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Australia at the Royal Academy

By Anna Leung

That the Royal Academy’s autumn show has as its title Australia rather than Australian Art is no accident but points to the many difficulties attendant on curating this exhibition. “Australia” denotes the land mass rather than its inhabitants. It stands for an entity that exists on different levels, historical, social and ideological as well as having an enduring symbolic presence. The exhibition attempts to position itself in relation to man and his environment in the interstices between the founding of the colony, its growing self consciousness as a separate nation but part of the British Commonwealth, and its continuous Aboriginal history which was for a long time disavowed. What quickly becomes apparent is the distinction between the linear trajectory of Western art movements and the circularity of Aboriginal culture which, based on ritual not exchange value, fulfils a deep spiritual need and inhabits a different present. The curators have dealt with this difference by interspersing the three galleries given over to Aboriginal art within the main body of the exhibition. As a result the sequence is somewhat confusing and a smooth chronology disrupted. On the whole, though, I think this decision is to the exhibition’s gain.

The very first room, for example, which is electric with aboriginal work from various tribes, makes the very next gallery in which botanical, scientific and topographical paintings from the very early days of exploration and colonial development when penal colonies gradually expanded into towns and felons into colonists, appear by comparison all the more sombre. Halfway through the exhibition there is a gallery devoted to bark painting which tends to concentrate on x-ray depictions of totem animals, followed by a gallery of contemporary Aboriginal art that includes some white Australian painters, Brian Blanchflower and Tim Johnson for instance, whose work has been to some degree influenced by indigenous art. But there is remarkably little indication of any influence in the other direction, the one exception being Namatjira whose watercolour paintings were influenced by western styles. This is not that surprising when you consider that he was the first Aborigine to be granted Australian citizenship. Thus despite its impact Aboriginal art, or rather the new Aboriginal art, has remained profoundly foreign and that is part of its attraction.


The relationship with the continent’s indigenous culture is but one aspect of the problematic identity of the Australian artist. The relationship with Europe and with both European classical and academic aesthetic traditions and modernist avant gardes constitutes another seemingly intractable existential condition that underlines a history of cultural isolation and helps explain the Australian artist’s predicament. For the Western art tradition rooted in classicism and the renaissance would have had little bearing on the harsh physical landscape the first generation of artist-convicts, often forgers, would have encountered. The first attempts at landscape, centred in the habitable coastal regions around Melbourne and Sydney, were seen through a Claudian spy glass and tended to take on the guise of the picturesque which both suited propaganda designed to encourage immigration and confirmed for the early colonialists their own Englishness.


Glover (1767-1849) the first artist of independent means to choose to settle in Tasmania depicted his house and farm as an Arcadian garden in which home grown and exotic species grew luxuriantly along side of each other. However this is but one side of the story. In the course of the nineteenth century the coastal regions of Australia’s wilderness would be tamed, made over by the sheer muscle power of the settlers or squatters from an inhospitable wilderness into a relatively friendly world that reciprocally transformed the felon into a strong and clean citizen, but dispossessed the Aborigines of their cultural and sacred sites. Noticeable too throughout Australia’s history is the inclusion and exclusion in paintings of the continent’s indigenous peoples; some of the early artists were particularly sympathetic to their plight. But even more apparent is a pattern that seems to oscillate between times of prosperity when the land becomes Australia Felix, a term coined by the explorer Thomas Mitchell to describe the lushness of the land he found in Western Victoria, and times of want and decline when the Australian hinterland or outback lapses once more into a malevolent and implacable environment that could never defer to European criteria of aesthetics. It is therefore not surprising that Australian artists have tended to suffer from an identity crisis which many in both the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, provided they had the means, attempted to solve by becoming expatriates and building their reputations closer to the centre of aesthetic excellence and power in Paris, Munich or London. Some never returned; and some like Sidney Nolan took on another nationality, in his case Irish. This of course makes it much more difficult whom to identify as Australian especially if most of their lives were spent abroad.



In the beginning though the immigration was in the other direction with artists, some of whom may not have made a name for themselves in their own countries, taking up posts in Australia. This was after the gold rush of 1851. The transportation of convicts had ended in 1840 but voluntary settlers had not been in a hurry to replace them till the gold rush when the population of New South Wales and Victoria trebled. With the new wealth and moves towards self government came an influx of European trained artists-cum-adventurers who brought with them the spirit of German romanticism with its belief in nature as a living force with which man could commune but could not contain, eg Von Guerard’s Bush Fire. This group of artists, including Von Guerard, Schramm and Chevalier, chose as their sites not the land claimed by the settlers but distant landscapes that seemed to belong to some timeless phase of pre-history to which the Aborigines seemed naturally to belong and in which they are pictured as tiny figures in the landscape. Meanwhile their paintings of primeval forests contributed to making the tree fern extremely fashionable in Victorian conservatries.

Equally important was the Swiss artist Buvelot who brought with him ideas from the Barbizon School, including its practice of plein air painting, which was to influence the next generation of artists who came to be known as the Heidleberg School. Though strictly speaking not impressionists, save in their allegiance to painting straight from the motif, which gave them a spontaneity and freshness of vision, and despite their being influenced by the French academic painter Bastien–Lepage and Whistler, they became known as the Australian Impressionists. Roberts, who had once been Buvelot’s student, Streeton, Condor and McCubbin were the main exponents of this new direction, which coincided with a period of prosperity and optimism. Buvelot had already turned away from the representation of the sublime to the theme of the domestication of the bush into cultivated farm or park land which he made evident by discreet signs of human activity. In Streeton’s The Selector’s Hut 1890 the pioneer is shown resting from his work his axe by his side, having claimed the bush for the habitation of the white man. The settler had become the hero, a mythic figure justifying the annexing of land commonly seen as unoccupied. Other paintings, Robert’s The Sunny South 1887 and Condor’s A Holiday at Mentone 1888, have as their motifs leisure as the just deserts of honest work; honest being the operative word since it is as if the artists and their public were deleting the  origins of their nation as a penal colony by re-imagining its birth on the frontiers of civilisation in which, it goes without saying, the Aborigine no longer had any place. A good example is Streeton’s Golden Summer 1888 that presages a turn towards the aesthetic. The figure of the Aborigine tends to reappear like the spectre haunting the mindset of the nation in less favourable times, which in the nineties were indeed to come.


The Heidleberg group were Australia’s first successful art movement and they demonstrated this by organising the first avant garde exhibition in Australia; the title 9 x 5 referred to the dimensions of cigar-box lids which were used as a support on which to capture fleeting images especially in an urban setting, such as Condor’s How we Lost Poor Flossie 1889, Flossie being the family pet dog. Robert’s Break Away 1891, with its essentially Australian narrative can be seen as the beginning of a turning point presaging disaster but at the same time expressing the bushman’s determination to impose his will on nature as he tries to prevent the sheep’s headlong race to destruction in their desperation to find water. Much the same can be said of Streeton’s Fire’s On 1891, which refers to the accidental death during a railway excavation of a miner whose body is being carried out on a stretcher. By the mid-nineties, optimism was running out and a gentler, more poetic form of landscape that no longer had the force of history behind it was taking its place.


The McCubbin triptych The Pioneer represents the culmination of this movement of optimistic expansion despite the fact that it was already on the wane by the time it was painted. The triptych tells the exemplary story of the pioneer settler, and his somewhat reluctant wife, who forgoing creaturely comforts and confronting manifold difficulties succeed in creating a new home in the bush and laying the foundation for a new utopian city that we glimpse in the background of the third panel. A period of more elegiac painting followed. It is as if the bush once conquered inspired a certain melancholy. David Davies’s Moonrise 1894 is pregnant with this mood while in Heysen’s Red Gold 1913 the two gum trees, now seen as victims, stand like stranded giants besides the country track. Nature is no longer an object of man’s will but a repository of dreams and of the imagination. Landscape becomes peopled with nymphs and satyrs, as in Long’s The Spirit of the Plain 1897 that comes very close to Art Nouveau but is at the same time a covert admission that the outback would in all likelihood continue to resist colonialization.


Lambert’s The Squatter’s Daughter 1923-24 suggests a new proprietorial narrative and introduces the modern period, a time when Australia, having weathered a series of financial crises in the nineties, felt itself to have come of age and proved itself by having taken an heroic part in WWI. The time of settlement was over and a new generation of artists was eager to catch up with what was happening in the art world in the West.  Having taken the decision to travel to the West many chose to remain there; de Maistre is a good example. One of the most intellectual of Australian artists who with Wakelin and Grace Cottington Smith - who was fascinated by the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge - was one of the main proponents of modernism and had gone so far as to apply his musical colour theory to abstract form in 1919, he left Australia a decade later never to return. He was to become a close friend of Francis Bacon whom he first met in Paris.

That Post Impressionism, like most art movements, came to Australia’s shores with a delay was predictable, and the absence of the original social and ideological ideas that sustained it made it all the more difficult for Australian artists to really understand modernism and appreciate its radical gambits. It all too easily reverted to a style shorn of substance. Margaret Preston, who is best known for her still lifes, is one of the few artists who engaged both with modernism and with indigenous painting, using the aboriginal sense of colour and texture to create Aboriginal Landscape in 1941. The years leading up to WWII witnessed the re-emergence of the view of Australia as a hostile, hallucinatory and malevolent environment. Russell Drysdale, one of Australia’s most popular painters, made a complete break with the naturalism of the Heidleberg School. Drawing on the expressionistic and surrealistic sources he had assimilated whilst in Europe he was able to envision this harsh, unforgiving landscape and give his weird assemblages of natural and manmade objects a bizarre theatricality and a nearly caricatural stylisation which became all the more marked during the drought year in 1944. His famous painting, a decade later, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, who embodies the values of fortitude and resilience, retains elements of this surreal vision even as it marks a return to a more naturalistic style. He was in addition one of the first in his generation to depict the Aborigines.


During this interwar period Australian art was catching up with artistic ideas such as Dada, Constructivism and Cubism that had been at the forefront of European innovative art practices throughout the previous decades. An Australian avant garde was in the making which, like all avant gardes, was ignored and lampooned by the public. But for the artists associated with the literary and arts review Angry Penguins, which was based on expressionist and surrealist ideas, this was merely grist for the mill. Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd were among the most prominent members of this movement and both subsequently won recognition overseas. Nolan’s family, like Boyd’s and Drysdale’s, went back several generations, but whereas Drysdale’s were aristocratic farming gentry and Boyd’s part of the artistic aristocracy, Nolan’s were Irish working class. Nolan is best known for his Ned Kelly series. Riding towards the sunset through the desert landscape clad in his hand-made armour, Nolan figured Ned Kelly as a nomadic folk hero, a victim of injustice and the antithesis of the settler. Hanged for theft and murder in the 1880’s he was famed for laconically saying “Such is life” as the noose was placed over his head. Nolan has explained that the main subject of this series of paintings was the landscape, its extraordinary light and colours, which he captured through the use of enamel ripolin. Often described as naïf Nolan admitted his to debt to Douanier Rousseau and to Picasso though perhaps even more relevant is the influence of child art. However the fact that he chose to helmet his hero/anti-hero in a black square is a measure of his sophistication in its homage to the Russian modernist Malevich. There was too an element of autobiography in all this since Nolan had deserted from the army.


Boyd also produced a series of highly disquieting pictures; compared to Boyd’s, Nolan’s paintings have a strange stillness and luminosity. Boyd’s influences, grafted onto European expressionism and surrealism, were Bosch and Breughel and his scenarios are not Nolan’s red desert but the moist, dark primeval forests. His paintings often have a religious dimension and his Biblical figures, much like Stanley Spencer’s, inhabit their own familiar terrain, His protagonists caught up in an hallucinatory world of frustrated desire and anguish have an emotional intensity that contrasts with the peacefulness of his later landscapes which date from his return to Australia in 1972. It is a shame these have not been included in the show. Having landscape as the central idea around which to curate the show has meant that much figurative as well as abstract work has been excluded from what is in many respects an historical survey. Moreover, compared to the space given over to the earlier period, that given over to contemporary artists seems minimal and the choice of artists somewhat arbitrary. The two best known contemporary landscape artists are Fred Williams whose nearly abstract paintings evoke rather than describe the landscape of the outback and Olson, whose recently painted King Sun hangs resplendent from the ceiling, a work that bears witness both to Jackson Pollock and to the spirit of indigenous art making.


For me it is undeniably difficult not to look back to the three galleries of Aboriginal art and not be overwhelmed by their intricate compositions, their shapes, colours and textures while at the same time being aware just how deceptively close their relationship is to Western abstract design. Theoretically, though modern, Aboriginal art come closest to Post Modernism naturally siting itself within global art; it’s a strange meeting of opposites. The turning point for Aboriginal art was in 1971 when Geoff Barden an art teacher at Papunya School, a settlement outside Alice Springs in the Northern Territories, saw the potential for an abstract mural in some of the non- durable motifs used in aboriginal ceremonies but did not realise that the children at the school who had not reached the age of initiation did not have the sacred knowledge to do this work. When consulted the older tribal men proposed painting a large mural with the express purpose of relaying this tribal knowledge. This was done and precipitated a torrent of acrylic paintings on board, masonite or any other support though the mural was eventually painted over for fear of revealing too many tribal secrets and visual codes. But within a decade Aboriginal art was being recognised as “fine art” as opposed to ethnographic or tourist art, though the danger of its numinous dimensions being eroded by the art world’s stress on individualistic and competitive values remains.


The acceptance in the art world of Aboriginal art as the West’s primitive “other” coincided in the seventies with Post Modernism’s seeming openness to “difference” and hybrid art together with its emphasis on land and body art and on the politics of identity and the environment. Such issues sit easier with Aboriginal art in terms of its concerns with extra-aesthetic questions than with the self-scrutinising of autonomous modernist painting which despite its primitivist borrowings remained Eurocentric. But it is precisely because of these leanings which now go back over a century that the three rooms devoted to Aboriginal paintings such as Tjakamara’s Five Dreamings 1984, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong 1976, Yunupingu’s beautiful Universe 2007 and Big Yam Dreaming 1995 by Kame Kngwarreye, that with its skeins of black paint cannot help remind us of Jackson Pollock and Brice Marsden, seem to speak to us and seem closer to both a modern and post modern aesthetic sensibility than do the rooms filled with the colonial and settler art that dates from almost two hundred years ago.


We can appreciate its beauty but this does not mean we really understand it. Aboriginal art remains profoundly foreign to the Western mind, which is why its impact on contemporary Western art is minimal. Part of Aboriginal mythology is based on the reality of the Aboriginal dreamland which is about survival in a harsh landscape and which by contrast highlights the lack of identity that has dogged Australian art since its inception. Unlike Aboriginal art Australia’s art still has a fragile root system, for compared to the eons Aborigines have dwelt in this continent the colonialist experience of living in this land is as nothing. The two worlds, the Western, within our time, and the Aboriginal, beyond time, no longer collide but do they converge. The aboriginal experience remains the dreamland for contemporary Australian art, which is beginning to forego the notion of identity as it becomes increasingly international.

Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions.

Cover: Shaun Gladwell,

'Approach to Mundi Mundi', 2007.

Single-channel HD/DVD, 16:9 ratio colour, silent 8 minutes, 37 seconds. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. John Kaldor Family Collection. © Shaun Gladwell. Photo Josh Raymond/Cinematographer Gotaro Uematsu/Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery Australia.


Sidney Nolan,

'Ned Kelly', 1946.

Enamel paint on composition board. 90.8 x 121.5 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Sunday Reed, 1977.


Rover Thomas [Joolama],

'Cyclone Tracy', 1991.

Natural earth pigments and binder on canvas. 168 x 180 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1991. © the artist's estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre.


Grace Cossington Smith,

'Four Panels for a Screen: Loquat Tree, Gum and Wattle Trees, Waterfall, Picnic in a Gully', 1929.

Oil on cardboard. 144.2 x 53 cm (each). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1976. © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith.


Brett Whiteley,

'Big Orange (Sunset)', 1974.

Oil and collage on wood. 244 x 305 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Gift of Patrick White, 1975. © Wendy Whiteley. Photo AGNSW.

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