Art Essays

Australia at the Royal Academy

Published September 28, 2013
John Olsen, Sydney sun (King sun) 1965, oil on three plywood panels, 307.0 h x 412.5 w x 4.0 d cm

Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts in London has echoes of Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster movie of 2010. Like that overblown, incoherent concoction, the one-word title of the RA show suggests this is all you will ever need to know about Australian art. It presents itself as a definitive statement.
Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions for the RA, has had a hand in the selection of works, but curatorial responsibilities lie squarely with the National Gallery of Australia, which has provided half of the 200 items on display. With its usual penchant for understatement, the NGA has issued a press release describing the show as “the most significant survey of Australian art ever mounted in the UK.”
This is a claim that will be tested over time. It could be argued that the 1961 show of Australian art put together by Bryan Robertson for the Whitechapel Gallery remains the standard of excellence. Robertson visited Australia and found a burgeoning energy in the contemporary art scene. He tried to capture this vitality in a show that launched artists such as Brett Whiteley into the London gallery circuit.
Soriano has said she hopes the RA show will help launch international careers for some of the artists included, but the actual selection of contemporary works makes this a forlorn hope. The Whitechapel event was tightly focused; the current exhibition is encyclopaedic in its ambitions.

When we first started hearing about the RA show it was a survey of Australian landscape. By opening day it is only “focusing on the influence of the landscape”. Instead of a dedicated exhibition of landscape art we have a vehicle that enables the curators to include anything they believe to have some relationship to the landscape. Conversely, they can exclude anything on the grounds that – in their opinion – it doesn’t relate to the landscape. This is where the problems begin.
Blurring the criteria for selection introduces a degree of subjectivity that allows works to be added or omitted on a whim. The show is neither a survey of Australian landscape art nor an overview of Australian art history. It is a compromise, and frankly, a mess. The ‘landscape’ idea means that crucial moments in Australian art, such as the first and second world wars, are almost completely ignored.
This may also explain why there is hardly a sculpture in sight until one reaches the final rooms to be confronted with three huge, white furry objects by Kathy Temin. This work, Tombstone Garden (2012) is conceived – believe it or not – as a Holocaust memorial. I’m not quite sure how it relates to the Australian landscape. It is a strange choice to represent the entire corpus of Australian sculpture, and the catalogue provides no explanation. I could nominate a lot of sculptures with landscape associations, but it would be a futile exercise.

In his catalogue essay Daniel Thomas makes a valiant attempt to give a ‘landscape’ dimension to a black-and-white sign by Robert MacPherson, but it still feels mystifying. Margaret Preston, known for her still lifes, is represented by two Aboriginal-themed landscapes and an indigenous Adam and Eve. Meanwhile a small pastel of mangrove roots is sufficient to represent the work of Peter Booth, a painter of large, visionary dreamscapes.
The selection criteria spreads confusion, rendering many artists unrecognisable. Pictures of the beach and the city are interpreted as ‘landscapes’, as is anything to do with indigenous issues. Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940) is used as one of the key images in the show, but it requires a stretch of the imagination to see it as a landscape.
I could spend this entire article querying individual selections, but it’s more important to look at the big picture. The show begins with a video of Shaun Gladwell riding a motorbike along a desolate Outback road, his arms raised in a crucifix position. It’s a nod to Sidney Nolan’s famous image of Ned Kelly on horseback, seen from behind, and a blessing of the land we are encouraged to see as “sacred” to the Aborigines.
Isn’t it just a teeny bit patronising for Shaun Gladwell to be giving his benediction to Aboriginal land? A sign informs us: “a spellbinding sense of quietude often permeates his work.” This is an elegant way of saying that it’s boring.

The first room of the show is a bravura display of Aboriginal paintings by figures such as John Mawurndjul, Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Uta Uta Tjangala. These big, colourful pictures declare the primacy of Aboriginal art, and the indigenous ownership of the land. Beyond that, the works have little relationship with one another. It is a spectacle and a sideshow, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ from the NGA holdings.
This overture ensures that the next two rooms, devoted to colonial art, will look suitably drab. The inclusion of so much work of the colonial era is a provincial fantasy. In Australia these pictures are important, indeed, foundational, but in London the significance is lost. Many viewers will only see a bunch of average quality nineteenth century oils and watercolours. Even a great painter like Von Guérard looks lost in this context. “More brown pictures,” said one of the London critics, although these paintings aren’t especially brown.
It is almost painful to enter the room devoted to the Heidelberg school and see how works such as Streeton’s Fire’s On (1891) and Roberts’s Allegro con brio: Bourke St. West (1885-86) lack impact. These are among the most important pictures in Australian art, but to viewers with no knowledge (or interest?) in the subject, they will appear conventional rather than revolutionary.
Fred McCubbin’s much-loved triptych, The Pioneers (1904), is cruelly exposed as a piece of Victorian story-telling, as corny as a work by a British sentimentalist such as Luke Fildes.

The colonial era pictures may be titillating for Australian expats who will feel a sense of nostalgia in looking at these familiar works, but stylistically they do not stand out sufficiently from the kind of paintings that were being made in France, Britain and Germany at the time. There may be a brighter light and a few exotic subjects, but they follow a blueprint set elsewhere.
The breakthrough comes with Sidney Nolan’s desert paintings of the 1940s. Suddenly we see a new landscape and a new approach to landscape painting. This would have been a much smarter place to start the exhibition. The second part devolves into a mad rush to the finish line, with most artists being represented by no more than a single work. Many of these one-offs seems to have been chosen at random, as if the curators were ticking off names on a list.
Two works by Russell Drysdale, including that small masterpiece, The Drover’s Wife (1945), give little indication of his true achievements as a landscapist. The same goes for John Olsen, whose single entry, Sydney Sun (1965), is suspended from the ceiling. This is because the picture was originally made as a ceiling picture, but in the cavernous galleries of the RA it looks like a chandelier.

There is no more important Australian landscape painter than Fred Williams, who is represented by only three pieces. This is still better than William Robinson, who is grievously misrepresented by one small landscape. I applaud the inclusion of Elisabeth Cummings, but the curators have chosen a work from 1993, ignoring the fact that her greatest works have been produced over the past decade. Jan Senbergs, a painter of giant-sized landscapes is represented by a screenprint from 1973.
A room oddly titled ‘Politics and Series’ announces the exhibition’s complete decline into incoherence and tokenism. The landscape is now an excuse for heavy-handed messages about colonialism, and for any favourite artist the curators would like to stick in as an afterthought.
The final work in the show – the glorious full stop to the story of 200 years of Australian art history – is a small digital print by Callum Morton, called Tomorrowland (2004). Described as “a fragment of an imaginary theme park”, it shows a sad little bit of signage propped up in a grey desert that doesn’t even look Australian. So this is where it all ends: with a lame, postmodern, school project. One presumes that Morton’s role as a Trustee of the NGA played no part in this selection.

I’m aware that these comments are unusually negative, and will disappoint many people – including those patrons who each donated $100,000 to make this exhibition a reality. You’ll have to believe me when I say I take no pleasure from such an analysis, which barely touches on all the things that are wrong.
What is really sad and infuriating is that the NGA has blown the opportunity to make Australian art look fabulous in a big international venue. So beware those trumpet blasts extolling our triumphs in London. Rather than wallowing in stupid, nationalistic hype we should be prepared to be critical about this show’s shortcomings and learn from our mistakes. It will be a long time before we get another chance.
Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 21 – December 8, 2013

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 28, 2013