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One such work is Streeton’s Fire’s On, 1891, showing an incident when a navvy helping to construct the Lapstone Tunnel through the Blue Mountains was killed by an explosion: Streeton had witnessed the blast from a few feet away. In the painting the dead man is being carried out from the mine into the hot light of an otherwise unremarkable cleft in the mountains. A waft of smoke in the still air is the only external sign of the tragedy that has just occurred, recalling, as do the mine carriage tracks, the steamy Parisian railway stations beloved by the Impressionists half a world away. The contrast between French urban safety and the danger inherent in the Australian hinterland is stark.

As is the contrast with another Streeton painting, Blue Pacific, 1890, the first Australian picture in the National’s collection. Here is an antipodean translation of Monet’s paintings of the Normandy cliffs at Etretat made 10 years earlier and especially a picture such as Clifftop Walk at Pourville, 1882. Streeton’s picture shows the promontory at Coogee, a suburb of Sydney, in an almost identical format: the same combination of walkers, bluffs, sea and wind. Streeton’s fidelity to landscape is the greater of the two and the coloration is drier but otherwise the painting, like many of the 41 in the show, is an emigrant from France that has turned defiantly native.

What does a typical Robert Rauschenberg look like? While with the majority of artists it is usually possible to answer such a question: not so with Rauschenberg. Tate Modern’s new exhibition (from December 1 to April 12), the first major retrospective of his work here for 35 years, shows both what a protean artist he was and how he was a precursor to many late 20th-century movements.

Born in Texas, Rauschenberg (1925-2008) studied in America, Paris and under Josef Albers, one of the founders of the Bauhaus, before moving to New York where he joined the tail-end of Abstract Expressionism. Labels, though, don’t really do him justice: he was both a neo-Dadaist and an early Pop artist but never fully fitted any one style. His stated interest was “in the gap between art and life” and so he worked in a bewildering number of mediums: painting, collage, photography, silkscreens, sculpture and found objects among them.

His subjects incorporated modern America in the shape of JFK and Apollo 11, art technique in his white and black monochromes, performance when he worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and randomness with the “Combines” he made from rubbish and found objects which he incorporated into works that are part sculpture and part painting. In such pieces appear taxidermied goats and chickens, a quilt, stools, tyres, boxes and screens — anything, in fact, that would push the boundaries of what materials and appearance were appropriate for art.

His work is often messy and rackety but in its formlessness and its refusal to pander to conventional ideas of beauty it is full of ideas — ideas, it must be said, he was often too much of a flibberty-gibbet to work through before he was off again.

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