There can be few more disconcerting feelings than being the only one at a party who isn’t having a good time, but this is roughly how I felt as I wandered through the exhibition, McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907-17, at the National Gallery of Australia. Having never thought much of this period of McCubbin’s work I was surprised by the catalogue, and the enthusiastic claims made on his behalf by the NGA’s Anne Gray and Ron Radford. Perhaps I’d misjudged the dear old Prof, as his younger colleague, Arthur Streeton, referred to him.
As it happened, the gap between the works in the catalogue essays and the ones hanging on the walls might be better described as a chasm. It should be apparent to any experienced eye that these late paintings are not masterpieces. It would be less provocative, albeit unkind, to describe them as distinctly second-rate.
Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) will always have an assured place in the pantheon of Australian artists through his association with the Heidelberg School – or to use the newly acceptable term, the Australian Impressionists. McCubbin was present at the first of the artists’ camps at Box Hill in 1885, along with Tom Roberts and Louis Abrahams. He participated in the succes de scandale of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889 that threw down the gauntlet to backward colonial taste. We credit him with a number of iconic pictures such as Down on his Luck (1889), On the Wallaby Track (1885), A Bush Burial (1890) and The Pioneer (1904).
These may not be the greatest works McCubbin ever painted, but their enduring popularity suggests that the artist tapped into a deep current in the Australian psyche. To someone who has never seen it before, Down on his Luck may appear to be little more than a sentimental Victorian genre painting with a swaggie instead of a poor cockney urchin. For many Australians it is simply a fact of life. It is one of those works that have defined an image of our past and, for better or worse, helped lay the foundations of a cultural identity. It allows us to see ourselves as a nation of individualists able to endure hardship stoically, in exchange for the freedoms provided by the Bush.
This is nonsense, of course, but seductive nonsense. McCubbin’s genre pictures are full of heroic forbearance and nationalistic sentiment. During his long career as a student, then a teacher at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, he established a reputation as a considerate, warm-hearted mentor to younger artists. He had a passionate love of art, and according to one former pupil, Joan Lindsay, could be moved to “a sort of speechless ecstasy” by “a tree, a cloud, or a patch of bracken fern trembling in summer light.”
McCubbin was nicknamed “the Prof” because of his philosophical disposition. He liked to discuss the books he had read and the paintings he had seen. A family man, with seven children, McCubbin never had the opportunity to travel overseas for an extended period like his colleagues, Roberts, Streeton, Conder and Phillips Fox. When he was finally able to set off on his grand tour in 1907 he was already in his fifties.
Determined to make the most of the experience, McCubbin sought out the Old Masters and the Impressionists, but it was J.M.W.Turner that fired his imagination, especially those late works filled with transcendental light. Anne Gray says that the six-month trip “liberated McCubbin, and he began to paint with a new vigour, with a greater freedom and more expressive brushwork – as well as with increased sensitivity to light and colour.”
All this is undeniable. The controversial idea is that the paintings he went on to make from 1907-17 are the finest works of his career. Even more fraught is the claim that he “outreached” his former colleagues. While Roberts and Streeton are said to have “lost their way”, McCubbin allegedly continued to advance, becoming the most prominent Australian exponent of Impressionism.
This is a great story, and it may even be true. Roberts and Streeton did lose their way, although the former declined into obscurity, while the latter declined into success. Streeton abandoned his own brilliant, youthful style in favour of a dry palette that earned him a hard-won place in the London art world. McCubbin, an altogether more sympathetic character, was always more concerned with his painting than his reputation. There is no doubt that he struck out in a new direction upon his return from England.
However, the mere technical fact that McCubbin drew closer to textbook Impressionism should not blind us to the observation that his late paintings are diffuse and repetitive. They are all about light and surface, but that light doesn’t come from any one source, it wafts across each picture like a shimmering mist. If the paintwork looks distressed, this is due to McCubbin’s habit of sanding down his surfaces with pumice before adding a new layer. The features of the picture are blurred and smeared, with very little tonal differentiation.
Tone refers to the lightness or darkness of colours and the way they relate to each other in a composition. It is a concept that is just as important in art as in music, because in both fields a lack of contrast results in monotony. While many great artists have professed that tone is the most crucial element in painting, in McCubbin’s late work it is barely considered. There is little to hold the viewer’s gaze, which slides right off the picture time and again. These spattered, high-keyed surfaces are so dull it looks as though McCubbin has wielded his brushes and palette knives like a set of windscreen wipers. Put these canvases alongside those of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas or Renoir and the comparisons are tragic.
This seems so obvious that it’s hard to understand how experienced curators such as Anne Gray and Ron Radford can be wild about the late McCubbin. Are they so impressed with the artist’s innovations that they have forgotten to look at the pictures? Take Violet and Gold (1912), which was recently acquired for the NGA’s permanent collection. Described as “brilliant” and “dazzling” in the catalogue, it is a hard painting to love. Amid a green-mauve-grey enclosure of trees a few cattle are drinking from a pool. From the left a beam of light pierces the wall of tree trunks and illuminates the little gathering. The cattle are mere lumps, the trees have lost all definition, but the ray of light cuts through the picture like a laser beam. The entire surface is a mass of scuff marks meant to represent light
This loose and adventurous approach is more at home in McCubbin’s small oil sketches of Williamstown, painted in 1909. Here, at least, there is no attempt at making a grand statement. They are quick, rough and unpretentious. At best they are reminiscent of Tom Carment’s work. By contrast, the larger oils are almost invariably overworked.
McCubbin’s late paintings are the creations of a man who has found a method and is so intoxicated by the discovery that he loses all interest in the subject. The landscape is but a peg upon which he hangs his trademark brand of scrubbed and scoured paintwork. He was infatuated with an effect, and that is a dangerous state of mind. One might accuse the late Streeton of creative complacency, but this could never be said of McCubbin. On the contrary, his vice is his unrelenting industriousness. These paintings look like they’ve been beaten into submission by a burly tradesman armed with a trowel.
For anybody who manages to see this show in Canberra, I would recommend a visit to the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University, for a survey of Aida Tomescu’s paintings and works on paper from 1993-2009. Although Tomescu’s work is completely abstract she has a sense of colour and surface texture that the dear old Prof might have envied.
The yellows and reds in this exhibition are ferocious, the blues and greens are like a vision of the world from beneath the surface of the ocean. The paint is laid on in concrete–like slabs, or pierced with jabs and scratches. The works on paper are a frenzied mass of squiggles and disjointed calligraphy. Throughout this performance there is the sense of a guiding intelligence questioning every mark, every gesture. The result is a body of work that seems alive and convincing. There is no particular ‘method’ in these pictures, no concern for light as a subject, but the sensation of light is everywhere. Whereas McCubbin’s late work feels like a mechanical demonstration of his artistic credo, Tomescu has let the paintings ask the questions and applied herself to the difficult task of finding the answers.
McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907-17, The National Gallery of Australia, August 14-November 1, 2009
Aida Tomescu: Paintings and Drawings, Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University, October 1-November 8, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 24, 2009