I must admit, I was dreading an exhibition that was based around an ‘Australian’ theme. Defining art by nation rather than by movement seems a flawed exercise, given the way that artists have always influenced each other’s work, regardless of country. Some have criticised the exhibition for this reason, and have further questioned its reasons for crushing two centuries of art into thirteen rooms.
However, as we move through the rooms chronologically, the curators have a clear path for us to follow: they seem to be claiming that the art of Australia, the third least densely populated country in the world, is indelibly linked to landscape painting. Every artwork here, even the photographs and films of the later rooms, has a claim to be a landscape. Seen in this light, the ‘Australia’ of the exhibition doesn’t refer to the nation, but the landmass.
The Aborigines believe in a spiritual state loosely translated as Dreaming, or a ‘time without time’. The resulting art is a fascinating mix of abstract lines and circles showing maps of the most spiritual places alongside figurative renderings of stories represented at these places, featuring their ancestors and gods. The stories become the maps themselves as they explain the creation of its natural features, the ancestors often being transformed into the landscapes.
…surrounded by dark undergrowth and watched by the natives in the foreground…
Interestingly, the settlers’ landscapes mostly feature towns, as if clinging to a sense of normality in this strange continent. In G.W. Evans’ 1809 watercolour ‘A View of Sydney, New South Wales’, the fledgling town is a shining white beacon of civilisation in the distance, surrounded by dark undergrowth and watched by the natives in the foreground. The deserts and mountains so rich with meaning to the Aborigines are left on the edge of the paintings, like so much empty canvas.
With the arrival of professional artists to Australia comes a deeper appreciation of the landscapes. Artists such as Eugene von Guerard and Louis Buvelot, who are clearly very much indebted to Claude Lorrain, follow that great artist in painting amongst the landscape. The results are more self-conscious than the artworks by the settlers and Aborigines, but for the first time one starts to get a sense of the sheer size and beauty of Australia, albeit through the filter of the artists’ bombastic Romanticism.
…a concept in which every point on a graph is visited exactly once…
After a difficult teething period, including the Heidelberg school’s attempts to form a ‘national art’ via a sort of bargain-basement Impressionism, Australian art found its feet with an abstract art that strongly recalls the Aboriginal Dreamings in its techniques. Brian Blanchflower in ‘Nocturne 3’ mixed sand into the paint so that the landscape enters the material itself, while John Olsen in ‘Sydney Sun’, suspended upside down above the room, blended the topographical with the linear as he painted a map of 1960s Sydney onto the sun.
In Cloud Atlas, Daniel Crooks used a Western mathematical construct in a unique take on the Aboriginal maps of Dreamings. Crooks placed a video camera on the roof of his car pointed at the sky, and drove in a Traceable Path, a concept in which every point on a graph is visited exactly once. Remarkably, this is what the curators achieved in ‘Australia’, in which we travel across two hundred landscapes on a journey which, although limited, never feels repetitive. All of the artists in this exhibition are united by their attempts to imbue a vast and unforgiving landscape with meaning. In doing so they affirm the most human of needs, which permeates everything from the earliest rock carvings to the blogosphere, and underpins art itself: that as we make our path through life, we leave some trace behind.