For the long-anticipated show of Australian art at the Royal Academy the opening night was always going to be a joyous affair. The problem is that nobody looks at the art at an opening. Having already spent hours inspecting this exhibition I felt like a party pooper when people gushed: “Isn’t it wonderful!?” No, it’s not.
We are continually reminded that Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts is a show about the landscape. In reality it is a kind of visual buffet of Australian art history in which important landscape artists are poorly represented, and others misrepresented by a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t theme.
For instance, William Robinson and John Olsen are each represented by a single work, while Fred Williams – certainly the most important Australian landscape painter of the modern era – has a grand total of three. Yet by trying to show only landscapes by artists such as Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith or Peter Booth, we get a misleading impression of their achievements.
The curators seem to forget all about the landscape when including artists they deem too cool to leave out. Could Max Dupain’s Sunbaker be classed as a landscape? Or a painted sign by Robert MacPherson?
Fifty percent of this collection of 200 works by 170 artists comes from the National Gallery of Australia, and the selection gets increasingly dodgy as we progress to the present day. The landscape idea allows vast swathes of art history to be omitted, including both world wars, and the abstract painting of the 60s and 70s. Sculpture is represented by an engraved emu egg; kitsch colonial silverware, and three large furry things by Kathy Temin. Rooms are given titles such as “Series and Politics”, as if there was some vital connection between these terms.
The show begins with a dreary video of Shaun Gladwell riding his motorbike through the desert, arms outstretched in ‘crucifix’ fashion. We step to the left, into a room filled with large Aboriginal paintings. Having absorbed the indigenous artists’ spiritual claim on the land we plunge into the art of the white occupation, with rooms containing colonial era works by figures such as William Westall, John Glover, Conrad Martens and Eugene von Guérard.
This sequence is confusing. It wrecks the chronology of the show and will ensure that many people find the colonial works drab and beside the point. It’s less so for Australians and expats, who will feel a certain thrill at seeing iconic pictures as Glover’s House and Garden or Von Guérard’s Mt. Kosciusko in this context. One expects that British audiences may struggle to understand what is original and important in these early rooms.
The same goes for Heidelberg school pictures by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and their peers. The important pieces are disguised in this crowded hang. It would have made more sense to begin in the twentieth century when Australian artists develop truly distinctive approaches to the landscape.
By devoting roughly a third of the show to colonial pictures the curators have ensured the rest of the exhibition is crammed and tokenistic. Only Sidney Nolan gets as many as six paintings in the second part of the display. Artists such as George Lambert, John Brack, Jeffrey Smart, Ian Fairweather, Howard Taylor, Brett Whiteley and almost every major photographer, are represented by one work apiece. Russell Drysdale, lucky man, gets two.
By the end of the show the tendency to include one work per artist has become an embarrassment. When I attended an early preview one of the London critics asked: “Surely you’ve got better artists back in Australia?”
Not only do we have better artists, we have much better examples of work by artists who have made the cut. If the colonial part of the show is questionable, and the indigenous works seemingly chosen at random, the contemporary rooms are beyond redemption. It is not the quantity of art or artists that counts in a successful exhibition it is the clarity of the presentation. A display doesn’t consist of names, but of carefully chosen pieces. It’s hard to believe that Australian curators could put such rooms together and feel satisfied with their efforts. It’s clumsy. It’s provincial. A great opportunity has been wasted.
Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, London, September 21 – December 8 , 2013
Published in Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 2013