THEY ASSIMILATE A MULTIPLICITY OF INFLUENCES
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,
(1912) by E. Phillips Fox; above,
(1912) by Frances Hodgkins