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

Aus­tralian Im­pres­sion­ists in France National Gallery of Vic­to­ria (Ian Pot­ter Cen­tre), Melbourne, to Oc­to­ber 6

HEI­DEL­BERG is an an­cient Ger­man univer­sity town, but also be­came the name of a lo­cal­ity on the fringes of Melbourne where Tom Roberts, Fred­er­ick McCub­bin and oth­ers be­gan to paint the Aus­tralian bush. Col­lec­tively, as the first self-con­scious artis­tic group of artists in our his­tory, they came to be known as the Hei­del­berg school. In 1889, they held the first show by a group of con­tem­po­rary artists in Aus­tralia, The 9 by 5

Im­pres­sion Ex­hi­bi­tion, its ti­tle drawn from the size of the cigar box lids they used as panels for lit­tle oil sketches.

The in­clu­sion of the word ‘‘ im­pres­sion’’ has more re­cently sug­gested the name Aus­tralian im­pres­sion­ism, al­though in re­al­ity any­one can see that Roberts, Arthur Stree­ton and early McCub­bin have very lit­tle in com­mon with Monet and the other French ex­po­nents of the style, who were above all con­cerned with cap­tur­ing the mo­men­tary, sub­jec­tive ap­pear­ance of na­ture, find­ing au­then­tic­ity in ephemeral ef­fects of light or chang­ing weather con­di­tions. This was the quest that even­tu­ally led Monet to paint­ing se­ries of pic­tures, like the Haystacks, at dif­fer­ent times of the day when the light came from par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tions, had a spe­cific tem­per­a­ture, and pro­duced dif­fer­ent com­ple­men­tary ef­fects in the dark ar­eas and cast shad­ows.

None of this was of pri­mary in­ter­est to Roberts and Stree­ton, who were seek­ing to rep­re­sent some­thing more gen­eral yet more lo­cal, the dis­tinc­tive qual­i­ties of the Aus­tralian en­vi­ron­ment — the land, trees and above all the light. They were also deeply con­cerned with the fun­da­men­tal Aus­tralian ques­tion of in­hab­it­ing a new land, so that build­ing, ru­ral ac­tiv­ity and im­ages of work are all im­por­tant themes. Purely op­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are never pri­mary, and even when Stree­ton paints sev­eral mid­day pic­tures evok­ing the bleach­ing glare of sum­mer sun­light, this is less about the per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of a mo­ment than about the gen­er­ally Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in a harsh en­vi­ron­ment.

The style of the Hei­del­berg painters has its roots in ear­lier plein-air and re­al­ist paint­ing, up­dated with the aes­theti­cism of James Ab­bott Mc­Neill Whistler, from whom they draw pas­sages of misty in­de­ter­mi­nacy and wispy fore­ground dec­o­ra­tive twigs and leaves. And just as the style of Eu­gene von Guer­ard is fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from that of Amer­i­can 19th-cen­tury painters of the sub­lime such as Fred­eric Church, the Hei­del­berg painters are quite dis­tinct from the con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can im­pres­sion­ists who worked in France and were mostly mi­nor im­i­ta­tors of the French.

But Aus­tralia did have other painters who spent time in France and were di­rectly in­flu­enced by the French move­ment and who, for that rea­son, stand apart from the style of Roberts and Stree­ton. For a long time the most con­spic­u­ous ex­am­ple was Emanuel Phillips Fox, who was in Europe from 1887 to 1892 and con­se­quently ab­sent from Aus­tralia dur­ing the most im­por­tant years of the Hei­del­berg move­ment. More re­cently we have re­dis­cov­ered John Peter Rus­sell, who left even ear­lier in 1880, and al­though per­son­ally ac­quainted with Monet, van Gogh and Rodin, re­mained al­most for­got­ten in his home­land un­til the last quar­ter of the 20th cen­tury.

The ques­tion of Aus­tralian ex­pa­tri­ate artists is broader still, and in­cludes im­por­tant Ed­war­dian fig­ures who were ei­ther not at all or not pri­mar­ily drawn to im­pres­sion­ism, such as Ge­orge Lam­bert, Hugh Ram­say and Ru­pert Bunny, and some more mi­nor but in­trigu­ing fig­ures such as Agnes Good­sir, who lived and died in Paris. Be­tween the wars and af­ter World War II again we find ex­am­ples of tem­po­rary ex­pa­tri­a­tion fol­lowed by a re­turn and, more rarely, of per­ma­nent de­par­ture.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, the pat­tern of ex­pa­tri­a­tion is sim­ply the mir­ror of the colo­nial pat­tern of the im­mi­grant artist, from John Glover to Louis Bu­velot — the artist who comes al­ready trained to this coun­try and finds here new in­spi­ra­tion. When, on the other hand, we be­gan to pro­duce na­tive-born artists, it was log­i­cal for them to seek op­por­tu­ni­ties in Europe. Had Aus­tralia been founded ear­lier, our painters would have pur­sued their stud­ies, like the Amer­i­can Ben­jamin West, in Rome, cap­i­tal of art ed­u­ca­tion for three cen­turies by his time. A hun­dred years later, how­ever, Paris had taken the place of Rome as the cen­tre of art train­ing and con­tem­po­rary art.

The point is made ef­fec­tively at the be­gin­ning of an out­stand­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the National Gallery of Vic­to­ria de­voted to those Aus­tralian artists who worked in France and were to a greater or lesser ex­tent in­flu­enced by the French im­pres­sion­ists. There is a won­der­ful oil sketch by Wal­ter With­ers of life draw­ing at the Acade´mie Ju­lian about 1887, which cap­tures the ex­cite­ment and con­cen­tra­tion of stu­dents as they gather around the model, who in­ci­den­tally is fe­male; at the NGV school at the time only male mod­els were per­mit­ted. Both this and an­other oil sketch by Ge­orge Pitt Mori­son show mod­els us­ing sup­ports to hold the long poses nec­es­sary for highly re­solved draw­ings such as his beau­ti­ful nude seen from be­hind and rest­ing on a chair.

We get vivid glimpses of the lives of the art stu­dents and ex­pa­tri­ate artists in Paris, from the academies to the stu­dios and the bars, night­clubs and theatres they fre­quented. Charles Con­der is prom­i­nent in such scenes, drunk and hang­ing on to a lamp­post in a draw­ing by Wil­liam Rothen­stein or ac­com­pa­ny­ing Jane Avril to the theatre in a litho­graph by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. And there is a small paint­ing by Con­der of the same sort of scene rep­re­sented in Lautrec’s great poster of the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue danc­ing in the cen­tre of a large room, sur­rounded by a crowd of gen­tle­men all stand­ing on the same level. Con­der’s im­age is less dra­matic and vis­ually mem­o­rable, but per­haps more faith­fully con­veys the con­fined space of the cabaret.

Paris it­self, ‘‘ the cap­i­tal of the 19th cen­tury’’, ac­cord­ing to Wal­ter Ben­jamin, is the sub­ject of sev­eral cityscapes, in­clud­ing two pic­tures of the city in the snow by Am­brose Pat­ter­son and Hans Hey­sen. Pat­ter­son is more di­rectly im­i­tat­ing Camille Pis­sarro, whose view of the Boule­vard Mont­martre hangs ad­ja­cent for com­par­i­son, and al­though his pic­ture is full of charm­ing de­tails, it re­mains anec­do­tal. Hey­sen’s su­pe­rior qual­i­ties as an artist are ev­i­dent in his fo­cus on the es­sen­tial: it is the bright sun­light fall­ing on the snow in an empty street that evokes the sharp dry cold of win­ter.

Th­ese months were spent in Paris, in life class or the stu­dio, but sum­mer was the time for es­cap­ing to the coun­try and paint­ing land­scape out­doors. Nor­mandy and Bri­tanny were favourite spots, since im­pres­sion­ism, even in sum­mer, was a style of the north, of mists and sub­dued light. Rus­sell even bought a piece of land at Belle-Ile off Bri­tanny and built a house there, where he lived with his Ital­ian wife un­til her death in 1908.

It is in the land­scapes that we see most di­rectly the re­sponse of th­ese artists to im­pres­sion­ism, al­though part of the in­ter­est of the ex­hi­bi­tion is to re­veal that this was far from a straight­for­ward mat­ter, and that most of th­ese painters are re­ally as­sim­i­lat­ing a mul­ti­plic­ity of stylis­tic in­flu­ences, with­out al­ways find­ing a co­her­ent syn­the­sis. An early work by Mori­son, for ex­am­ple, Chailly (1891), com­bines ele­ments of the Bar­bizon school, early and late Corot, touches of im­pres­sion­ism and,

The Bathers At the Win­dow


(1912) by E. Phillips Fox; above,

(1912) by Frances Hodgkins

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