Australian Visitors: 'Australia' at the Royal Academy of Arts, London


A darkened antechamber greets me at the entrance to Australia; Shaun Gladwell’s now iconic lone motorcyclist in Approach to Mundi Mundi 2007 fills the void in a vast bright projection. The figure rolls through an expanding, dry desert-scape in a calm balancing act, establishing the major themes of the Royal Academy’s extensive exhibition: landscape and identity.

The exhibition, which was organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Australia, is a gargantuan curatorial undertaking, encompassing over 200 years of Australian art and featuring 205 artworks from public and private collections throughout Australia and Britain in the largest exhibition of Australian art ever shown outside Australia.

The central themes of landscape and identity thread their way through the exhibited works. Happily, there is no over-arching vision of Australian national identity; the larrikin, bushranger or otherwise uncouth colonial isn’t assumed. The emblematic Australian Impressionists are well represented, yet they do not dominate and a careful, even weighting is evident in the overall choice of artworks and their relative placement. The exhibition presents a multi-faceted image of Australia and what it means to be Australian, and lesser known artists are included alongside their internationally acclaimed peers.

Although the exhibition’s 13 rooms are largely ordered chronologically, the first room bypasses this compartmentalisation. Here, Indigenous paintings on bark and canvas from the last fifty years point to visual traditions that stretch back 50,000 years. Many are monumental works, such as Emily Kam Kngwarray’s Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) 1995 and the Martumili Artists’ vast ode to the salt lake of the Punmu community, Ngayarta Kujarra 2009.

Doreen Reid Nakamarra’s Untitled 2007 is cleverly displayed horizontally on a table at shin height, reminding viewers of the traditional practice of mark-making and storytelling on the ground, while simultaneously presenting the work from its ideal perspective. Viewing Nakamarra’s painting from above, an illusion of three-dimensionality brings the sand hills, or tali, to the fore in a mesmerising pattern of earthen browns and ochres which tell the story of the ancestral birthing place of Pintupi women.

In the ninth room, which explores the important desert painting developments at Papunya in the 1970s, this display choice is re-enacted with Dorothy Napangardi’s Sandhills of Mina Mina 2000. Placed between a room marked Late Modernism (1940-50), a vestibule titled Indigenous Bark Painting and a room labelled Early Contemporary (1960-80), it is fabulous to see these Indigenous works exhibited contextually, illustrating the artistic and cultural significance of the Papunya artists.

Similarly, the cross-pollination of ideas between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists is clear in the choice of works displayed in the late modernist section. Margaret Preston’s Aboriginal Landscape 1941, and her Flying over the Shoalhaven River 1942 are clear examples of her intentional referencing of Indigenous colours and motifs. Nearby, in the same room, two landscape paintings by Albert Namatjira typify why his work in the European tradition of watercolour was so highly lauded in Australia.

The colonial works in rooms two and three detail shifting perceptions of the land, from an inhospitable and often frightening landscape to “home”. John Lewin offers us the first vision of an Australian pastoral landscape in his watercolour View from Governor Bligh’s Farm, Hawkesbury, New South Wales c.1808; a work which celebrates the land’s yield that harvest through the blunt stubble of grain crop that remains in the foreground. The works by John Glover are particularly telling of land redevelopment, as the natural wilderness found in A Corroboree of Natives in Mills Plains 1832 is replaced with a lovingly tended garden in A View of the Artist’s House and Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land 1835 which pictures the same area only a few years later.

Elsewhere, William Westall’s tropical beachscape and sublime vista in oils provide examples of a romanticised southern land for British visual consumption. Eugene von Guérard is present, with a number of paintings. Most notably, von Guérard’s North-east View from the Northern Top of Mount Kosciusko 1863 provides a dramatic example of the German Romantic tradition popular in Australia at the time.

An intriguing theme is the Australian taste for ferns in the visual and decorative arts of the mid 19th century. National Gallery of Australia director, Ron Radford drew Australian “fernmania” to our attention as an example of the varied interpretations of the landscape, as he showed the press through this section of the exhibition. Here lush gullies of virgin forest in oils by von Guérard and Isaac Whitehead and an engrossing albumen silver photograph by Nicholas Caire contrast the desert scenes and weather extremes elsewhere in the exhibition.

Three silverworks featuring Australian flora and fauna are particularly interesting: Henry Steiner’s Inkwell c.1870 and Julius Schomburgk’s Duncan Challenge Trophy c.1870 and John Ridley Testimonial Candelabrum 1860. Steiner’s provides a bacchic, near "et in Arcadia" scene; grape vines, palm trees and languid figures adorn a polished emu egg while at the base, two Aboriginal men, picked out in bronze, are shown injured and in defence of the vessel, which is easily understood to be the land itself. Schomburgk’s works reference the land as a source of wealth via sheep farming and mining; malachite lozenges embellish his candelabrum of ferns and native flowers, and miniature agricultural and mining scenes figure on his trophy. As elaborate decorative ornaments, these works aid an understanding of perceptions of the land and of Indigenous peoples at the time of their production.

Iconic Federation images, such as Tom Roberts’ A Break Away! 1891, Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On 1891 and Frederick McCubbin’s monumental three ages of man, The Pioneer 1904, are balanced with small, intimate portrayals of individual scenes, such as Charles Condor’s How We Lost Poor Flossie 1889 and with the reality of the city, in Roberts’ Allegro con brio: Bourke Street West c.1885-86.

Condor’s fabulous beach scene A Holiday at Mentone 1888 prefigures the motif of the bronzed Aussie and signals the beginnings of leisure time for the Australian public. The joie de vivre of this new found free time is captured in the happy, vibrant crowd in Manly Beach – Summer Is Here 1913 by Ethel Carrick. Later in a further room, Albert Tucker’s marooned Sunbathers 1944, Max Dupain’s sleeping Adonis Sunbaker 1937 and the tableau of muscular bodies in Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern 1940 point to a confident society indulged by the sun.

The exhibition features many famous Australian modernists and early contemporary artists. Arthur Boyd, Hans Heysen, Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, John Olsen, Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams are present as well as other artists not well known to UK audiences, such as Adrain Feint, Dorrit Black, Grace Cossington Smith, Clarice Beckett, Jessie Traill, Horace Trenerry, Lloyd Rees, Jeffrey Smart, Eric Thake and Ian Fairweather.

Nolan features heavily with six works. His iconic Ned Kelly 1946, striding out on horseback, is the poster image for the exhibition and can be seen fluttering on a banner outside the Academy. Four of the six works are from his series on Kelly, and although this bulk of works may be considered a jewel in the exhibition, it does beg the question of whether Australia’s convict history has been overplayed in the advertising for the show.

A highlight of the Early Contemporary (1960-80) room is Olsen’s radiant ceiling triptych Sydney Sun 1965 which smiles down from above. The painting is hung horizontally from the ceiling, to be viewed by looking directly up, and is full of the exuberance and optimism of a brilliant summer’s day.

Overtly political artworks from the 1970s onwards are exhibited in room 11. Many of these pose comments on black/white relations; others explore the experiences of migrants and examine environmental threats. Bea Maddock’s Terra Spiritus... with a Darker Shade of Pale 1993-98 maps the coastline of Tasmania through rich ochres, labelling places with both their Indigenous and English names, in a reimagining of explorers’ depictions of the land. Further contemporary luminaries are found in the final two rooms; Howard Arkley, Rosalie Gascoigne, William Robinson, Elisabeth Cummings, Imants Tillers, Fiona Hall, John Beard and Danie Mellor are just a few.

A mesmerising finale appears in the final room with a cloudscape by Daniel Crooks. For the videowork Cloud Atlas (Fitzroy 1:23) 2012 Crooks mounted a camera to the roof of his car, aimed it skywards and drove in geometric patterns around Fitzroy, mapping the clouds that afternoon and capturing the dominance of the Australian wide sky.

Australia is an impressive and comprehensive exhibition. It is difficult to present a nation’s art under the banner of its name without fashioning a neat definition of its national character, or a simplification of its culture, even if unintentionally. Instead, Australia greets the viewer with a multifaceted image. For many non-Australian visitors, the breadth and overall introspection of works will come as a surprise; perhaps the mantle of colonial backwater may, just finally, be shrugged.

This article was first published in the Art Gallery of New South Wales' Look magazine (December 2013-January 2014).