribed this to David Arm­strong — the Univer­sity of Syd­ney philoso­pher, not the dis­tin­guished news­pa­per ed­i­tor — he wryly quipped that look­ing at mod­ern art, on this one oc­ca­sion, he had some lim­ited sym­pa­thy for the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.

Cer­tainly the im­pres­sion­ist move­ment is my favourite mo­ment in the his­tory of art and this was con­firmed for me by a visit to the mag­nif­i­cent ex­hi­bi­tion of Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ism at the Ian Pot­ter Cen­tre of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria in Melbourne’s Fed­er­a­tion Square.

Nor­mally, art ex­hi­bi­tions are some­what like movies. The block­busters work best. What gets the pun­ters through the doors most re­li­ably is sex, death and vi­o­lence.

It is a mi­nor tragedy of our na­tional life, how­ever, that this in­com­pa­ra­ble ex­hi­bi­tion is not go­ing to tour out­side Melbourne. It is a sprawl­ing and breath­tak­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of 250 paint­ings by Tom Roberts, Arthur Stree­ton, Fred­er­ick McCub­bin, Charles Con­der and Jane Suther­land.

The ex­hi­bi­tion starts qui­etly and se­duces the viewer gen­tly with some of the more for­mal works. But as you move through this rav­ish­ing se­ries of paint­ings the sense of the artists’ free­dom, and their con­fi­dence with the on­cerev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­niques of im­pres­sion­ism, grows. There is a false note as some of them me­an­der off into sym­bol­ism.

Nor­mally I love por­traits but the por­traits here, too, seem tame in com­par­i­son with the land­scapes and streetscapes.

But then in the fi­nal gallery you come upon an un­be­liev­able as­sem­bly of block­busters, some of the best- known paint­ings in Aus­tralia: On the Wal­laby Track, Shear­ing the Rams, Down on his Luck, The Golden Fleece.

Th­ese are truly defin­ing images of Aus­tralia — con­stantly mined by ad­ver­tis­ing and pop­u­lar cul­ture — where the im­pres­sion­ists were self­con­sciously seek­ing to ex­press a dis­tinc­tively Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence. This is not bun­yip provin­cial­ism or nar­row na­tion­al­ism; it is rather a cel­e­bra­tion of the unique gift of God’s grace in the Aus­tralian land­scape.

Melbourne has em­braced this ex­hi­bi­tion, which re­flects its long love af­fair with the Hei­del­berg school, whose works are dis­played. I am in­structed by my bet­ters that we are not to use the term Hei­del­berg school any longer be­cause the Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ist move­ment didn’t start at Hei­del­berg and painted there for only a few sum­mers. The move­ment started in Melbourne it­self, and Box Hill and Men­tone pre­ceded Hei­del­berg as out- of- Melbourne lo­ca­tions.

None­the­less, the Hei­del­berg sum­mers were cru­cial and the term still means some­thing to most Aus­tralians.

The sub­urb of Hei­del­berg glo­ries in its artis­tic her­itage to­day. Tak­ing my son to cricket re­cently at nearby Ivan­hoe East, I came upon a fixed metal sign dis­play­ing a re­pro­duc­tion of one of the Hei­del­berg school paint­ings com­pleted on that very spot, and pro­vid­ing some in­for­ma­tion about the artist con­cerned. This is a warm and gen­er­ous civic em­brace of his­tory and cul­ture. It is one of Melbourne’s gen­uine charms.

Melbourne it­self has looked lush and gor­geous this past month or two since the rain has come back, a sweetly in­tox­i­cat­ing but­ter­fly af­ter the dull brown moth it was six months ago.

The im­pres­sion­ists painted Syd­ney as well as Melbourne, and they painted it spec­tac­u­larly well, but they be­gan in Melbourne and the south­ern cap­i­tal has claimed the artists as its own.

The sense of place has been cen­tral to Aus­tralian arts of all kinds, partly be­cause place has been the most ob­vi­ously unique as­pect for Aus­tralian artists to deal with. This is cer­tainly true of our po­ets and nov­el­ists.

I have long be­lieved that Aus­tralia’s great­est liv­ing nov­el­ist is Christo­pher Koch, the two- time Miles Franklin win­ner and au­thor, most re­cently, of Out of Ire­land and High­ways to a War. Koch, like all great nov­el­ists, does many things, but best of all per­haps he evokes place. Gra­ham Greene once re­marked that as a re­sult of Koch’s nov­els he, Greene, had a strong sense of Tas­ma­nia.

I am not an es­pe­cially vis­ual per­son and in nov­els I like di­a­logue ( which is why, like so many, I’m de­voted to P. G. Wode­house, the great­est di­a­logue writer in the his­tory of the novel, whose idea of vis­ual de­scrip­tion was to say some­thing like, ‘‘ Out­side the sun was shin­ing and some birds were mess­ing about in the trees’’).

The only mod­ern, plot- free, di­a­logue- free novel I have en­joyed is A Disaf­fec­tion by Scot­tish writer James Kel­man. Even there it is re­ally dis­guised di­a­logue.

The novel is a de­motic, com­pelling in­te­rior mono­logue of a neu­rotic, but un­usu­ally sen­si­tive, young school­teacher. It sounds grim, I know, but be as­sured, it’s beau­ti­ful.

But I di­gress. One of the places Koch most mem­o­rably evoked was Java, in his clas­sic novel, The Year of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously. Oddly, I have my own small Ja­vanese con­nec­tion to the Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ists.

Years ago the es­timable and splen­did James Murray, un­til re­cently the re­li­gion ed­i­tor on this news­pa­per, gave my fam­ily a paint­ing by In­done­sian artist Sri­hadi Soedar­sono.

Decades ago Sri­hadi had come to Aus­tralia and one re­sult of his long visit was an ab­stract im­pres­sion­ist treat­ment of the Three Sis­ters, in the Blue Moun­tains west of Syd­ney. I have lived with this paint­ing for years and come to love it more and more.

When you live with a paint­ing of qual­ity it be­comes your friend. You have a kind of con­tin­u­ous di­a­logue with it. When I saw the Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ists it was like meet­ing a first cousin, once re­moved per­haps, of Sri­hadi.

I guess Sri­hadi vis­ited our gal­leries and ab­sorbed the Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ists. Cer­tainly his paint­ing’s lush, dra­matic sud­den­ness re­calls some of them. On the other hand, per­haps there is no con­nec­tion be­yond a fel­low artist’s re­sponse to the vivid, en­thralling Aus­tralian land­scape.

This Melbourne ex­hi­bi­tion will be seen by per­haps 200,000 peo­ple by its close on July 8. Aus­tralians en masse love im­pres­sion­ism, its op­ti­mism and sun­light, its pure life.

For my­self, I can only tell you I’ve never seen any­thing so beau­ti­ful or com­pelling in any Aus­tralian art gallery.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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