On 30 October I visited the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was packed… both because it is a great exhibition and also because it was half term and there were lots of kiddies on the floor scribbling away. I would have scribbled away too had I not felt self-conscious in the middle of the crowd.
This exhibition resonated with me. I’d recently read Kate Grenville’s Secret River which gives fascinating insight into the lives of the early colonial settlers – their struggles with the scorching heat, inhospitable, arid land and uneasy, often violent, relationships with the indigenous people who tended to be viewed as dangerous primitives. Only an enlightened few realised that the Aboriginal people had developed a way of living in harmony with their land, fauna and flora. Had the settlers been less hostile they might have learnt valuable lessons and coexisted in peace, if not absolute harmony. Instead Australia’s history is scarred by the brutal way in which the Aboriginal people’s land and way of living was stolen from them.
I visited Australia in my twenties and hitch-hiked from Melbourne to Sidney and up into North Queensland, then inland to Uluru – Ayers Rock as it was then – and back via Brisbane. An epic (if somewhat crazy) trip which has left me with enduring memories of the heat, sunburn, kangeroos, giant fruit bats, the orange earth, coral reefs, towering gum trees, meat pies and seemingly endless space. No crocs though…
This exhibition includes more than 200 works, representing 200 years of Australian Art on the theme of land and landscape from 1800 to the present day in broadly chronological order covering the work of indigenous and non-indigenous artists.
The early Aboriginal art is about the land and made from the land and was painted on rocks, bodies, bark and as ceremonial ground designs. This spiritual art pays tribute to a land believed to have been shaped by ancestral creator beings who transformed themselves into features of the landscape. The work symbolises ‘the Dreaming’, a belief and philosophy related to the balance between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. (It is a tragedy that it took so long for the settlers and the rest of the world to understand and respect the Aboriginal people’s lifestyle and beliefs.)
The indigenous paintings are striking with their repetitive patterns, and a nice reminder of what can be achieved with simple marks. The kids were loving them and I’m sure many went away wanting to draw dots, dashes and lines all over their bedroom walls.
It was a large exhibition and I can’t begin to give a comprehensive review so I will write about some of my personal reactions and highlight a few pictures that stood out for me.
Looking at the work of the early settlers (1,487 people including 788 convicts arrived at Botany Bay in eleven ships having sailed from Portsmouth in 1788) I can’t help but feel the pictures are doing a kind of PR job to put a gloss on what was in reality a tremendous struggle for survival in an alien, unwelcoming land. The images seem to say: “Look at this solid settlement we’ve built, see how we’ve tamed the land and made it our own, look at our plantations, gardens and crops, we’re living the good life.” In fact life was a continuous battle with the land, climate and the natives and, like the crops and livestock, only the hardiest thrived.
I was particularly struck by John Glover’s oil painting ‘A view of the Artists’s House and Garden in Mills Plains, Van Diemens Land (1835). It shows what looks like a traditional English cottage garden (albeit with palms in the background). The message seems to be “Look, it’s just like home – it’s just the trees that are different.”
Two pictures took my attention because of their honesty and because they show the withering sun and scorched earth in all their uncomfortable intensity.
Perhaps these show that nearly a century later people had become more accepting of the extremes of climate and landscape.
It struck me that the progression in artistic style from the early 1800s to the present day was not particularly different to what we see in European Art. This is not surprising as most of the early artists learnt to paint in Europe or were highly influenced by the European style and the settlers wanted to hang on to what they could of traditions and practices from their homelands.
What is different, very different, are the features they painted: white light and shimmering heat, bleached landscapes, towering gum trees, orange dusty earth and the pink glow of the evening sun.
Finally, two completely contrasting pictures chosen for their vitality and simply because I like them.
John Lewin’s Dawes Point and Sydney harbour (c1813) – what a wonderful composition (is it a still life or a landscape?). The fish look as though they are leaping out of the basket.
John Brock, The Car 1955. This could be anywhere and anyone’s family on a day out, until you spot the gum trees. I like the joy of this picture. Mum is smiling at us, Dad is focused on the road ahead, and the kids are off in dreamy worlds of their own.
I regret now that I didn’t watch the BBC TV series The Art of Australia but perhaps if I had done I wouldn’t have been motivated to go to see this exhibition and that would have been a shame. It’s on at the Royal Academy in London until 8 December 2013 and well worth the visit. Wear comfy shoes and give yourself lots of time, there’s a lot to take in!