Australia’s Impressionists: National Gallery – and – KidsArt! Competition
“A Holiday at Mentone”, Charles Conder, 1888. Oil on canvas 46.2 x 60.8 cm. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide South Australian Government Grant with the assistance of Bond Corporation Holdings Limited through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation to mark the Gallery’s Centenary 1981. © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
The Australian Impressionists were a group of colonial artists working for around 20 years from 1880s to 1900s who were integral in defining the new Australian nation. (The British first colonised Australia from the late 1700s, and Nationhood was declared in 1901.)
The exhibition focuses on the artwork of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell. The young artists were influenced by the French Impressionists to focus on colour, painting outdoors, and painting every day subjects. (Explain to your child that before Monet and the French Impressionists in 1870s, artists worked in studios rather than outdoors, painted religious, historical, classical or formal portrait paintings, brush strokes were tiny and hidden, and paintings generally took a long time to complete.) The French Impressionists turned traditional art on its head by painting outside to capture the passing effect of light (the light changed fast so they had to work fast!), using visible brushstrokes as part of the “look” (contemporaries thought the paintings were unfinished), and painting scenes of everyday lives (a radical idea at the time although it seems very ordinary to us now).
The French Impressionists famously showed dappled sunlight but there is no dappled light here – the light is non-European – harsh and glaring, and heat radiates from the paintings. Streeton’s huge “Fire’s On” 1891 records the vastness of the Australian landscape and the helplessness of man – the death of a workman laying dynamite to explode through the hills for the new railway track. A human tragedy but dwarfed by the landscape:
Roberts, famous for painting the light and colour of the Australian bush, gives us in “A Breakaway” 1890 a drover chasing a run-away sheep – as well as the visible, ask your child what he or she can hear (noises of the panicking sheep, the horse galloping, the man shouting), and feel (searing heat of the sun, the dust) – the painting is cinematic.
Aside from being painted outdoors, and of “everyday” scenes, the paintings don’t look very “Impressionist” until we reach the artwork of Russell, at the end of the exhibition. Russell’s canvases look like a psychedelic Monet – explosions of colour to evoke the wild beauty around the coast: “Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île” 1890. Some of Russell’s work veers towards abstraction, more reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner than Monet – look at “Rough Sea, Belle-Île” 1900 and then (in a separate gallery) the National Gallery’s own wonderful Turner, “Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway” 1844 – see a connection?
Of course before the British settlers Australia was inhabited by Aboriginals. There is no Aboriginal influence to these paintings, and no notion that the settlers may have been encroaching on Aboriginal land and trampling on Aboriginal traditions – the artwork conveys only the founding of a new land. In fact about two million Aboriginals lived in Australia in 1788, but tragically by 1900 only 50,000 survived – many died of diseases introduced by the settlers. With older children you may wish to discuss the moral issues surrounding this aspect of colonialisation – British settlers’ treatment of the Aboriginals was grim, including forcibly “educating” Aboriginal children away from their parents. This is not at all a part of the exhibition but depending on your child’s age, you may wish to talk to your child about this before you visit.
So what’s here for your children to enjoy and to learn from? Well – the heat, – Stare long enough at Condor’s “A Holiday at Mentone” 1888 and they’ll be back on that beach in July, running the sand between their figures, cartwheeling in the breeze, dancing to the rhythm of the crashing waves. And then there’s the history – Australia is a young nation, and they can see its beginnings. They may also be surprised to see that as long ago as 1890 more settlers lived in towns than in the countryside, and the gold rush was very real “Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West” 1890 by Tom Roberts shows the saturating heat (including ice cart!) of Melbourne, a town built on gold rush money.
So, open their eyes and minds to Australia at the turn of the century and you’ll come back refreshed, informed and … impressed.
For more go to: Australia’s Impressionists – National Gallery
Look again at “Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West”, Tom Roberts. See if you can find out where the “Allegro con brio” part of the title comes from – KidsArt! will give a prize to the first 2 correct replies sent in with a picture drawn in the Gallery – please email entries to email@example.com using the heading “Goldrush”. Winners announced after closing of the exhibition on 26 March 2017.