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