When the title of a show is simply the artist’s surname it sends a message. If you don’t know who Streeton is, well… you should. It’s like saying “Picasso”, rather than “Pablo Picasso” or “Rembrandt” rather than “Rembrandt van Rijn”. The unattended surname signifies greatness. It’s a warning you’ll miss out on an essential Australian cultural experience if you don’t see this show.
This is flattering for Sir Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), who was indisputably one of Australia’s greatest artists but a patchy performer over the long term. At his best, nobody beats Streeton when it comes to painting a sun-drenched Australian landscape. At worst, he was a facile performer who tailored his output to whatever the market and fashion dictated.
In organising a major retrospective it’s the curator’s duty to present the artist in the best possible light, and Wayne Tunnicliffe, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s Head of Australian Art, has given his man every chance to shine. This show makes the previous Streeton retrospective of 1996 look woefully perfunctory, being bigger and better in every way, accompanied by a brick of a catalogue packed with brief, informative essays. The only stumbling block may be Tunnicliffe’s taste for in-yer-face wall colours, which are not always sympathetic to the work.
My ideas about Streeton were not changed in any fundamental way by this display but they were refined and fleshed out. One of the pleasures of seeing a large body of work by an important artist is that it helps balance claims for immortality against their human failings.
The young Streeton was prodigiously talented. Although he was never known as a painter of the human figure a couple of student drawings from the nude model reveal the quality of his draughtsmanship. It was, however, Streeton’s landscapes that made his early reputation, especially those masterpieces such as Fire’s On(1891) and Cremorne Pastoral (1895).
Unusually for a time when institutions favoured established artists over newcomers, the then National Art Gallery of NSW, acquired Streeton’s Still glides the stream and shall forever glide (1890), when he was only 22-years-old.
This painting still holds up well today, but not so well as The purple noon’s transparent might (1896) which was acquired hastily by the National Gallery of Victoria when it became known the young tyro was off to London where it was confidently predicted he would blitz the British art world. The purple noon’ – possibly the most extravagantly praised picture in Australian art history – has been restored for this show by Michael Varcoe-Cocks, and looks resplendent.
It was at this point that Streeton’s brilliant career hit its first major obstacle when his anticipated success in London didn’t eventuate. While en route to Europe he whipped off a series of sparkling, small works in Cairo, but would find the dim, grey tones of England to be a challenge. The rest of Streeton’s career was heavily affected by how he met that challenge – chiefly by adjusting his style to match British expectations.
After the move to London in 1897 Streeton was never the same artist, although he would grow wealthy and famous. When he returned to Australia, first for a whirlwind visit and fundraiser in 1906-07, and then permanently after the First World War, his palette was more subdued, his brushwork less flamboyant. His brash self-confidence had been tempered by calculation.
In later life Streeton became a patrician figure revered by the art establishment and despised by the rising modernists of Sidney Nolan’s generation, who saw him as a blight on the progress of art. The truth was probably somewhere in-between. Streeton was never as reactionary as his most fervent supporters, and his landscapes were far superior to those of most other Australian artists. His stiffest competition was with his younger self. Looking at those dry, restrained works of the 1930s alongside the pictures of the 1890s, it was clear how much dynamism had been lost.
As every age refashions the heroes of the past according to its own preoccupations, nowadays there is a renewed focus on Streeton’s last works which signal his distaste for land-clearing and forestry. The elderly Streeton was a conservationist who hated to see ancient trees cut down in the name of quick profits.
Today we can praise Streeton for his environmentalist tendencies, overlook the nationalistic gloss that was routinely applied to his work, and wonder about an opportunistic streak in his personality that often put remuneration ahead of inspiration. But it still begs the question: “Was he a great painter?” Alongside the Rembrandts and Picassos his claims are shaky, but in an Australian context he is a master. One might see this show as a textbook study in what it means to be a local legend.
Art Gallery of NSW, 7 November, 2020 – 14 February, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 November, 2020