Art for a new country
The reinvention of Impressionism by a small group of artists helped to define Australia’s distinct character and national identity, says Matthew Sturgis
It’s not my idea of a landscape,’ a Melbourne gallerygoer informed the 33- yearold Australian artist tom Roberts in 1889. What they wanted, it turned out, was a conventionally ‘Old World’ bucolic scene: ‘a reedy brook with a few trees overhanging it, and a strong sky’. ‘Well,’ said Roberts, ‘it’s just that kind of picture you don’t get here—and we are the better for the change.’
It was a change effected, very largely, by Roberts himself, together with his young disciples Arthur streeton and Charles Conder. Its manifestations are the subject of the excellent small exhibition at the National Gallery. ‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together some 40 pictures by these artists: images— beautiful and unfamiliar to a British audience—of sydney Harbour and the Dandenong Ranges, of churning seas and stampeding sheep. there is not a reedy brook in sight.
the show is part of the National Gallery’s fascinating series examining the adoption— and adaptation—of innovatory artistic ideas as they spread from the cultural centres of 19thcentury Europe to the far corners of the globe: America, scandinavia and, now, Australia.
‘Impressionism’ was the great new excitement of the late-19thcentury art world, challenging the conventional orthodoxies of the salon and the Academy. Although, nowadays, the word has become associated largely with the bright hues and broken brushwork of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and their immediate French confrères, throughout the period itself, the term remained a broad one.
It was deemed to stand in opposition to everything from the old painterly virtues of ‘high finish’ and minute detail to the demands of narrative and didactic moral purpose. It sought new subject matter—in the modern metropolis and the unexpected view—and it borrowed bold aesthetic ideas from other cultures, most notably Japan.
the ‘Impressionism’ that tom Roberts encountered as a young art student in London in the early 1880s was the ‘Impressionism’
Tom Roberts conjures up the urban bustle of a dusty Melbourne street in Allegro con Brio, Bourke Street West (about 1885–6)