Australia as it is

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel rumblings

The Ned Kelly poster

At the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly, there is an exhibition of Australian art which runs until December. The blurb for the exhibition says that “The story of Australia is inextricably linked to its landscape…” so you might be forgiven for thinking that this might encourage you to visit Australia by showing you the country.

It doesn’t. And more truthfully, the guidebook written to accompany this exhibition doesn’t make this claim preferring to describe it as the exhibition as the development of Australian art

It might show you how artists view the country but even the choice of artists doesn’t reveal how many see the place. There are many popular Australian artist that aren’t included such as Pro Hart, Judy Cassab, Rolf Harris, (politically incorrect to have his paintings?) Ken Done and Ken Duncan whose photographs of the Australian landscape sell all over the world.

What this exhibition is about is how white settlers and visitors saw Australian in the past, how indigenous Australians see Australia and how some modern artists see the country. As with all exhibitions it is arbitrary and strongly influenced by who curates it. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach to take and I wouldn’t argue with it. What I argue with is the view taken by some that it reveals the Australian landscape. It might be as some see it but it doesn’t show the glory of it as it really is. I would argue that only one has painted a gum tree as they really are; grey-greenish with slightly dull-white, eerie barks. Yet where are the images of that isolation that signify to many people what the bush is about?

an image from Glenorie Rural Bush Fire Brigade showing the eeriness of the bush at night

If you just consider the bush for a moment, the bush that many of you will have seen burning in the Blue Mountains in the last week or so, you will realise it can be beautiful but harsh. Only one painting, Eugene Van Guerard’s 1859 painting of a bushfire in the distance reveals this aspect of the landscape. It may show trees wreathed in smoke but it shows none of the horror and beauty that bushfires have. Whilst I have seen some spectacular paintings of bushfires, they aren’t here. And bushfires are a regular feature of the Australian landscape.

There is also little of the beauty of the cities that prove such an attractive visitor draw.

What there is, which I did find interesting, was the development of indigenous art. The first well-known Aboriginal artist was Albert Namatjira who painted in the western style but with his own twist. Just two of his paintings are on show. During the 1960’s and 1970’s indigenous art changed as visitors to their tribal areas encouraged Aboriginals to paint on canvas the land as they saw it though some still preferred bark. Ochres, browns and reds suddenly were overwhelmed by colours of all hues. And, as the western world lapped up indigenous art, so it almost became an industry rather than an art form. Here you will see not the tourist tat that you can pick up at Australian airports and souvenir shops but some very different interpretations of how they see the landscape.

On a small point, one of Sidney Nolan’s paintings in his series of 26 about the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, is used to promote the exhibition. Don’t think you’re going to see all 26; you won’t.

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