It’s difficult to get too worked up about Sydney Long (1871-1955). He was, at best, an intriguing minor painter known for a few striking images. He was also a curious personality. Like Oscar Wilde, he was almost certainly gay, but married – a not uncommon combination in Sydney, even today. He could be charming or waspish, with bitter, paranoid moments.
Long was also one of the great fibbers in Australian art. He lied about the date of his birth, the date of his marriage, the year he took up etching, and who knows what else. As president of the Australian Society of Painter-Etchers he laid down the law for accurate edition numbers, but seems to have broken his own rules whenever demand justified duplicity.
Curator, Anne Gray, has addressed Long’s “flexibility with the truth” in her catalogue essay for Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land, at the National Gallery of Australia. She comes up with some ingenious excuses, including a raft of childhood insecurities, and the suggestion that the artist saw the world in a dreamlike way, where the line between fact and fantasy was blurred.
This would be a useful skill to cultivate at the NGA, where I’ve often wondered how attendance figures and budgets are calculated. Even though the gallery is strapped for cash, one never hears anything but good news. This is pretty much what attendees at the National Press Club got last week, when NGA director Ron Radford was the guest speaker. After an address that was long on statistics and rhetoric, only one journalist asked a polite question about Indian sculptures acquired from a disreputable New York dealer. The response was that everybody was buying from him, which is the sort of thing parents tell their children not to say.
Radford, ever parsimonious with his answers to journalists’ questions, has recently announced he will head an internal panel of investigation into the affair. Cynics might query the resolve of this panel, especially when the director has refused to name two “international” members.
Eventually it becomes a cultural problem when an institution falls back on selective announcements to the press while shunning criticism and transparency. The great Press Club announcement was about the plans to expand the galleries of Australian art and get works out of the “attic”. This was couched in language that would have been offensive to the late Col Madigan, the architect of the building. Whatever the shortcomings of Madigan’s design, there can be no doubt about his sincere desire to construct an impressive showcase for the collections.
It’s unlikely the politicians will be eager to hand over millions of dollars to build another wing for the NGA when the previous extension, which opened only in 2010, ran way over initial budgets. During the past few years the NGA has not demonstrated much sense of fiscal responsibility, buying expensive works of dubious provenance, hosting blockbusters that do not cover costs, and having to rejig the exhibition program when short of funds. This is the scenario that will greet incoming Head of Trustees, Allan Myers, but I’m sure he already knows the score.
Such observations will generate the tedious response that I’m bitter and twisted because of my own experience of working at the NGA a decade ago, but this is not true. While the NGA is a great institution, any public gallery that considers itself above criticism is in trouble. It gives me no pleasure to write these things, but there are limits as to how much unalloyed joy one can stomach.
To return to Sydney Long, although he is hardly one of the immortals of Australian art, the show is an example of the things the NGA does well. Anne Gray is an accomplished curator and art historian, with a fluent prose style. Her catalogue for this exhibition supersedes everything previously published on Long, and brings together much that is new. To the best of my knowledge, all that is truly memorable in Long’s work is included in this show.
Ron Radford has written that Long was Australia’s only genuine Art Nouveau painter, and the claim is echoed in this catalogue by Gray. It is almost impossible to think of another, although Conder and others dabbled in Symbolism and Art Nouveau-style illustration. The very term “Art Nouveau” is notoriously difficult to define. Scholars can’t even agree as to whether it was a style or a movement. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume it was an overtly decorative style, characterised by the use of sinuous line.
These traits are prominent in Long’s masterpiece, Pan (1898), which shows the goatish god playing his flute under a tree, while nymphs and satyrs dance to his tune. The Art Nouveau touch is found in the silhouettes of thin, spindly trees, like shadowy rivulets running down the canvas.
Pan was everywhere in these years. He even made a cameo appearance in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows (1908). It was Long’s distinction to bring him to Australia, setting him down among the gums and ti-trees.
In another iconic work, The Spirit of the Plains (1897), Long portrayed a piper leading a flock of brolgas across a dreamy landscape punctuated by the same tall, spectral trees. Like Pan, this painting flirts with kitsch and camp, but survives because there is something wonderfully poetic about Long’s conception. It is partly because he reduces his nymphs, spirits and satyrs to the status of small, vague apparitions in a landscape bathed in the glow of early morning or twilight. We recognise the Australian bush in these scenes, and some of the magic anyone can feel in such settings.
Long had his greatest public success with Flamingoes (1902), a painting in which he tried to add a vibrant, burning red to a low-toned composition – just to prove he could bring it off. The result is a most peculiar canvas in which two female nudes confront a flock of crimson flamingoes across a pond that appears to be reflecting a raging bushfire. It goes beyond mere decoration – it’s almost hallucinogenic.
Audiences loved this unlikely work so much Long found himself painting flamingoes until he probably never wanted to see another one. This was typical of Long, whose good luck always seemed to turn bad. When he died, his wife described his life as a tragedy, although he had enjoyed his share of success.
In some ways, Long’s career resembles a series of false starts. He repudiated his ventures into Art Nouveau, although he would later revisit them in the form of etchings that cashed in on their inveterate popularity. He also made bold suggestions that the Aborigines represented the real spirit of the bush, rather than the figures he imported from European mythology. This idea found expression in The Music Lesson (1904), which shows a bare-breasted Aboriginal woman playing a pipe to a group of magpies.
Ultimately Long would not pursue this pioneering interest in Aboriginal spirituality. In 1910, at the age of 39, he made a long-desired trip to England, where he lived frugally and avoided contact with most of his fellow expatriates, whom he had grown to dislike.
His fortunes changed when he took up etching in 1918. He found a ready market for these works, and was invited to join the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. When he returned to Sydney in 1921 it was as a celebrated print-maker.
Although he had a flair for this medium, the time spent at the printing press may have prevented Long from realising his potential as a painter. He certainly had ability, but often seemed to take the easiest of options: creating picturesque works with attractive colour.
It’s easy to like Long’s landscapes, but they are all surface effects. Flat, decorative, with forms slightly blurred at the edges, they would be a handsome addition to any drawing room. On the walls of an art museum they are just as likeable, but no more significant than post-cards.
Perhaps there was never much store of genius to betray. Long may have been a modest talent who recognised his own limitations, resenting peers such as George Lambert who declined to put boundaries on their ambitions. Yet he did have his moment, and has left us with a handful of early works for which he will always be remembered. He was not the kind of artist to “burn always with that hard, gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater wrote, but he lit a small candle in the halls of Australian art that will never be extinguished.
Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, August 17-November 11, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 20, 2012