Impressions that linger
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