Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Wizards of Oz

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Wizards of Oz

Article excerpt

Australia Royal Academy, until 8 December Astonishingly, the last major survey show of Australian art in this country was mounted more than half-a-century ago. Then it was the innovative writer, critic and museum director Bryan Robertson who staged Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961, a show he consolidated by monographic exhibitions of Sidney Nolan, Roy de Maistre and Arthur Boyd, also at the Whitechapel. Later Robertson also wrote extensively about Brett Whiteley, but his one-man Australian project was not taken up by other curators. Although Nolan and Boyd have had their supporters here (particularly Nolan), Australian art has for far too long remained not just a closed book but an unknown quantity in the UK, too.

Inevitably the RA's long overdue and most welcome survey is a substantial display, covering as it does two centuries of artistic achievement throughout the continent, with more than 200 works by 146 artists. Impossible to absorb all that (in any meaningful way) during a single visit, so it's advisable either to return several times, or be selective. People will have their preferences: not everyone likes the bold dotted patterning of Aboriginal painting, however essential a part of Australia's artistic make-up it may be. Others will want to concentrate on the modern movement and not give so much time to the colonial period. But it has to be said that there are superb things to be seen in all sections of the exhibition, and, although the focus is firmly upon the influence of the landscape, the variety of work on view is exceptionally rich and exciting.

The first gallery is devoted to Aboriginal art and contains a vast collaborative ceremonial ground painting by Martumli artists, entitled 'Ngayarta Kujarra' (2009), depicting a large expanse of salt lake. Here the pattern and detail is all in the fringes, the activity (as in so many 20th-century American abstract paintings) reserved to the edges. Above the entrance into the next space (Gallery 3 has been subdivided for this exhibition) is a huge black and white painting by Emily Kame Kngwarreye called 'Big Yam Dreaming' (1995), a great embroilment of white lines on a black ground, based on the yam's roots, and looking very much like the elegant painterly meanders of Brice Marden. Below it is an example of the sewn or studded hide look of Rover Thomas, in this case evoking Cyclone Tracy. Compare the more emphatic repeat patterning of John Mawurndjul's 'Mardayin Design at Dilebang', done on eucalyptus bark, or Gulumbu Yunupingu's 'Garak the Universe' (2007), on stringybark.

From here we travel back from the present into the past and revisit Colonial art, early and late. There are some rather beautiful paintings here, such as the great expanse of sky in 'The Flood in the Darling' (1890) by W.C. Piguenit and 'Bushfire' by Eugene von Guerard. Earlier still are the fine group of works by John Glover, successful painter of the English Lakes who emigrated to Tasmania aged 64, and produced such memorable and eye-catching images as 'A Corroboree of Natives in Mills Plains' (1832), with its succulent pink-trimmed sky; a view of his house and garden; and a broad landscape called 'Cawood on the Ouse River', showing him to be a dab hand at speckled hills and packed patterning. There are also a number of excellent watercolours, by George French Angas, John Skinner Prout and E.C. Frome.

Australian Impressionism is the next big subject, the gallery dominated by Arthur Streeton's impressive 'Fire's On' (1891). …

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