May 2007

Arts & Letters

‘Australian Impressionism’, Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

By Justin Clemens

This is an impressive corporate exercise, bringing together more than 240 works from the heroic era of Australian art, from an unprecedented range of galleries and private collections. The stars are among the most celebrated painters in the nation's history: Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and Jane Sutherland. With their enthusiasm for the fin-de-siècle Zeitgeist, they managed to impose a myth of Australian life that lingers today, encompassing hard-working swagmen and bushrangers as well as the aggressive pursuit of bourgeois leisure.

The NGV is pushing the phrase "Australian impressionism" as the best way to sum up these works (as opposed to "the Heidelberg School" or, even more accurately, "the Box Hill School"). But as one critic growled to me while we wandered through the show, "It's not impressionism; it's naturalism." Many of the pieces are timid and derivative, their techniques stilted and watered-down adaptations of European models, their content overwhelmingly geared to supporting the Imperial experiment of creating a new Britannia. It's striking how sentimentally Victorian these putative avant-gardists were: the portraits of men straining for parochial respectability, the glistening Pears Soap faces of children, the gentlefolk in hats and suits perambulating along Mentone Beach. The celebrated 9 x 5 Impressionism Exhibition of 1889, which involved many of the artists represented here, wasn't so much an example of aesthetic bomb-lobbing as a tea party for social climbers.

Apart from representing idealised selves, these artists offered vaselined takes on the hardship of others: bush burials, sheep shearing, railroad fires. Yet even the most jaundiced eye can still be shocked by the intensity of some of these paintings, their revelatory details and unexpected stylistic developments. Pre-Federation Australia, with its vast infrastructure projects, urban growth and massive immigration - not to mention around a hundred million sheep - was surging with extraordinary social energies. And when depictions of these hit the canvas, you can't help but take notice.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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