December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

‘Australia’ at the Royal Academy, London

By Peter Conrad

A limited survey of Australian art

Australia: the noun is of limited use because it stands for an unmanageably enormous landmass, and the adjective derived from it is too subjective and slippery to define anything, except if you’re looking from an extreme, almost aerial distance. Nevertheless, the enormous show of landscape art at the Royal Academy in London is simply entitled Australia, like Baz Luhrmann’s overblown film, and does without a modestly qualifying subtitle.

Perhaps the title should have been “The Australia Experience”, because the visitor is taken on a prescriptive tour, with scenic lookouts at crucial points. You start in a darkened cinema foyer, where a still from Shaun Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi Mundi is projected onto the wall: a gliding biker blesses the desert with outstretched arms, or – since he is recklessly driving down the centre of the road – is he offering himself as a candidate for crucifixion? After a brief ride as Gladwell’s pillion passenger, you step from the gloom into a dazzlingly bright gallery of outback Dreamings, with ochre on eucalyptus bark conjuring up the baked earth and the starry sky above it. Twilight returns in the colonial section, as if these Europeanised visions of an alien land had been sent to skulk in a shamefaced corner. But the shadows suit the fairies that could be gambolling in Nicholas Caire’s fern gullies, and Frederick McCubbin’s huge triptych The Pioneer is almost camouflaged in a room that has walls as grey-green as the bush in the painting.

With the advent of national pride at Federation, successive rooms are more brightly lit, until, near the end, John Olsen’s Sydney Sun sizzles almost radioactively on the ceiling, with a bench beneath the painting so you can stretch out and bask in it, as if on a bed at a tanning salon. Around the corner, Max Dupain’s Sunbaker defends himself from the glare with his head nestling close to the sand. Painting and photography are homages to light, but in Australia that source can be dangerous.

After this hot, blinding climax, the last rooms lead you to the exit through a smattering of cowed, diminished contemporary work, though the cemetery in Danie Mellor’s An Elysian City (of Picturesque Landscapes and Memory), with boxing kangaroos and a Tassie tiger posed on the funerary monuments, comments wittily on the icons that were once arranged into tableaux of nationhood. John Beard’s bleached Uluru 8 fades into the fog rather than fierily glowing, and the future previewed by Callum Morton’s Tomorrow Land looks bleak: a neon sign propped above a settlement that is either derelict or not yet built. In the end, as in the beginning, there is only the unpopulated Earth.

As theatre, Australia is stunning; the problem is the thesis behind it. In the first room, chronology is outraged to award priority to the indigenous artists, although, apart from a bark painting from the 1880s, the work in this section was made in the last half-century. The illogic is justified by the claim of the organisers that Rover Thomas and his colleagues belong to “the oldest unbroken art tradition in the world” – a pious bluff that treats indigenous art as eternal not temporal, although these stippled, dotted panels, co-extensive with the infinite spaces of the Australian interior, are much more interesting if placed in their proper context. Geoffrey Bardon formed the Papunya Tula artists’ co-op in 1972; a year later, the National Gallery of Australia, in a decision that required the consent of the Whitlam government, bought Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. The painters Bardon encouraged and equipped were abstract expressionists by other means – down-under analogues of Pollock, who tacked canvases to the wall or spread them on the floor, then spattered or dribbled colour and worked it in with sticks, trowels or knives until the picture plane, replete with lakes, thickets and ridges of pigment, resembled a sample of the American landscape seen from above.

When the colonists produce picturesque misrepresentations of the country – frothy rococo eucalypts, the bush tidied up into a gentleman’s private park – the curators feel the need to be liberally apologetic on their behalf. In his catalogue essay, Ron Radford fancies that John Glover, in the nocturnal A Corroboree of Natives in Mills Plains he painted in 1832 on his Tasmanian farm, was “perhaps feeling some guilt for his and his fellow settlers’ role as land-takers”. Perhaps, or perhaps not – who knows? Radford, again guessing about motives, goes on to admit that there is “no evidence of guilt” in one of Glover’s later, beaming images of the home he had appropriated. Radford is equally tortuous when discussing HJ Johnstone’s Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, in which a bereft Aboriginal family camps under spectral trees beside a dank, stagnant waterhole. The time of day, as with Glover’s Corroboree, inclines Radford to believe that this is “a valedictory homage to the Aboriginal people”. He immediately repeats the point: this is a specimen of “nostalgia for the passing of an Aboriginal way of life”. Yet Johnstone painted Evening Shadows in London, prompted by photographs of South Australia; at that distance, it’s possible that the invidious word “backwater” in his title might unregretfully be relegating those Aborigines to obsolescence as history marches onwards.

Eugene von Guerard, Bushfire (1859). Art Gallery of Ballarat

Eugene von Guerard, Bushfire (1859). Art Gallery of Ballarat

If the exhibition encapsulates Australia, as the title wants us to believe, what notion of the country does it proclaim to the wider world? The show consists of landscapes, mostly of the bush or the desert, despite the fact that Australia is the most urbanised nation on Earth. Apart from the obligatory modernist views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, cities are absent, and people – with odd generic exceptions like Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife or George W Lambert’s mournful digger in A Sergeant of the Light Horse, painted in 1920 – are scarce. There are few portraits, and in David Stephenson’s Self-Portrait Looking Down a Survey Cut, Proposed Site of Gordon Below Franklin Dam, Tasmania, photographed in 1982, Stephenson himself, whose back is turned, goes to ground in the jungly density of the rainforest on the Franklin River. Don’t Australians have faces?

At its most trite, this emphasis on scenery lapses into the adjectival flummery of the tourist brochure. Anna Gray’s essay in the exhibition catalogue extols the “radiant blue sky” in Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On and the “sparkling” light of his Sirius Cove; she receives a buzz from McCubbin as well, and praises him for “conveying sparkling sensations”. Do I hear corks popping somewhere? In her account of Clarice Beckett, Deborah Hart combines tourist promotion with the clichés of the real-estate trade: “Port Phillip Bay from Beaumaris to the Mornington Peninsula is a place to escape Melbourne’s city life but still be within easy reach of it.” This kind of writing blandly merges with a message from Qantas, whose regional manager for the UK and Ireland says in the catalogue that “We look forward to welcoming you onboard and showcasing the best of Australia.”

There’s more at issue here than propaganda for the Australian climate. The curators subscribe to sacred shibboleths about territory and land rights, which have been written into academic orthodoxy. The first essay in the catalogue, by Wally Caruana and Franchesca Cubillo, brandishes Bob Randall’s slogan “The land owns us”. In the last essay, Daniel Thomas declares even more decisively that “Nature creates culture: geography rules.”

Sadly, neither truism is true. The land does not own us, even if we are buried in it. The myth of the songlines is as proprietorial as the fussing of the colonists about borders and fences, and equally deluded. Human beings are migrants, which is how they got this far south; as animals we are permitted to be animate, like kangaroos with propellers in their tails. The commentators get into further trouble by proposing that trees symbolise the Australian national character: Anna Gray thinks that “the sturdy eucalypt” is “redolent of masculine power”, but Deborah Hart points out that the stoical gum in Harold Cazneaux’s Spirit of Endurance is “a wounded specimen” with “a hollowed-out centre”. At the very least, we are inverted trees; I wouldn’t want to be embedded in the soil.

Does geography rule? Only in Australia, where it has set up obstacles that are insuperable by human will. As Thomas Keneally suggests in the catalogue, “the centre … defined Australia by lacking a Mississippi”. If human advance had been eased by a system of inland rivers like those in the American heartland, geography would have lost its power of veto. As for nature creating culture, that too is a generality inapplicable beyond the fatal shore. Europeans would say that culture is created to overcome the lowly limits of nature, just as Americans – who, unlike Australia’s doomed explorers, completed the westward trek across their continent – believe that history rules, since it keeps track of their triumphant progress.

It’s clear at the Royal Academy that Australia has more than its fair share of great artists. Its art historians, however, lag quite a way behind.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

Danie Mellor, An Elysian City (of Picturesque Landscapes and Memory), 2010. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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