The most im­por­tant in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tion of Aus­tralian art in 50 years will at­tempt to dis­til our national story in just 200 works, Paola To­taro writes from Lon­don

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The first terra’s, lawns and grot­tos, with dis­tinct plan­ta­tions of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any no­ble­man’s grounds in Eng­land, can­not ex­cel in beauty those w’h na­ture now pre­sented to our view. The singing of the var­i­ous birds amongst the trees, and the flight of the nu­mer­ous par­ra­quets, lor­re­quets and cock­a­toos and macaws, make all around ap­pear like in en­chant­ment; the stu­pen­dous rocks from the sum­mit of the hills and down to the wa­ter’s edge hang­ing over in a most aw­ful man­ner from above, and form’g the most com­modi­ous quays by the wa­ter beg­gar’d all de­scrip­tion.

THE ex­cite­ment and won­der ex­pressed in the Jan­uary 26, 1788, diary en­try of Arthur Bowes Smyth, sur­geon of the con­vict trans­port ship Lady Pen­rhyn, is as pal­pa­ble to­day as the mo­ment his eyes fell for the first time on Port Jack­son, be­fore an­chor­ing in Syd­ney Cove.

The young sur­geon’s mar­vel, ex­pressed elo­quently by com­par­ing the fa­mil­iar — the art of English land­scaped gar­dens — with the sav­age, pris­tine beauty of the NSW coast­line be­came what Bernard Smith, the great Aus­tralian art his­to­rian and critic, iden­ti­fied as the ‘‘ dom­i­nant stereo­type’’ that has shaped and de­ter­mined Bri­tish at­ti­tudes, not only to na­ture but Aus­tralian art and cul­ture as well.

Land­scape — and the cul­ture-na­ture con­trast de­fined by Smith — re­mains a peren­nial font of ne­go­ti­a­tion and re­flec­tion on Aus­tralian iden­tity: from the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with the land of the con­ti­nent’s in­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants, to the ear­li­est con­vict and colo­nial artists send­ing back im­ages of unimag­in­able flora and fauna, to the ex­plor­ers and pi­o­neers who pushed in­wards to ‘‘ tame’’ the wilder­ness, cre­ate pas­ture and forge cities.

In the early art (and lit­er­a­ture) of the na­tion post-First Fleet came awe, pas­sion­ate cu­rios­ity and en­chant­ment but also a deep strain of nos­tal­gia and melan­choly for Europe that col­lided with the set­tlers’ sense of dis­il­lu­sion­ment as the re­al­ity of Aus­tralia’s harsh land and cruel sea­sons sank in.

Through­out the 19th cen­tury, how­ever, artists started to ex­ploit the pass­ing of time and dis­tance, be­gin­ning the shift away from Euro­pean tra­di­tions and artis­tic canons and em­brac­ing the freedom to forge and shape artis­tic iden­ti­ties of their own.

In Septem­ber, this rich, vast and con­tin­u­ing story of Aus­tralian art and its in­ex­tri­ca­ble links with the land­scape will go on show at the Royal Acad­emy in Lon­don. Ti­tled sim­ply Aus­tralia, the ex­hi­bi­tion rep­re­sents the most com­plete sur­vey of art pro­duced on the Aus­tralian con­ti­nent in the two cen­turies from 1800 to 2013.

In a 21st-cen­tury echo of Bowes Smyth’s diary en­try, the acad­emy’s in­tro­duc­tory notes for the show also en­thu­si­as­ti­cally spot­light the in­flu­ence of an ‘‘ an­cient land of dra­matic beauty, a source of pro­duc­tion, en­joy­ment, re­lax­ation and in­spi­ra­tion, yet seem­ingly loaded with mys­tery and dan­ger’’.

Kath­leen So­ri­ano, the acad­emy’s di­rec­tor of exhibitions, says Aus­tralia has been sev­eral years in the mak­ing, a pro­fes­sional jour­ney she says opened her eyes not just to the dis­tinc­tive­ness of the land­scape but ‘‘ the com­plex­ity of its in­dige­nous and colo­nial his­tory, the ex­tremes of its na­ture and, above all, the power of the art that has been cre­ated around it’’.

The last im­por­tant exhibitions of Aus­tralian art in Bri­tain opened more than 50 years ago, at the Whitechapel (cu­rated by Bryan Robert­son) and Tate gal­leries in the early 1960s. Both fo­cused on the con­tem­po­rary art of their day and the Tate show at­tracted con­tro­versy. Be­fore that came the Royal Acad­emy’s 1923 ex­hi­bi­tion but, again, this con­cen­trated on Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary works of the pe­riod. Even then, the acad­emy’s cat­a­logue rec­om­mended that ‘‘ it is to land­scape that we must look for what­ever is fresh and orig­i­nal in Aus­tralian art’’.

‘‘ So 100 years on this sur­vey is long, long over­due,’’ So­ri­ano tells Re­view. ‘‘ Bri­tain should get to know more of the im­por­tant Aus­tralian artis­tic fig­ures as part of its broader art his­tor­i­cal canon, not least of all be­cause so much of it re­lates di­rectly back to this coun­try, but even more so be­cause there are some tremen­dous artists we should be aware of, that we should be able to en­joy.’’

Charles Sau­marez Smith, an art his­to­rian who is the acad­emy’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, puts it rather more bluntly: ‘‘ Peo­ple in this coun­try have been his­tor­i­cally, shame­fully ig­no­rant of Aus­tralian art . . . this will be, for ev­ery­one [in Bri­tain] a great rev­e­la­tion.’’ A NA­TION’S art, as his­tory has shown, re­veals much about its peo­ple, how they see them­selves and how they wish to be un­der­stood by the world. Paint­ing, sculp­ture, ar­chi­tec­ture, mu­sic, dance, po­etry, film and tele­vi­sion al­low na­tions to strut their char­ac­ters, re­veal the past and hint at national de­sire and des­tiny. Aus­tralia may aim to open Bri­tish eyes to the rich artis­tic panoply of a now proud and in­de­pen­dent for­mer colony but will the 200


works cho­sen by its cu­ra­tors and the way they are dis­played fit with Aus­tralia’s view of it­self?

So­ri­ano stresses her cu­ra­to­rial de­ci­sions are col­lab­o­ra­tive, de­scrib­ing Ron Rad­ford, di­rec­tor of the National Gallery of Aus­tralia, and Anna Gray, head of post-1920 Aus­tralian paint­ing at the NGA, as her ‘‘ spirit guides’’.

‘‘ They pa­tiently and gen­er­ously al­lowed me to look, un­prompted, to di­gest and to pro­nounce while care­fully sup­port­ing and chal­leng­ing, oc­ca­sion­ally teas­ing me, in the se­lec­tion of artists in this ex­hi­bi­tion.’’

The ini­tial list, col­lated dur­ing sev­eral vis­its to Aus­tralia, con­tained 400 works. This grad­u­ally was whit­tled down by half. Dis­cus­sion was lively, So­ri­ano says: ‘‘ Of course there are cer­tain pas­sions that run stronger in each of us than they do in oth­ers but you will ex­pect that in any ex­hi­bi­tion where you have more than one cu­ra­tor.’’

Sig­nif­i­cantly, how­ever, nei­ther the Bri­tish nor Aus­tralian side will pro­vide the de­fin­i­tive list of works to be hung un­til the morn­ing of the open­ing. So­ri­ano in­sists the list is closed and her ret­i­cence is be­cause she doesn’t want to be drawn into the ‘‘ old who’s in, who’s out’’ dis­cus­sion. This also could sug­gest that there is still ne­go­ti­a­tion about ex­actly how the Aus­tralian story should be told. Re­view has been able to pin down some artists and works that are ex­pected to be in the show (see box) and can also re­veal that author Tom Ke­neally will write an es­say for the cat­a­logue.

It is un­der­stood in its ear­li­est in­car­na­tions the acad­emy’s plan was for the ex­hi­bi­tion to be called Land, with scene-set­ting and more lit­eral de­pic­tions of Aus­tralia’s dis­tinc­tive flora, fauna and to­pog­ra­phy ex­press­ing ‘‘ Aus­tralian-ness’’. Hung loosely in schools, paint­ings, prints, draw­ings, wa­ter­colours, pho­to­graphs and mul­ti­me­dia works would tell the story of the de­vel­op­ment of Aus­tralian art his­tory, with its ref­er­ences to Europe, the US and Asia. The big theme was land­scape, supremely dom­i­nant over chronol­ogy.

So­ri­ano says while the ex­hi­bi­tion now will be­gin with a ‘‘ grand dis­play’’ of re­cent in­dige­nous paint­ing, it is to be in­stalled largely chrono­log­i­cally to en­sure art-his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments of in­dige­nous and non-in­dige­nous art through time can be clearly un­der­stood. This also will al­low the map­ping of pe­ri­ods of rapid and in­tense change, from the im­pact of the first set­tlers and coloni­sa­tion on the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple through to the pi­o­neer­ing na­tion­build­ing of the 19th cen­tury and the en­ter­pris­ing ur­ban­i­sa­tion of the past cen­tury.

So will the big theme, land­scape, be dom­i­nant over chronol­ogy and schools in the fi­nal hang? ‘‘ I’m loath to comment on that at the mo­ment, to be hon­est,’’ So­ri­ano says. ‘‘ If I start to de­scribe the in­stal­la­tion too much it will take away some of the key mo­ments.’’

And what of ru­mours that dis­cus­sion among cu­ra­tors has not been just about em­phases, the­matic and chrono­log­i­cal, but also what this would mean for in­dige­nous works: do they ap­pear sep­a­rate from the rest of the national art-his­tor­i­cal canon?

‘‘ The Abo­rig­i­nal art is mixed and not mixed at vary­ing points . . . that is the an­swer to the ques­tion the Aus­tralian au­di­ence will want an an­swer to,’’ So­ri­ano says rather cryp­ti­cally. RO­BUST talk and even dis­agree­ment about how best to cu­rate a national ex­hi­bi­tion or ret­ro­spec­tive out­side the coun­try is to be ex­pected, but even more so when the re­la­tion­ship be­tween host and the ex­hibit­ing na­tion is as com­plex, and im­bued with post-colo­nial sen­si­tiv­i­ties, as that be­tween Bri­tain and Aus­tralia. This gen­tle ten­sion was ev­i­dent last year in an ex­change be­tween So­ri­ano and Rad­ford when The Guardian news­pa­per first re­ported the acad­emy’s plans.

Asked if it was fair to say that if aver­age Bri­tons were asked to name an Aus­tralian artist they would strug­gle to name any­one be­yond Rolf Har­ris, So­ri­ano agreed: ‘‘ Peo­ple who know con­tem­po­rary art might say Shaun Glad­well, but no, I don’t think they would.’’

Rad­ford replied: ‘‘ That doesn’t mat­ter. A lot of Aus­tralians don’t know much about Bri­tish art but they do know a lot about their own art, that’s some­thing that’s changed in the last 50 years. Aus­tralians are quite pas­sion­ate about their own art.’’

In fact, 50 years ago, when the pre­vi­ous sig­nif­i­cant Aus­tralian art exhibitions in Lon­don were be­ing planned, there was less 2013-style learned and po­lite de­bate among friendly cu­ra­tors and much fe­ro­cious, be­hind-thescenes ar­gu­ment be­tween the govern­ment of the day, led by Robert Men­zies, and Aus­tralia’s cu­ra­to­rial and artis­tic cognoscenti.

Re­search by his­to­ri­ans, among them Stu­art Ward, a spe­cial­ist in im­pe­rial his­tory now at the Univer­sity of Copen­hagen, and Aus­tralian art his­to­rian Sarah Scott has pro­vided in­sights into the im­age of the na­tion that Men­zies, act­ing through the Com­mon­wealth Arts Ad­vi­sory Board, de­cided he wanted to pro­mote to the out­side world, par­tic­u­larly in Bri­tain.

The Tate show — and the paint­ings the board se­lected, shut­ting out lead­ing cu­ra­tors in Aus­tralia and Lon­don — were used to com­mu­ni­cate Men­zies’ at­tach­ment to the con­cept of Com­mon­wealth and his be­lief that tra­di­tional links be­tween Aus­tralia and Bri­tain should be main­tained and strength­ened.

Im­plicit too in the deeply tra­di­tional and ‘‘ pic­turesque’’ aes­thetic choices was Men­zies’ de­sire to seize the op­por­tu­nity to en­tice Bri­tish mi­grants to Aus­tralia, de­pict­ing the na­tion in a dy­namic and at­trac­tive light.

Prepa­ra­tions for the Tate show un­folded as Lon­don had be­come home to a lively ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity of Aus­tralian artists. Many had ar­rived with trav­el­ling schol­ar­ships, ex­cited to live and work in the Bri­tish cap­i­tal with their young fam­i­lies.

It was the late 50s and 60s and Sid­ney Nolan had al­ready had a great suc­cess in 1957 at the Whitechapel Gallery. In the years that fol­lowed, a loose-knit group of friends and as­so­ciates co­a­lesced to work — and play — around High­gate and Hamp­stead in north Lon­don and Lad­broke Grove near Not­ting Hill. The group, which in­cluded Nolan, Rus­sell Drys­dale, Charles Black­man, Arthur Boyd and Lawrence Daws as well as ac­tors and writ­ers such as Barry Humphries and, a lit­tle later, Clive James, were at­tracted by a Lon­don emerg­ing from its post-war tedium and start­ing to look out to the rest of the world.

Si­mon Pierse, of Aberys­t­wyth Univer­sity in Wales, a spe­cial­ist in post-war Aus­tralian paint­ing and Bri­tish per­cep­tions of Aus­tralian art doc­u­ments, paints a vivid pic­ture of this pe­riod of art his­tory when Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary paint­ing was reach­ing the height of pop­u­lar­ity in Lon­don. The artists’ com­pany was sought af­ter, seen as a breath of fresh air, and they min­gled happily with a wide mix of Lon­don so­ci­ety, drink­ing with fel­low Brit artists in lo­cal pubs and bars as well as re­ceiv­ing pa­tron­age and in­vi­ta­tions to aris­to­cratic soirees in May­fair.

In a chap­ter ti­tled Aus­tralian Artists in Lon­don: The Early 1960s (in Aus­tralians in Bri­tain: The Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tury Ex­pe­ri­ence, edited by Carl Bridge, Monash Univer­sity Press, 2009), Pierse writes that as a group they en­joyed an un­usual de­gree of im­mu­nity from the Bri­tish struc­tures of class when the na­tion was look­ing to its for­mer colonies for new vigour and a fresh ap­proach:

. . . the Aus­tralians were more than sim­ply an amuse­ment for aris­toc­racy. While they were in a so­cial po­si­tion roughly equiv­a­lent to Bri­tish work­ing class or, as one ex­pa­tri­ate artist put it, ‘‘ like the Scots or the Ir­ish . . . out­side the pale, but rather charm­ing in an odd sort of way’’, a cer­tain de­gree of way­ward­ness and un­con­ven­tion­al­ity was ac­cepted sim­ply be­cause they were artists. Added to this was their sta­tus as rough­di­a­mond ‘‘ colo­nials’’ who were ex­pected to break all rules and con­ven­tions. As part of a broader pic­ture of chang­ing at­ti­tudes to­wards the Com­mon­wealth, a di­rect­ness and sim­plic­ity of ap­proach was in­dulged — even wel­comed — from the peo­ple of Bri­tain’s for­mer colonies.

Ti­tled Aus­tralian Paint­ing: Colo­nial, Im­pres­sion­ist, Con­tem­po­rary, the Tate show’s first in­car­na­tion would be given an ear­lier out­ing at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val of Arts in 1962 as An­tipodean Vi­sion.

While the con­tro­versy was widely re­ported in Bri­tain and Aus­tralia at the time, the re­lease of sig­nif­i­cant govern­ment pa­pers in the wake of the 30-year rule has al­lowed the po­lit­i­cal tus­sle over the show to be scru­ti­nised and re­searched by Aus­tralian art his­to­ri­ans, in­clud­ing Sarah Scott of the Univer­sity of Melbourne.

Scott ar­gues that de­spite the strong links be­tween the na­tions and re­cep­tive­ness to Aus­tralian art in Lon­don, Men­zies’ vi­sion for the Tate show was per­ceived by many as flawed from the out­set. She writes in Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Aus­tralia and the World (Monash Univer­sity Press, 2008):

The CAAB’s de­ci­sions not to in­clude Abo­rig­i­nal art, limit the medium of the art­works to oil paint­ings, favour paint­ings with Aus­tralian nar­ra­tive sub­ject mat­ter, and to in­clude a size­able sec­tion of colo­nial and im­pres­sion­ist works along­side con­tem­po­rary ones were all part of Men­zies’ at­tempt to present the Bri­tish pub­lic with a ‘ pos­i­tive’ im­age of na­tion.

This caused mas­sive dis­putes be­tween the CAAB, the Tate Gallery au­thor­i­ties, the Aus­tralian Con­tem­po­rary Art So­ci­ety and the pro­gres­sive state gallery di­rec­tors Eric West­brook and Hal Miss­ing­ham. At is­sue was the ques­tion: Who should have the right to de­cide the ex­ter­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Aus­tralian na­tion through art exhibitions?

Scott be­lieves the Tate show ‘‘ was at best a par­tial suc­cess’’, for its orig­i­nal role as an of­fi­cial show­case of an in­de­pen­dent and ever more pros­per­ous Aus­tralia also served to pro­mote im­pe­rial ties to Bri­tain when in­ter­est in the con­cept of a ‘‘ New Com­mon­wealth’’ was di­min­ish­ing. This am­biva­lence, she ar­gues, was re­flected also in the luke­warm crit­i­cal re­sponses to the ex­hi­bi­tion in Bri­tain.

So­ri­ano says: ‘‘ It’s rather dif­fer­ent when you are work­ing with art span­ning 200 years . . . no, I don’t think I’m go­ing to like be­ing me come Septem­ber . . . oh, all crit­i­cism is good crit­i­cism!’’ A HALF cen­tury has passed and the world and Aus­tralia’s re­la­tion­ships with it have changed dra­mat­i­cally. While no­tions of ‘‘ Aus­tralian­ness’’ mean some­thing very dif­fer­ent to­day than they did in 1963, an in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion to se­lect the very best and most ex­pres­sive works of the past 200 years re­mains a dif­fi­cult aes­thetic and diplo­matic feat.

The per­son­al­i­ties and pol­i­tics may well have changed but there is lit­tle doubt that when Aus­tralia opens on Septem­ber 21 it will not only define a new chap­ter in an­tipodean art his­tory but open a win­dow into 21st-cen­tury national con­sid­er­a­tions as well.

Al­bert Na­matjira in about 1956; be­low,

Brett White­ley

Paola To­taro

THE fol­low­ing artists and art­works are ex­pected to be in the Aus­tralia ex­hi­bi­tion:

Abo­rig­i­nal artists: Al­bert Na­matjira (1902-59); Rover Thomas (c.1926-98); Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye (1910-96); a num­ber of artists from the Pa­punya Tula group of the Western Desert.

19th-cen­tury Euro­pean im­mi­grants: John Glover (1767-1849); Eu­gene von Guer­ard (1811-1901). Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ists (mythol­ogy of the Aus­tralian bush): Arthur Stree­ton (1867-1943); Tom Roberts (1856-1931); Charles Con­der (1868-1909); Fred­er­ick McCub­bin (1855-1917).

Early modernists: Mar­garet Pre­ston (1875-1963); Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984); Roy de Maistre (1894-1968). Grouped with lead­ing 20th-cen­tury painters: Arthur Boyd (1920-99); Al­bert Tucker (1914-99); Ros­alie Gas­coigne (1917-99); Fred Wil­liams (1927-82); Sid­ney Nolan (1917-92); Brett White­ley (1939-92). 21st-cen­tury in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised

artists: Bill Hen­son (b.1955); Gor­don Ben­nett (b.1955); Tracey Mof­fatt (b.1960); Fiona Hall (b.1953); Shaun Glad­well (b.1972); Chris­tian Thomp­son (b.1978); Sim­ryn Gill (b.1959) (will rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at the Venice Bi­en­nale).

Paint­ings: The Pi­o­neer (1904) by McCub­bin, National Gallery of Vic­to­ria; four paint­ings from Nolan’s Ned Kelly se­ries (1946), National Gallery of Aus­tralia; Cy­clone Tracy (1991) by Thomas, NGA; Big Yam Dream­ing (1995) by Kng­war­r­eye, NGV.

Video: Ap­proach to Mundi Mundi (2007) by Glad­well, Art Gallery of NSW, John Kal­dor Fam­ily Col­lec­tion.

Sculp­ture: Judy Wat­son has been com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a new sculp­ture for the Royal Acad­emy’s An­nen­berg Court­yard, which will res­onate with the themes of the ex­hi­bi­tion and with the con­text of its Bri­tish set­ting.

Top, The Pi­o­neer (1904) by Fred­er­ick McCub­bin; above, Ned

Kelly (1946) by Sid­ney Nolan

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