This is my review of Australia by Wally Caruana,Franchesca Cubillo.
After spending more than two hours trying to absorb the twelve rooms of the Royal Academy’s impressive Autumn 2013 exhibition on Australia, I realised that there is a strong case for obtaining the official guide which covers the totality of exhibits, giving you time to digest at leisure the portrayal of Australian landscape and culture through paintings and photographs.
The official symbol of this striking exhibition is Sidney Nolan’s dramatic portrayal of the outlaw Ned Kelly, dehumanised by his helmet, rectangular and silhouetted in black, with only the sky visible through the visor. Yet, for me, the major discovery was the power and skill of Aboriginal art, initially applying to eucalyptus bark natural pigments of black, red, ochre and white in surprisingly sophisticated cross-hatchings to imitate sandhills, rivers, wildlife, dreams of rain and ancient legends. More recently, native artists have progressed to acrylic on canvas, whilst retaining their traditional themes, which have also been taken up and reinterpreted by the European artists who have settled in Australia.
I was also interested to see how movements such as impressionism and romanticism were developed in the late C19 to early C20 in a distinctive Australian style, influenced by the quality of the unrelenting and brilliant sunlight and the nature of the vegetation, the fronds giving rise to “fernomania” and the varieties of gum tree, relatively sparse-leaved but with branches forming strong patterns. European painters fell in love with the country, like Glover who painted a carefully tended and irrigated flower garden against the background of the natural bush.
Fascinating social history is revealed through the work of early convicts with an artistic bent, or McCubbin’s giant, moving tryptych of “The Pioneer”, arriving in a wagon, working with his wife to establish a holding, until she dies, leaving him to tend her grave. We see the colourful crowd on Manly Beach in 1913 after public bathing had been permitted, the confident “squatter’s daughter” in the 1920s. surveying in the brilliant sunshine the open woodland probably created by generations of aborigines following the practice of using fire to reduce the vegetation, and to bring it up to date, Howard Arkley’s luminously bright rendition of a prosperous suburban house, “Superb and Solid”.
Although there may be some justice in the charge that it would have been better to show more work by fewer artists, this begs the question of which one would choose. As it is, we are given a useful overview of the whole gamut of Australian art, leaving us to pick out and pursue what appeals to us as individuals.