The view from THERE
Expatriate painters were a key part of the story of Australian impressionism, writes Miriam Cosic
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.’’