Since the Australia it was colonized by England only in 1788, the art of its European descendants is relatively young. The first figurative evidence of the colonial period reproduces the peculiar flora and fauna of this strange new continent, pastoral scenes in which the inhospitable Australian landscape appears tamed and anglicized, and also document the growing settlement of Sydney. The first significant works performed in Australia were manifestations of English Romanticism: invariably they represent the unfolding of a ” bold new world ”, a landscape seen in metaphorical terms, spectacular cliffs and waterfalls, dramatic sunsets, all gravitating on a solitary figure, colonial or pastoral scenes.
von Guérard (1811-1901), who worked in Australia from 1852 to 1882, remains the most significant exponent for the intellectual qualitative values expressed in his landscapes: while intent on recording the geological aspects, he manipulated the landscape with romantic sensitivity for symbolic and poetic purposes. An Australian sunset (1857, Melbourne, Art Gallery of South Australia), also titled Stony Rises, Lake Coragamite, is particularly expressive of the modern Australian collective consciousness in representing an aboriginal settlement in idyllic conditions, a whole well-fed, perfect family in its nature-protected Eden. The sunset, however, symbolizes the impending end of Aboriginal culture, as a result of European settlement, already noticeable in the state of Victoria at the time of von Guérard.
By the time of the first centennial of settlement in 1888, Australian art and culture had emancipated themselves from their motherland, England, and its European heritage in the search for an uniquely Australian expression: a cultural nationalism. In painting the subjects were consciously nationalistic and reflected the contemporary political ambitions of achieving independence, achieved in 1901 with the Federation. This significant period of Australian art expressed the new feeling of self-respect and national pride and the specific attempt to represent the sense of identity from Australia recently acquired. True Australian workers, Australian life and history became noble themes, and the lashing heat and flaming light of the sun were regarded as symbols of the Australia more than the delicate (and European) twilights of the artists of the previous century. The paintings present large compositions of figures, expressly created for public exhibitions, such as national museums, where they are still found today.
One of the most famous works by T. Roberts (1856-1931) is Shearing the Rams (1888-90, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria): it represents an inland shearing shed, full of activity, light and shadow; the figures are busily engaged in productive and ennobling work. The painting has taken on a mythical condition, representing ” the perfect expression of a time and a place ”. Similarly A break away! by Roberts himself (1891, Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia) presents a visually strong and action-packed image of pastoral life: a man on horseback and his dog eagerly try to control a flock of thirsty sheep that they rush towards a pool, in a dusty, yellow, drought-stricken interior landscape. Once again Roberts ennobles the bushman- mandrian, thus contributing to the great myth of the Australian hero: a tough, lonely fellow, at ease in the harsh environment of the continent’s interior. Roberts had studied in London in the early 1880s, thus becoming aware of some impressionist elements.
Streeton (1867-1943), F. McCubbin (1855-1917), C. Condor (1868-1909) were the leading exponents of the group known as Heidelberg School, named after a place near Melbourne where artists they worked together en plein air. Although their style was heavily influenced by Impressionism, the Heidelberg painters were concerned with capturing Australian subjects, for leisure or for fatigue.
In the field of sculpture emerged B. Mackennal (1863-1931), who spent most of his life in Europe with frequent trips back to Australia. His most famous work is the life-size statue of the mythical Greek sorceress Circe, inspired by the Homeric narration of the adventures of Ulysses.
Mackennal attended Melbourne’s National Gallery School to study drawing, but learned sculptural techniques primarily from his Melbourne-based father, sculptor and plasterer of architectural models. At the age of 19 he went abroad for the first time to attend the Royal Academy School in London and also went to Paris, where he visited the atéliers of various artists including Australia Rodin. He returned to Australia in 1888, but the reception given to his work was disappointing. In 1891 he was persuaded to return to Paris by the amateur actress and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt, then on tour in Australia. The Circe was exhibited for the first time at the Palais des Champs Elysées in Paris at the Salon of 1893, where it received an honorable mention and the artist enjoyed many awards. The statue, a well-rounded figure with raised arms, each energy concentrated in the formulation of the spell, is of great power: the hair is gathered in a leather helmet, reminiscent of the shape of coiled snakes, and two snakes are coiled. at the feet of the sorceress, another reference to her divine attributes and to the connection between lust and death. The base is surrounded by an intertwining of passionate figures, over which a winged Eros watches, crouching and with his head bowed in the bewilderment of contemplation of the immoderate desires of the flesh. Mackennal then continued a fruitful cultural and creative activity living and working mainly in England.
At the beginning of the 20th century many young Australians worked in Paris, trying then, as still happens today, to diminish the sense of cultural isolation that living and working in Australia entails for talents who actively try to acquire some recognition in the world of international art. It is a constant dilemma: on the one hand Australians seek a peculiar ” Australianness ” within their culture, on the other, at the same time, they have an extraordinary desire for American and European novelties, strengthened by the mass of information that arrives. through art magazines, news and presentations of international exhibitions. Distance and the sense of cultural isolation are compensated considerably by relating to international trends and philosophies. The artists make frequent business trips to the Northern Hemisphere and on their return their exhibitions are eagerly awaited to catch signs of ” international ” influence. Consequently, since its inception, 20th century art has been pluralistic and has taken up styles and schools of thought from the international arena, often adapting them to appeal to Australian contexts.
The First World War coincided with a new impulse towards modernism, and was partly the cause: the war launched the manufacturing industry and the images of peasant life gave way to a “ futurist ” type expression, with works characterized by vibrant color and modernist design. After the war, color and post-impressionist techniques invaded Australia. G. Cossington-Smith (1892-1984) painted scenes from contemporary Sydney life such as Troops Marching (1917, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales) or The Lacquer Room (1936, ibid.) Which represents a popular tea room in Sydney and is an ode to modernity, progress, middle-class values. Another Sydney artist was M. Preston (1875-1963), who, making free use of color and resorting to a decorative style, graphically illustrated the Australian flora, considering the forms that occur naturally in Australia well delineated and geometric. In the 1940s he developed a style inspired by Aboriginal art; his compositions such as Banksia (1927, Canberra Australian National Gallery) feature solid cylindrical or block constructions and are decidedly modern.
Well summarizes the image of the Australian man, slender, lonely, athletic and in a certain way hedonistic, the photograph (silver gelatin) entitled The Sunbaker (1937, Canberra, Australian National Gallery) by M. Dupain (b.1911). R. Drysdale (1912-1981) began his career in the late 1930s; to some extent influenced by surrealism, he only painted Australian subjects of interior life: drought, erosion and struggle. In his paintings the landscape, horizontal, flat, ocher, is inhabited by a few simple figures, sometimes elongated, sometimes corpulent, but always solitary. This depiction of the hinterland, sterile, restlessly empty, of omnipresent vastness, is in stark contrast to the popular delicate landscapes and impressionistic ‘idylls’. It is another interpretation of the Australian identity, flat, earthly, worldly, fatalistic. The Drover’s Wife (1945, Canberra, Australian National Gallery) represents a young woman from the interior in her harsh habitat: her gaze fixes us with uncompromising emptiness.
In the early 1940s, S. Nolan (b.1917), Australia Boyd (b.1923), J. Perceval (b.1923) and Australia Tucker (b.1914) together produced the most significant body of paintings Australian ” informal ” figuratives. These Melbourne expressionist painters are interested in the myths of Australian society: the series on Ned Kelly by S. Nolan (1946-47) re-proposes the exploits of an anti-hero, a bushranger (“outlaw”) of Irish origin, who raged through the countryside with his band, wearing characteristic homemade armor, presented by popular legends as the heroic expression of contempt for authority and wealth.
In the paintings of S. Nolan, Ned Kelly has a solid square helmet that hides and protects his true identity, but through the slit in the metal for the eyes, the landscape behind is invariably seen, revealing the lack of substance, transparency, of the greatest Australian myth. Nolan’s art expresses the uncertainty of white Australians, his fundamental insight that Australians still don’t know who or what they are, and still try to identify with Australia. The work of Nolan and his companions represented a revolution for Australian art and culture: it was a spontaneous, technically irrational expressionism, inspired by literature, myth and poetic subjectivity rather than visual forms.
The 1940s were a period of war unrest for Melbourne: thousands of American and Australian soldiers concentrated in the darkened city. This group of artists actively opposed the war, strongly feeling its disintegrating effect on society.
Victory Girls by Australia Tucker (1943, Canberra, Australian National Gallery) represents the restless sexuality and aggressive hedonism of that time: two girls naked to the waist and wearing only swinging red, white and blue skirts are surrounded by groping uniformed soldiers; their faces are ridiculously made up, they make faces with red mouths and huge eyes; all the figures have ugly porcini noses. The painting’s capacity for impact has not diminished over the years: its wild immediacy clearly expresses the group’s commitment to contemporary political and social phenomena. Later Tucker dealt with more mythical subjects relating to the predatory ” robbery ” of the Australian countryside by European pioneers and explorers.
The conflictual relationship of whites with this land, revealed by the exploitation of nature for mining and industrial and urban development purposes and by the sacrifice of Aboriginal culture, continues to be a fundamental problem for these artists. The most significant exponent of this group was Australia Boyd for his unprecedented commitment to such instances, expressed through a personal narrative style and a very imaginative repertoire of images, which he uses recurrently in his prolific artistic activity.
Coming from a family with artistic traditions (his father was a potter), Boyd began painting landscapes and portraits at a very young age. Through his colleague J. Perceval he entered the Contemporary Art Society (inaugural exhibition in 1939) and immediately turned to a more expressionistic style and symbolic values, representing the bush as a primordial element and incorporating mythical or religious themes in an Australian context (The Expulsion, 1947-48, private collection). His depictions of wartime Melbourne show devastation and the consequent fear of human survival in an industrial wasteland. In Melbourne Burning (1946-47, Melbourne, private collection) the city appears on the distant horizon as a colorless metropolis, while the first floor is dominated by a Brueghelian chaos in the blaze of the fire and in the spread of death and mourning in the air.
Perceval in the 1940s shared many of the concerns of Nolan, Tucker, and Boyd: big-city hysteria, biblical and chaotic mass scenes; but perhaps even more significant are the canvases and ceramic sculptures of children, screaming angels, struggling, desperate or innocent.