Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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)

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