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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star