Our Lit class recently spent a few hours at the amazing Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney to view Australian paintings from the early to late 19th Century right through to the late 20th Century. Most of these paintings are of the natural Australian landscape and it is interesting to see how over time the perspective of the various artists changed.
In the early 19th Century, the majority of artists were European who would have been astonished by the natural beauty of the Australian scenery, having never seen anything like it before. Early paintings would promote the landscape as they would have back home in England – soft and gentle. Artists would paint what they knew of home. As a result, Australia was often portrayed with bright greens and crystal blue tones. Later on, the artists would start reflecting the true overwhelming feelings they had experienced. Artist Eugene Von Guerard’s shows,by creating a sense of grandness, natures commanding energy from the use of texture and colours especially in his 1861 piece entitled `A figtree on American Creek near Wollongong, N.S.W.’ ( I can’t help but think of the movie `Jurassic Park’ when I look at this painting. The massive scope of the landscape, I keep expecting to see a dinosaur in there somewhere!)
What is remarkable about this painting is the artist, as was the norm of time, created this piece in his studio from a number of sketches he made while visiting the area.
In the late 1880’s a new form of Australian artist emerged. The artists who created the `Heidelberg School’ wanted to exhibit the real Australia- the people, the scenery and the colours of the land. One student, Tom Roberts studied Impressionist and Naturalistic works during a tour of Europe. On his return to Australia in 1885, Roberts shared these techniques with his friends and fellow students. For the first time, Australian artists presented works that depict the reality of Australia- no longer paved in pale light, these new works were bathed in colour and light.
Heidelberg School artist Fred McCubbin’s grand painting `On the Wallaby Track’ was first exhibited in 1890. `Wallaby Track’ was a colloquial term that was used to describe those that lived life on the move, looking for work in the bush and camping out on the roadside.
Despite the melancholy and weariness shown in the piece, the colours and texture used by McCubbin provide a somewhat romantic feeling of connection to the bush.
One of my favourite paintings viewed during our visit was Grace Cossington Smith’s 1955 painting “Interior with Wardrobe Mirrors”.
This work has been described as a self portrait. In a way, though not in the conventional sense, that’s exactly what it is. Cossington Smith has painted a room in her parents house and it reflects her love of her environment, therefore reflecting herself. Using short brushstrokes of colour, the artist has created a warm, bright and spacious feel. The mirror is reflecting the typical Australian backyard and back awning, so while it is an `interior’ piece, it still incorporates the Australian landscape.
While reading Australian period piece literature, it is easy to forget the ruggedness and hostility of the natural landscape. This visit to the gallery helped to re imagine the experience that settlers and early Australians had to adapt to.