De­spite its flaws, an ex­hi­bi­tion of 19th- cen­tury land­scape paint­ing has in­ter­est­ing things to say, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

‘ LAND is not land alone, some­thing that sim­ply is it­self,’’ V. S. Naipaul wrote in his great novel The Enigma of Ar­rival . ‘‘ Land par­takes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and mem­o­ries.’’ Not much more needs to be said to ex­plain the en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion of land­scape paint­ing, so long as we ac­cept that moods and me­mory are just part of it; try also na­tion­al­ism, the­ol­ogy, science, his­tory and fan­tasy.

Land­scape is the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia in Can­berra called Turner to Monet: The Tri­umph of Land­scape. The 19th cen­tury — that mar­vel­lous, mad pe­riod of high feel­ings and lurch­ing ex­tremes — pro­vides the show’s his­tor­i­cal frame­work. It was the cen­tury, writes Ron Rad­ford, the NGA’s di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor of this ex­hi­bi­tion, when ‘‘ the West­ern tra­di­tion of land­scape paint­ing be­came the most pow­er­ful force in art’’; when it be­came, more­over, ‘‘ the prin­ci­pal ve­hi­cle for artis­tic ex­plo­ration and ad­vanced ex­per­i­men­tal paint­ing’’.

Turner to Monet is a beau­ti­ful, se­duc­tive show, but it falls short of great­ness. On the plus side, it con­tains mas­ter­pieces by artists you al­most cer­tainly will never have seen be­fore. The spell­bind­ing paint­ings, for in­stance, of Cas­par David Friedrich, the lead­ing fig­ure of Ger­man ro­man­ti­cism, have never be­fore been sent to Aus­tralia. This show con­tains five of them, a coup for the NGA ( al­though two are on dis­play only un­til April 27, more than a month be­fore the show ends, so don’t de­lay).

There are mas­ter­pieces, too, by Friedrich’s friend, Nor­we­gian painter Jo­han Chris­tian Dahl; J. M. W. Turner; French Bar­bizon painters Theodore Rousseau and Charles Daubigny; re­al­ist Gus­tave Courbet; Amer­i­can lu­min­ist Martin John­son Heade; and beloved im­pres­sion­ists and post- im­pres­sion­ists such as Al­fred Sis­ley, Camille Pis­sarro, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gau­guin and Vin­cent van Gogh. It’s a juicy, and over­whelm­ingly ver­dant, line- up.

But the at­tempt by Rad­ford and co- cu­ra­tors Lucina Ward and Chris­tine Dixon to ar­tic­u­late an in­tel­li­gi­ble, self- ev­i­dent idea about 19th- cen­tury land­scape doesn’t quite come off. It’s hard to say why. Per­haps the sub­ject is just too many- sided, in­volv­ing, as it does, is­sues of na­tion­al­ism, colo­nial­ism, clas­si­cism and ro­man­ti­cism, the rev­o­lu­tions in em­pir­i­cal science, tourism, pho­tog­ra­phy and aes­theti­cism.

Some may say that a co­her­ent idea scarcely mat­ters when you have such a daz­zling ar­ray of paint­ings on of­fer. And fair enough; what­ever its short­com­ings, this is cer­tainly a show worth trav­el­ling to see. Yet, like many shows of vast reach, Turner to Monet suf­fers pre­cisely from its scope: in some parts it feels ten­den­tious, in oth­ers a lit­tle thread­bare.

The show’s most in­ter­est­ing facet is its in­clu­sion of a high num­ber of Aus­tralian land­scapes. Ob­vi­ously th­ese were more read­ily avail­able than mas­ter­pieces from over­seas. But it’s not just a con­ve­nience: Rad­ford wants to push a chal­leng­ing idea. By plac­ing them in an in­ter­na­tional con­text, he wants to show that the for­eign- born artists who came to Aus­tralia and painted land­scape — such as John Glover, Eu­gene von Guer­ard and Con­rad Martens — were con­tin­u­ing tra­di­tions of land­scape that had been evolv­ing in Bri­tain and north­ern Europe for decades.

Noth­ing we didn’t know there. But here’s the in­ter­est­ing bit: he also wants to show that th­ese painters — plod­ding, cliche- bound copy­cats in their home coun­tries — truly came into their own in Aus­tralia. Why? In essence, be­cause they started re­spond­ing to the Aus­tralian land­scape. They stopped try­ing to im­pose on it an in­her­ited id­iom or fal­si­fied ideal. If they breathed into it their ‘‘ moods and mem­o­ries’’, in Naipaul’s terms, th­ese moods and mem­o­ries were more truly their own and more bound up with the land in which they had set­tled.

It all sounds ob­vi­ous enough. But it’s a step away from the idea, heav­ily pushed in con­ven­tional his­to­ries of Aus­tralian art, that th­ese painters, for all their his­tor­i­cal cu­rios­ity, were sim­ply un­able to get to grips with the Aus­tralian light and with its anti- pic­turesque phys­i­cal­ity.

Rad­ford be­lieves this is a fur­phy. Sure, he says, th­ese painters didn’t paint the mid­day Aus­tralian sun in an im­pres­sion­ist or ori­en­tal­ist id­iom like their suc­ces­sors, the Hei­del­berg school. In re­al­ity, they pre­ferred sun­sets. They also liked dra­matic vis­tas with moun­tains and sea­side cliffs or pas­toral views that sug­gested di­vinely or­dained own­er­ship of the land. They were, af­ter all, the prod­ucts of Ger­man ro­man­ti­cism ( von Guer­ard and Martens) and the English pas­toral tra­di­tion ( Glover).

But sun­sets, moun­tains and coastal cliffs all ex­ist in Aus­tralia, and th­ese artists stud­ied them closely. Rad­ford be­lieves they re­sponded to Aus­tralian con­di­tions with even more orig­i­nal­ity and hon­esty than their con­tem­po­raries in the US, who ‘‘ reg­u­larly re­turned to Europe, con­stantly re­new­ing their ties with past and cur­rent, but of­ten con­ser­va­tive, Euro­pean land­scape paint­ing’’.

Land­scape painters in Aus­tralia, by con­trast, were much more iso­lated. This, Rad­ford says, freed them to de­velop ‘‘ a new and tougher re­al­ism, suit­able for a less lux­u­ri­ant coun­try that could not be mis­taken for Europe’’.

I think this is the ex­hi­bi­tion’s most in­ter­est­ing idea and the one Rad­ford seems truly an­i­mated by. But it has been dealt with be­fore, al­beit more ten­ta­tively.

In this more am­bi­tious ex­hi­bi­tion it amounts to lit­tle more than a foot­note and its cred­i­bil­ity is not re­ally tested. The Aus­tralian works look good, it’s true. But it seems to me that not all the works by the great English and Euro­pean land­scape painters are of the high­est or­der, so the com­par­isons we are asked to make are dis­torted by a sub­tle parochial­ism.

The show’s first room, fo­cus­ing on English and classical land­scape, makes for an in­aus­pi­cious start. Aside from a smat­ter­ing of Con­sta­bles, a Turner, two Samuel Palmers ( one of which is hardly a land­scape at all) and two Camille Corots — one early, one late — there is not much to stir the blood. I did like a small, clear- eyed work by Wil­helm von Ko­bell, de­pict­ing a set of wind­ing paths on a hill out­side Mu­nich. But, over­all, the sense of fa­mil­iar­ity is op­pres­sive: Con­sta­ble and Turner are ob­vi­ously great, but both have been the sub­jects of im­por­tant ret­ro­spec­tives at the NGA; Bri­tish art, mean­while, has been sur­veyed by Rad­ford at his old fief­dom, the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia. The late Corot is great, but it is on per­ma­nent dis­play in Melbourne.

In­deed, one- third of the Euro­pean works in the rest of the ex­hi­bi­tion are on per­ma­nent dis­play in Aus­tralian pub­lic gal­leries. Wel­come to the fu­ture of block­busters in this coun­try.

The next room, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent story. It’s noth­ing short of bril­liant, plung­ing straight

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