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.

Cover: May 2007

May 2007

From the front page

Hanson family values

The family law inquiry is shaping up to be an exercise in bad faith

Illustration

Spiralling admissions

Victoria’s royal commission hears stories of a dysfunctional, under-resourced mental health system

Image of ‘Sachiko’ my Miwa Yanagi

‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Illustration

The Newcastle trial of Graeme Lawrence

The second most senior churchman in Australia to be found guilty of child sexual abuse


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Harry Chauvel & TE Lawrence

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Storm spotters

‘The Cleft’ By Doris Lessing

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Out of Africa


More in Noted

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

Image of ‘The Godmother’

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre

A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word

Image from ‘Lambs of God’

‘Lambs of God’

Director Jeffrey Walker blends ripe melodrama and Gothic thriller in his TV series about three wayward nuns

Cover of ‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

‘The White Girl’ by Tony Birch

An emotionally eloquent novel about the necessary inheritance of strength in Indigenous women


More in Art

Photo of Leonard French underneath his stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Leonard French’s Balzacian life

Reg MacDonald’s biography may return this Australian artist to the national imagination

Image of Mike Parr, Underneath the Bitumen the Artist

Mike Parr’s invisible performance and Tasmania’s complex past

Underneath the bitumen in Hobart, history becomes art

Image of Khvay Samnang, Human Nature, 2010–11,

The 21st Biennale of Sydney

This latest edition offers a contemporary take on elemental balance

Installation view of Mass by Ron Mueck, 2016–17

The NGV Triennial

A new exhibition series’ first instalment delivers a heady mix of populism and politics


Read on

Image of ‘Sachiko’ my Miwa Yanagi

‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Image of Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

How good is Gladys Liu?

Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Image from ‘Animals’

Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control


×
×