Australia’s day in the sun, at the Royal Academy of Arts

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It’s been a long time coming, but the Royal Academy’s survey of Australian art hosts some glorious work, and tells the fascinating story of a country struggling with its identity – and reconciling itself with its past

The Royal Academy proclaims its latest show of Australian art as “the most comprehensive survey of Australian art to have been shown outside Australia.” Which indeed it is, a shoulders-back display of 200 works covering 200 years of a country which has long found expression in its visual art. Australian painting is hardly unknown, of course. Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd have long been applauded figures on the international scene. What has not been covered, at least in this country, has been the whole corpus of a country that has produced a particular and often highly original art of its own once it shed the shackles of colonial dependence.

You can partly blame the Australians themselves for the lack of appreciation. More than most countries, it has carried a baggage of hyper-sensitivity about its place in the world: a longstanding prickliness in its relations with its mother country; the dichotomy of a country whose inhabitants almost all live in its five great cities, but see the outback and the desert as the image of national expression. And, most recently, the guilt felt over the treatment of the Aboriginal inhabitants who were there before the whites came to settle and oppress them.

There is no doubt an element of penance in the way that Australia has elevated Aboriginal art in the last twenty years. The treatment by the settlers of the indigenous population has been truly horrendous, including enforced castration, bounty hunting and enforced separation of children from parents. It was not until 1967 that a referendum allowed them citizenship as of right. The attempt to make up for past sins by ennobling their culture has led to some spectacular frauds, in which false art has been sold as true native expression to a gullible public. Nor can you divorce professional tutelage and art gallery taste from works produced for a Western market. The search for the “authentic” in native art is always a perilous business.

The RA rightly brushes all this aside in a glorious opening gallery, where the visitor is faced with a series of earth-coloured, snake-weaved and rhythmic works by contemporary native artists of quite extraordinary breadth and freedom. Painting in the form of rock art, body decoration and ceremonial composition in the sand have always been an integral part of the Aboriginal culture – a means of expressing the oneness of community, with nature, future and past which lies at the centre of their belief and their “dreaming”. The meaning of the circles, lines and dots may be obscure to the Western viewer, but not the overall effect of swirling shapes and ochre backgrounds in works by John Mawurndjul, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the group effort of the Martumli Community’s Ngayarta Kujarra.

The special bond between place and people forms the theme of the RA’s show. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is a survey of Australian landscape rather than its art as a whole. That leaves some glaring gaps in figurative art. William Dobell is noticeable by his absence, as are painters such as Clifton Pugh and Constance Stokes. There is no mention of the Australian war artist through two World Wars and half-a-dozen others, nor of the Australian artists who left the country to spend their days elsewhere.

But then, for any visitor to Australia, and most of its inhabitants, it is the scrubby land of the outback in Victoria, the forested hills of New South Wales and the bleached desert of central Australia, along with its special fauna and flora, which give the continent its particular visual flavour.

In its early rooms at least, the exhibition is a story of how artists, at first coming from Britain already trained in art and then gradually emerging home grown from among those born there, began to discover and to portray the unique countryside about them. Watercolour was the preferred medium, with a ready market for pictures and prints of the botany of the new land. One of the most striking pictures in the whole show is a monumental portrayal of fish caught in Sydney harbour, painted around 1813, by John Lewin – the first professional free settler artist in the new colony. Convicts turning to art found early remission of their sentences in return for portraying British officers and views of the port.

As the numbers swelled and the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 set off a tidal wave of immigration, so did the inflow of artists from mainland Europe as well as Britain. The show has some fine examples of romantic visions by Nicholas Chevalier and Eugene von Guerard. Interestingly, few of these managed to capture the southern light of Australia. They portrayed in detail the foliage and the land, but not the sky. It was only with W C Piguenit, born in Tasmania in 1836, and then Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and the Australian Impressionists, that you get a Western art that is distinctly Australian.

While American landscape art of the period was always deeply influenced by Europe, with the ease of Transatlantic travel, Australia was far more cut off from seeing European art, or from going half way round the world to see it. The art of the turn of the century was self-consciously assertive of the specialness of place and the stories contained in it. One of the revelations of this show is the range and quality of its impressionist art and the forceful presence of a range of women artists who came to the fore after the First World War, lightening the palette and widening the subject matter of Australian art.

Once travel to and from Australia became easier, especially with the coming of air travel, Australian art became more international in influence and in reputation. Sidney Nolan is here with three of his powerful series on the story of Ned Kelly, the legendary bandit figure with his home-made armour and helmet representing the anarchic and the individual in the Australian character.

There’s a devastating Arthur Boyd, Paintings in the Studio: ‘Figure Supporting Back Legs’ and ‘Interior with Black Rabbit’ from 1973-74; a splendid Brett Whiteley, Big Orange (Sunset) from 1974; and, most satisfying of all, three near-abstract landscapes by Fred Williams, in which he takes the monotony of much of the Australian hinterland and gives it life by painting it in individual components.

Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia, which has organised the show with the RA, tells the story of taking a group of Aboriginal artists on their first visit to a gallery of Western art and showing them the abstract pictures in the expectation of some ready recognition. Masters of a patterned abstraction meant to represent spirit and place, the Aborigines didn’t take to pure abstract at all, with the exception of Fred Williams. He they understood completely.

The mid-century, between the Forties and Seventies, was really the high point of art by major figures. After this, the exhibition inevitably becomes thinner as it tries to encompass the art of the last decades. The Central Australian Aboriginal artists are given proper space in the chronology after the establishment of art facilities in their communities in the 1970s. Their influence on Western Australian painting can be seen in a whole range of artists, from Brian Blanchflower to Tim Johnson, Rosalie Gascoigne and G W Bot. Art photography becomes more prominent, with the growing concern for what urbanisation and mining were doing to the landscape. And there are the first signs of a new multiculturalism with the end of the all-white policy and the relaxing of immigration rules. Australia now looks far more to the East than the West for its markets and for its incomers.

If the show ends on an incomplete note, it is because its art, like the country at large, seems still uncertain of where it is going. For all its size, Australia is still a nation of only some 22 million people – barely more than a third of the United Kingdom’s. No wonder it puts so much emphasis on its native Aboriginal artists. They at least seem confident in their dreaming.

Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020 7300 8000) to 8 December

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