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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

THE por­traits painted by Tom Roberts and other mem­bers of the Hei­del­berg School are not so much un­der­rated as rather over­looked, sim­ply be­cause of the im­por­tance of their achieve­ment in the field of land­scape paint­ing. The Na­tional Por­trait Gallery’s Im­pres­sions: Paint­ing light and life is thus a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to con­sider a se­lec­tion of the best of these pic­tures, rather than glanc­ing at them in pass­ing af­ter spend­ing time with the land­scapes.

The Hei­del­berg School, of­ten but rather mis­lead­ingly known as the Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ists, was the first self-con­scious art move­ment, and its mem­bers were the first real group of artists in a coun­try whose painters had pre­vi­ously been soli­tary prac­ti­tion­ers, even if some, like Eu­gene von Guer­ard and Ni­cholas Che­va­lier, were friends.

It formed af­ter Roberts re­turned from Eng­land in 1885 and started to paint with his friends Louis Abra­hams and Fred­er­ick Mccub­bin, and was then joined by Arthur Stree­ton and Charles Con­der. The group dis­solved with the de­par­ture of Stree­ton (1897) and Roberts (1903) to try their for­tunes in Eng­land.

The Hei­del­berg painters were long con­sid­ered the first im­por­tant artists in Australia, and en­thu­si­asm for their pic­tures un­fairly eclipsed such pre­de­ces­sors as John Glover, Con­rad Martens and Louis Bu­velot, as well as von Guer­ard and Che­va­lier who have just been men­tioned; these mis­per­cep­tions have been cor­rected to some de­gree over the past few decades. Glover was the sub­ject of an im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion in 2003, while the out­stand­ing von Guer­ard show which opened at the NGV last year is now on dis­play at the Queens­land Art Gallery. The smaller but valu­able sur­vey of Che­va­lier, at Gee­long Re­gional Gallery, was re­viewed here a few weeks ago.

To re­dis­cover these sub­stan­tial artists is not to de­pre­ci­ate the work of the Hei­del­berg painters. Roberts and Stree­ton in par­tic­u­lar gave Aus­tralians a new way of see­ing their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings, and at the same time a new way of imag­in­ing their place in this land. The im­por­tance they at­tached to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of bright sun­light was not, as has so of­ten been im­plied, sim­ply a mat­ter of open­ing their eyes and see­ing what was there for the first time, as though Australia were all blue sky and glare.

In fact they se­lected and em­pha­sised cer­tain as­pects of the en­vi­ron­ment, such as the heat and bright­ness, be­cause they felt them to be quintessen­tially Aus­tralian: it was as much a sym­bolic choice as a mat­ter of nat­u­ral­is­tic ob­ser­va­tion, and that choice was to cel­e­brate the spe­cific na­ture of a harsh land and the char­ac­ter of peo­ple who could live in such con­di­tions.

Stree­ton took up the same chal­lenge in paint­ing it­self, by ex­e­cut­ing a num­ber of works, such as The Pur­ple Noon’s Trans­par­ent might, in the mid­day sun, even though this meant work­ing in con­di­tions of con­sid­er­able dis­com­fort, and although painters for cen­turies had avoided the light con­di­tions of mid­day be­cause it is too bright and there are no shad­ows to give form to the view.

All of this was part of a mood of emerg­ing na­tion­al­ism, as Australia ap­proached fed­er­a­tion at the turn of the cen­tury, although it is in­ter­est­ing that Stree­ton left be­fore this mo­men­tous event and Roberts shortly af­ter­wards — in his case, how­ever, prompted by the com­mis­sion to paint the huge com­mem­o­ra­tive picture of the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the com­mon­wealth par­lia­ment that to­day hangs in Par­lia­ment House in Can­berra.

This is why the Hei­del­berg painters en­coun­tered noth­ing like the op­po­si­tion that ini­tially greeted the French im­pres­sion­ists in the 1870s. It is a good ex­am­ple of the prin­ci­ple that one must look past su­per­fi­cial for­mal sim­i­lar­i­ties in artis­tic move­ments to un­der­stand the role they played in their spe­cific cul­tural mi­lieu: in the French world of the 1870s, trau­ma­tised by re­cent de­feat at the hands of the Prus­sians, im­pres­sion­ism could look like an ex­pres­sion of de­mor­al­i­sa­tion, an­ar­chy and decadence; in Australia 15 or so years later, the Hei­del­berg move­ment was part of a na­tion­al­ist mo­men­tum.

Art deals with sym­bols and mean­ings rather than lit­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tions of our sur­round­ings, so it is not re­ally sur­pris­ing to con­sider that while so many pic­tures were about the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment of Australia, and cel­e­brated the soli­tary labour of the se­lec­tor, the small-hold­ing pioneer clear­ing the land and con­vert­ing it to use­ful pur­poses, the great ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion at the time al­ready lived in a few great cities, just as they have al­ways con­tin­ued to do.

Cor­re­spond­ingly, much of the in­come to be earned as an artist in Australia at the end of the 19th cen­tury was de­rived from por­traits — like­nesses of these ur­ban peo­ple, for the most part, which col­lec­tively give us an­other im­age of Australia about the time of fed­er­a­tion. We dis­cover a world that is ur­ban rather than ru­ral, and that has, some­times self-con­sciously, a city so­phis­ti­ca­tion with­out be­ing very far ei­ther from pioneer ori­gins or from con­tin­u­ing con­nec­tions with the land.

It is thus a world of real peo­ple that we en­counter in this ex­hi­bi­tion, to set be­side the semi-myth­i­cal char­ac­ters of Hei­del­berg land­scape and fig­ure paint­ing, and yet of course real peo­ple seen through cer­tain more or less vis­i­ble con­ven­tions of style and so­cial pre­sen­ta­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, one of the first pic­tures in the show is a kind of hy­brid: Tom Roberts’s A sum­mer morn­ing’s tiff (1886), which is far more a picture of cer­tain so­cial class than the like­ness of any in­di­vid­ual. A well-dressed cou­ple has gone out for a morn­ing’s ride and had an ar­gu­ment of some kind; they have dis­mounted on the side of the road and the young woman has wan­dered into the bush where she stands, face in shadow. The im­pli­ca­tion of her at­ti­tude and of the ti­tle is that she will re­turn to him and it will all be over; but in the mo­ment of sus­pense and

still­ness we are in­vited to con­tem­plate the sub­tle har­monies of sandy browns and dusty blue-greens of the nat­u­ral set­ting.

We feel, in this picture, not just that Roberts is a fine painter, but what is just as im­por­tant, that he is one whose abil­ity and sen­si­bil­ity are per­fectly cal­i­brated to his sub­ject. There is the same qual­ity in Con­der’s tiny sketch of the in­te­rior of the farm­house at Mount Ea­gle, Im­pres­sion­ists’ Camp (1889). Con­der does not al­ways hit the mark in this way, but here he has achieved some­thing small but per­fect in its own way, from the asym­met­ri­cal com­po­si­tion to the com­pletely uni­fied and strictly limited pal­ette which nonethe­less gives the im­pres­sion of painterly rich­ness.

Other fine por­traits by Roberts in­clude the well-known im­age of the young Stree­ton in pro­file and the three-quar­ters im­age of Pro­fes­sor Mar­shall-hall, as well as the strik­ing Sketch por­trait, Sir Alex Onslow, with his head tilted to one side and slightly back. His fe­male por­traits are of­ten par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive, like the fine Eileen (1892), whose pro­file he charges with a cer­tain mys­tery partly through the use of dark masses in the hair and coat and partly through the light veil over her face, but im­por­tantly also in the loosely fin­ished tex­ture of the work.

Other sit­ters painted by Roberts, like Miss Florence Greaves (1898), who turns away with a slightly wry ex­pres­sion, or the ful­l­length Mrs J. St V. Welch, seem any­thing but mys­te­ri­ous. In these cases, as in other por­traits by Stree­ton ( Mrs W. H. Read, 1890) or Ge­orge Wal­ton ( Priscilla, 1886), we en­counter in­di­vid­u­als who don’t in­spire us with any great de­sire to know them bet­ter, or per­suade us they have much in­ner life.

The por­traits them­selves are ba­si­cally work­man­like in their ap­proach, pre­sum­ably cap­tur­ing a sound like­ness, en­dow­ing the sit­ters with a sense of life and even at times a dash of panache or a touch of pathos, but achiev­ing these ef­fects partly through leav­ing a cer­tain un­cer­tainty and in­de­ter­mi­nacy in the im­age. Of course as we ap­proach the sea­son of the Archibald Prize, one can’t help re­flect­ing how much bet­ter these pic­tures are, for all their mod­est scope: they come at least from a liv­ing prac­tice of por­trait­mak­ing that did not have to rely on gim­micks and shock tac­tics to prove its in­ter­est.

Not all the por­traits in the ex­hi­bi­tion were painted in Australia, and in­deed some of the most re­mark­able items were ei­ther ex­e­cuted over­seas or by artists who spent most of their work­ing lives away. One no­table ex­am­ple is the sheet of por­trait stud­ies of Vin­cent van Gogh by John Peter Rus­sell. En­er­getic and sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful for this of­ten un­re­mark­able artist, the sketches are map­pings of van Gogh’s cra­nial struc­ture — his hair ap­pears to be closely cropped — in prepa­ra­tion for the por­trait which is to­day in the Van Gogh Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam and which Vin­cent him­self de­clared his favourite.

There are sev­eral por­traits by Ru­pert Bunny of his peren­nial sub­ject, his wife Jeanne, but as so of­ten they re­main rather opaque, a beau­ti­ful mask even when, as in the charm­ing wa­ter­colour of her tak­ing tea in the gar­den, she looks straight at the artist.

Hugh Ram­say stands out as al­most al­ways for the en­ergy and flu­id­ity of his paint­ing, both in the self-por­trait stand­ing at the easel, painted while he was still in Europe, and in the fa­mous por­trait of his sis­ters, sit­ting for him in their sump­tu­ous white gowns; they must have known by now that their brother was dy­ing, and the faces are in­vol­un­tar­ily suf­fused with grav­ity.

Ge­orge Lam­bert, his friend — the two sailed to Europe to­gether in 1900 — is rep­re­sented by a cou­ple of works. The first is a draw­ing in pen and wash, a re­minder in its anec­do­tal style of his ca­reer as an il­lus­tra­tor for The Bul­letin. It is the in­te­rior of a Paris cafe, with mu­si­cians play­ing in the back­ground, lightly sketched in. The fore­ground is oc­cu­pied by a group of three fig­ures, pos­si­bly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. A young man and a woman sit lis­ten­ing to a bald-headed fig­ure wear­ing glasses, pre­sum­ably meant to be an in­tel­lec­tual or writer, who ap­pears to be bor­ing them. The young man looks ahead with a some­what glazed ex­pres­sion, while she glances side­ways at her part­ner and reaches un­der the ta­ble to squeeze his hand, whether urg­ing pa­tience or sug­gest­ing a quick get­away is un­cer­tain.

The pos­si­bil­ity that the male fig­ure is a self-por­trait raises the sug­ges­tion that the fe­male one may be mod­elled on Thea Proc­tor. The two were life­long friends and no doubt at least pla­tonic lovers for a time; his early por­traits of her leave lit­tle doubt as to his feel­ings. In fact the most beau­ti­ful and mem­o­rable paint­ing in the ex­hi­bi­tion, giv­ing Thea her full name, is Study for Alethea (1905), in which her tall el­e­gant fig­ure sweeps across the coun­try­side like the god­dess Diana, ac­com­pa­nied by a dog. The dense but rapid han­dling of the paint evokes the ten­sion be­tween chastity and pas­sion that seems to have been her se­cret.

Study for Alethea (1905), a por­trait of his friend Thea Proc­tor by Ge­orge Lam­bert

Tea time (c1898-1902), fea­tur­ing his wife Jeanne, by Ru­pert Bunny

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