The view from THERE

Ex­pa­tri­ate painters were a key part of the story of Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ism, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

AUS­TRALIAN painter Ru­pert Bunny told a news­pa­per in 1911: ‘‘ Paris is the one place in the world to study for the man who wants to do re­ally good work. Nowhere else does he get the at­mos­phere, the sym­pa­thy, which is in­dis­pens­able to the se­ri­ous stu­dent of paint­ing.’’ Only in Paris, Bunny con­tin­ued, is one ‘‘ in touch with a thou­sand the­o­ries and the­o­rists, with all kinds of move­ments, some pro­found, some merely ec­cen­tric, that make up the his­tory of mod­ern art’’.

The painter had spent the best part of the pre­vi­ous 30 years work­ing in France, and of his tribe he was not alone. Al­most ev­ery Aus­tralian artist of any note at least vis­ited Paris dur­ing the decades of im­pres­sion­ism and early mod­ernism. Many stayed, at­tracted by the at­mos­phere Bunny wrote of, by the sense of be­ing at the cen­tre of the artis­tic world and by the op­por­tu­ni­ties the en­vi­ron­ment af­forded. Am­bi­tious peo­ple in any field crave to go where the ac­tion is; artists in a coun­try Aus­tralia’s size had, in ad­di­tion, few op­por­tu­ni­ties to make a liv­ing at home.

Fred­er­ick McCub­bin was the ex­cep­tion. ‘‘ McCub­bin is the artist who never re­ally goes over­seas, and that is be­cause, in 1886, he gets one of the very few, if not the only, teach­ing jobs in Aus­tralia,’’ says Elena Tay­lor, cu­ra­tor of an ex­hi­bi­tion called Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ists in France, which is about to open at the National Gallery of Vic­to­ria. ‘‘ And he hangs on to that job [at the National Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s School of De­sign] un­til he dies in 1916. He has a se­cure in­come in a way that no other Aus­tralian artist does be­cause, of course, they’re al­ways ap­point­ing for­eign­ers to be the head of the art schools.’’

Tay­lor’s ‘‘ of course’’ is telling. In the pe­riod her show cov­ers — 1885 to 1915 — Aus­tralia’s pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion was alive with na­tion­al­ism. Fed­er­a­tion, the co­her­ent iden­tity de­manded by Aus­tralia’s emer­gence into the world as a uni­fied state, a de­sire to cut the apron strings to ‘‘ mother Eng­land’’, not to men­tion the need to com­pete with other na­tion­alisms, not all of them so pleas­ant, stoked Aus­tralian pa­tri­o­tism.

Our fa­mous cul­tural cringe grew out of the con­flict­ing emo­tions of a new coun­try, its cul­tural her­itage as yet un­de­vel­oped, both ad­mir­ing of and sneer­ing de­fen­sively at the deep-rooted cul­ture of other places. Our point of dif­fer­ence from old, and by im­pli­ca­tion deca­dent, Europe was egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, and a par­tic­u­lar def­i­ni­tion of mas­culin­ity epit­o­mised it. Early on it was the set­tler, the man on the land. Gal­lipoli, that dread­ful mil­i­tary de­ba­cle at the very end of Tay­lor’s pe­riod, would be blown up into the na­tion­al­ist trope by the end of the 20th cen­tury.

Tay­lor’s ‘‘ of course’’ also refers to the fact that de­spite this grow­ing pa­tri­o­tism, top jobs in Aus­tralia — po­lit­i­cal as well as cul­tural — still went to for­eign-born, mostly Bri­tish, men. As a re­sult, ‘‘ over there’’ — whether peo­ple were com­ing from it or go­ing to it — gained an in­tensely neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion as a place of wankers and snobs. Tay­lor re­calls the co­me­dian Barry Humphries say­ing the word ex­pa­tri­ate is used al­most as a term of abuse in this coun­try.

This, to­gether with a deep sus­pi­cion of class and a deeply rooted anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism, made the lives of artists dif­fi­cult enough. To add for­sak­ing the coun­try for ‘‘ over there’’ was to ex­tend treach­ery to our core val­ues to the limit.

None­the­less, artists in search of ed­u­ca­tion, in­spi­ra­tion and work op­por­tu­nites did leave for Europe. Some, like Bunny, John Rus­sell, Emanuel Phillips Fox, Iso Rae and Kath­leen O’Con­nor, stayed. Many came home to die: the women in par­tic­u­lar who, un­like the men, had been un­able to com­bine work and par­ent­hood and needed their ex­tended fam­ily as they grew older and frailer.

Charles Con­der didn’t come home ei­ther, which is in­ter­est­ing be­cause he is such an em­blem­at­i­cally Aus­tralian painter, a key fig­ure, along­side McCub­bin, Tom Roberts and Arthur Stree­ton, of the Hei­del­berg School. Yet, Con­der, who was born in Eng­land, lived in Aus­tralia for only six years: from 1884, when he ar­rived at the age of 17, un­til 1890. Dur­ing that time he made friends with im­por­tant Aus­tralian artists in Syd­ney and Melbourne, and painted, among other things, the fa­mous Melbourne beach scene Hol­i­day at Men­tone. He was also prom­i­nent in the scan­dalous 9 by 5 ex­hi­bi­tion of Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ism held in 1889, which helped ce­ment his rep­u­ta­tion as an Aus­tralian artist. Yet he re­turned to Eng­land pretty soon af­ter that and spent time criss­cross­ing the chan­nel to Paris, where Toulouse-Lautrec sketched the por­trait that de­fines him for us now.

Tay­lor has tack­led a vast, and vastly un­der­re­searched, topic. The show is or­gan­ised in bite-sized chucks, by theme and artist, to make it man­age­able.

The cat­a­logue is full of both ab­sorb­ing de­tail and frus­trat­ing la­cu­nae and con­jec­ture. Much of it is based on one-sided cor­re­spon­dence, such as that be­tween artists John Rus­sell and Tom Roberts. ‘‘ One of the rea­sons we know John Rus­sell so well is that Tom Roberts kept his let­ters,’’ Tay­lor says, ‘‘ and be­cause Tom Roberts is fa­mous, his let­ters ended up in the State Li­brary in Syd­ney.’’

Rus­sell had in­her­ited wealth and lived in France for decades. A bit of a recluse, he set­tled with his beau­ti­ful Ital­ian wife on an is­land off the Bre­ton coast but still man­aged to form close friend­ships with key fig­ures such as Vin­cent van Gogh and Au­guste Rodin. It was Rus­sell who en­cour­aged Henri Matisse to look be­yond the acad­emy to im­pres­sion­ism, while the younger man was vis­it­ing him in Brit­tany.

Rus­sell had 11 chil­dren, six of whom sur­vived, and his daugh­ter left his es­tate to the re­gional mu­seum. His cousin, artist Thea Proc­tor, helped keep his name about in Aus­tralia. It was only in the 1970s, none­the­less, and largely as a re­sult of Ann Gal­bally’s well-re­ceived ex­hi­bi­tion of his work, that Aus­tralian col­lec­tors and mu­se­ums be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate and buy his paint­ings.

When artists are ‘‘ not fa­mous when they die, and they’re not rich, and they have no chil­dren’’, Tay­lor asks, ‘‘ what hap­pens to the works?’’ And how much worse when artists spend most of their ca­reers out of the coun­try?

Take Iso Rae, a favourite of Tay­lor’s though she has laid eyes on only four of the artist’s works. Two of them from the 1890s are in the ex­hi­bi­tion, plus the pho­to­graph of an­other. Rae, who doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia en­try, was born in Melbourne in 1860 and died in Bri­tain in 1940. She lived in France from the 1880s to the 1930s, achiev­ing recog­ni­tion early in Paris, ac­cord­ing to a 1906 mag­a­zine story on Aus­tralian ex­pa­tri­ate artists. She was one of only two Aus­tralians (the other was Con­der) to ex­hibit in the avan­tgarde New Salon in Paris.

De­spite th­ese suc­cesses, knowl­edge of her is sketchy and her story is only touched on in Tay­lor’s cat­a­logue. She fills it out a lit­tle more in con­ver­sa­tion with Re­view. Some­time in the 30s, Rae and her sis­ter, el­derly by then, ended up in Eng­land. She had some sort of ill­ness and her sis­ter looked af­ter her. Nei­ther of them had chil­dren. Both dis­ap­peared from view.

Ear­lier this year, Tay­lor put out a national call for a pic­ture she’d been try­ing to track that she knew from auc­tion records was in Aus­tralia. She had no luck.

‘‘ So even a paint­ing that’s in the coun­try, we couldn’t find it, and there are so few of her works,’’ she says. ‘‘ To re­con­struct Iso Rae at this point is re­ally hard.’’

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