“If we so choose we can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pastoralists, the thoroughbred Aryans in all their nobility.” These words were penned by J.S.MacDonald in the special Arthur Streeton Number of Art in Australia, October 1931. At the time MacDonald was director of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, and would go on to be director at the National Gallery of Victoria.
It seems extraordinary today that anyone – especially the director of a major public institution – could interpret the paintings of Streeton (1867-1943) in terms of Aryan nobility, but those were very different times. Prior to the Holocaust it was still acceptable for public figures to espouse racialist views and make anti-Semitic statements. Everyone had the right to be a bigot, to invoke George Brandis’s memorable phrase.
MacDonald’s words have been quoted many times but they are absent from the catalogue for the exhibition, Land of the Golden Fleece – Arthur Streeton in the Western District, at the Geelong Gallery. This overdue survey of Streeton’s work from 1920-32 is very much a celebration of the artist. It’s also the swansong for Geelong’s much-respected director, Geoffrey Edwards, who is retiring with this show.
The exhibition covers the period of Streeton’s return from England, and resettlement in Australia. He had sailed for London in 1897, leaving behind him a soaring reputation and a series of paintings that would become icons of Australian art. In England Streeton found success did not come easily, but he perservered – adapting his style to local tastes, changing his palette and his style of brush.
The artist who came back to his homeland for a visit in 1921, and then permanently in 1923, was older, wiser and perhaps more cynical than the tyro of 1897. Streeton had been through the First World War as an official war artist, although his paintings of scarred landscapes suggests he kept his distance from the fighting. Like everybody else he could see that the war had changed Europe forever, and he felt the urge to go home.
To Streeton, in tune with the temper of the times, the Australian landscape represented a kind of unspoiled paradise after the carnage of the war. It was a time of booming nationalism, when Australians began to see themselves in a new way. They had come through the “baptism of blood” and proved themselves as a nation. They identified as a bright, young “race” who wanted nothing to do with the decadence and squalor of the Old World.
This was the spirit in which Streeton’s work was greeted – as an assertion of Australian national identity. He seemed happy enough to accept this interpretation, which he fuelled by giving paintings titles such as The Land of the Golden Fleece (1926). For the first time since 1927 this show brings together two out three versions of this famous work. I was lucky enough to view the third – and largest – the same week in a Sydney collection.
The painting looks out across a sun-raked plain towards Mount William in the Grampians. It is the very definition of the classic blue-and-gold Aussie landscape. The sparse gum trees, the flock of sheep, the bleached grass and long shadows that intrude from the left are all calculated to twang on Australian heartstrings. The blue form of Mount William presides over the scene like an immensely old, worn Olympus, from which the fickle Gods have long since departed. It’s a portrait of a peaceful, pastoral land.
Even those who rhapsodised about this painting could see how Streeton’s work had altered over the past two decades. The sharp colour and blistering glare found in his early canvases, was now muted. These are duller, quieter pictures, but with the same virtuosic brushwork.
The thrill of this exhibition is to see these landscapes in isolation, without being tempted to draw comparisons with the youthful scenes of Heidelberg or Sydney Harbour. They are of mixed quality but repay close examination. Coastline paintings such as Ocean Blue, Lorne (1921) and Cliff and ocean blue (1932), are full of brilliant, expressive passages. In the Grampians paintings such as Monte Rosea or Bush under the peaks (both 1920), Streeton has dabbed at the canvas with tremendous vigour and spontaneity. He lays in areas of colour with rapidity and adds the shadows and contrasts with a few well-judged flicks of the brush.
There are only about 30 paintings in this show but the gallery has presented them beautifully, adding cases full of supporting material, vintage tourist posters by James Northfield, and photos by John Gollings that revisit the sites of the major pieces. It’s an illuminating exhibition because it proves that Streeton’s talents survived his years in England and the nationalistic banner-waving that accompanied his repatriation. He may have been a pale version of his younger self, but as a painter of the Australian landscape in the 1920s he towered over every pretender to his throne.
Like Streeton, who roamed widely across the western district in search of motifs, I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a circuit of the Victorian regional galleries. Athough Geelong was my primary destination I drove on to Ballarat, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Shepparton, before heading back to the airport.
There was so much to see I can’t do it justice here. Castlemaine Art Gallery, for instance, had an impressive show of Bill Henson’s nocturnal landscapes (until 30 June), which was incidentally the gallery’s first photography exhibition in its 103-year history.
Half an hour up the road, Bendigo Art Gallery was hosting their Marilyn Monroe blockbuster (until 10 July), which has been drawing crowds. It’s basically a show of costumes, flim clips, and Marilyn memorabilia, staged with the panache one has come to expect of this venue. There’s even a gigantic statue of Marilyn on the main street, just in case you’d somehow forgotten about the exhibition.
If you think the country is rather a conservative place, Shepparton Art Museum was preparing itself for Chen Qiulin’s One Hundred Names, a large-scale outdoors installation of Chinese characters made from tofu (4 June – 24 July).
I’ve saved the Art Gallery of Ballarat for last, because their featured exhibition, Kevin Lincoln: The Eye’s Mind, is simply stupendous. In this show I had one of those rare epiphanies when I felt I was in the presence of a master. Lincoln (b.1941), who has been exhibiting since the 1970s, has never been one to push himself forward. He seems to believe – reasonably or naively enough – that his pictures speak for him, and those who appreciate them may occasionally buy a piece.
Well, this sweeping survey of Lincoln’s output since 1990, as selected by Elizabeth Cross, reveals an artist who has steadily outgrown every self-imposed limitation to create sensitive, highly original work in a wide range of genres – from still life to self-portraiture, landscape to abstraction.
Every piece has such a delicate touch it feels like a small miracle of self-restraint – which can be the hardest feat of all.
Like every good artist Lincoln wears his influences upon his sleeve. It’s easy to detect traces of William Scott, Ben Nicholson, Georges Braque, Giorgio Morandi, Milton Avery and others, but he has taken what is essential from each of these figures and imbued it with his own artistic personality. No Australian artist is better at making an empty space feel completely alive. Look at the soft grey ground in Mirror and flute (1992), offset by the yellow of a lemon and two dark figs, helpfully labelled “figs”. The composition is artless but almost monumental in the way it holds the eye.
One may glean an equivalent pleasure from a soft-toned abstraction such as The Sea in Winter II (2003), or a melancholy Tasmanian landscape such as The Channel (2015). There is so much to learn about painting in this show one wishes it were a permanent display, to be visited and revisited. The next best thing would be for an enterprising venue in Sydney to take the exhibition, which comes with an impressive, hard-cover catalogue. Lincoln is known as a reclusive artist, but this survey brings him out into the light. The effect is dazzling.
Land of the Golden Fleece: Arthur Streeton in the Western District
Geelong Gallery, until 13 June
Kevin Lincoln: The Eye’s Mind
Art Gallery of Ballarat, until 19 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 28th May, 2016