Land of the Golden Fleece — Arthur Streeton in the Western District Geelong Art Gallery, Victoria, to June 13
It is common in the history of art to read about painters or sculptors who leave their provincial homes and travel to the capital, where they find patronage, a deeper market and the opportunity to achieve greatness. In the early Renaissance, Florence was the effective capital of modern art; later, in the High Renaissance and again in the age of the baroque, it was Rome. In the early 17th century, not only Italians but ambitious young artists from all over Europe travelled to Rome, just as in later centuries they would gravitate to Paris and later New York.
Sometimes there are multiple or alternative capitals, and sometimes there are individuals who are better suited to a secondary centre. And then there are curious cases, such as that of Guercino, who seemed to be following the classic pattern in moving from Bologna to Rome in 1621 and asserting himself as an artist of striking originality, before unexpectedly retreating to Bologna and a highly successful career working in a much less bold manner.
The history of art in Australia presents a number of interesting variations on this theme of movement towards and inspiration by the dynamism of the centre.
In the 19th century, when most of our artists were born in various parts of Europe, all of them became more important here than they had been at home before their migration and indeed — for those who went back — even after their return. The explanation for this curious inversion of the usual pattern is probably that they were not leading figures in the centre in the first place, and that the periphery offered them both more chances for patronage and greater aesthetic stimulus: for it was not just that they were bigger fish in a small pond, but that they actually produced stronger and more distinguished work in this country.
The case of our most significant painters a century and more ago — the successors to the colonial painters just mentioned — is equally curious. They established themselves as powerful and original artists at the end of our history as a collection of colonies and just before Federation turned us into a nation. Then, just at this crucial moment, when one might have expected the new commonwealth to offer them greater opportunities, they left to try their fortunes in London, the metropolitan centre of the empire.
None of them made a real mark in London. This was partly because the competition was much greater: they might be recognised as respectable practitioners of the art of painting — at a time when such standards were more universally acknowledged — but they had no chance of assuming a leading position within a broader British school of painting. It was only towards the end of the 20th century that Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd or Russell Drysdale came to be considered important figures within such an extended view of British art.
More deeply, they were disconnected from the source of their inspiration, which was not only the Australian landscape but also the cultural milieu of a society coming to terms with that landscape and with the reality of building a home and a nation in this new land. That is why the bright light, the high-keyed palette and the native flora, especially the gum trees, assumed such importance: they were all markers of something more subtle and invisible, the relationship with the Australian environment.
So it was not just bright sunlight they missed in London: it was also the community that had been their audience and virtual interlocutor in Australia. They had nothing to say to the British public, and that public had nothing to say to them; and that was disastrous, for great art always emerges from a vital imaginative relationship with the artist’s community. It is no surprise Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton suffered much more in this regard than such artists as George Lambert — or Rupert Bunny and others in Paris — whose inspiration was more international and less specifically Australian.
The consequences of this paradoxical and inverted exile in the metropolitan centre were poignantly revealed in the recent Roberts exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. They were not quite so dramatic for Streeton, but still resulted in a strangely fragmented career, in which his most significant work was painted in his earliest years, before a time in London punctuated by visits to Venice and other painterly sites, a stint as a war artist and then a late period after his return to Australia.
Streeton’s work as a war artist in 1918 has been a prominent part of several exhibitions commemorating the centenary of the Great War, and as we have seen in reviews of those exhibitions, he was able to find a new kind of inspiration in painting landscapes that had been the scene of important and bloody battles a few months earlier.
In 1920, Streeton returned to Australia, and the landscapes he painted here in the 20s and 30s, so much less familiar to the general public than those of the 1880s and 90s, are the subject of an exhibition at Geelong Gallery. This is also the last to be mounted under the aegis of the gallery’s long-serving and respected director Geoffrey Edwards, among whose acquisitions for the gallery are Eugene Von Guerard’s View of Geelong (1856) and Streeton’s Ocean Blue, Lorne (1921), which is included in the present exhibition.
The first works we encounter could hardly be more different from the pictures we usually associate with Streeton’s name, those images of bright blue skies and yellowy brown grass or earth bleached almost the colour of bone by the midday sun, as in Oncoming Storm (1895). These
Land of the Golden Fleece (1926)