The Antipodean Don Quixote: "Ned Kelly" (1946) by Sidney Nolan
Like a student on a gap year, the Royal Academy is currently struck with wanderlust. Having tried Mexico with its taster summer show of that country's 20th-century painting and photography, it has now crossed the Pacific to Australia for its big autumn exhibition. It is an adventurous decision: for most people, Australia's artists can be counted not on one hand but on one finger — Sidney Nolan. Indeed, in Britain, Australia's most famous art critic, the late Robert Hughes, is probably better known than any of its artists.
The point of the exhibition, with more than 200 works, is to provide an overview of two centuries of paintings that have been little seen or appreciated outside Australia itself. The last two significant surveys here were held in the Tate and Whitechapel galleries in the early 1960s. While Aboriginal art, with its "dreaming" and "creation" themes, has had its moment in the sun as an artistic-anthropological hybrid, the tradition that stemmed from the first settlers has not had the same exposure.
This tradition, with its roots in 19th-century European painting, is based on the land. Kenneth Clark wrote: "In Australian landscape painting, as in all great landscape painting, the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as the background of a legend and a reflection of human values." The legend and values are Australia's foundation myths — the blood and soil ocker mentality that grew from the hardscrabble life and the morally dubious origins of the first settlers. And like the Hudson River School in another young country, America, there is in Australian art a continuous sense of surprise and pride at the vastness of nature.
Initially Australian artists transposed the European traditions of the picturesque and sublime. Eugene von Guérard, for example, trained as a painter in his native Austria but came to Australia in the 1852 goldrush. When that endeavour failed he turned instead to painting the big vistas of his new homeland's mountains and valleys. His indebtedness to the likes of Poussin and Salvator Rosa, though, remains clear. John Glover was another. Born in Leicestershire in 1767, he was a successful landscapist and frequent exhibitor at the RA before he moved to Van Diemen's Land in 1831 where he painted pictures of the large estate he named Patterdale (after his Ullswater farm) that washed their Italianate composition in bright Australian light.
By the late 19th century, however, a more authentic Australian style had begun to emerge. "Australian Impressionists" such as Tom Roberts and Charles Conder did exactly what their Parisian counterparts were doing 10,000 miles away: they caught the trains that had begun to pierce the outback and painted en plein air. But the skies they depicted were bigger, the light harsher and the landscape less verdant than the valley of the Seine. Others, such as Arthur Streeton, painted the very stuff of the young Australia — smoke rising from a minehead, a dried river creek, a settler's hut with a lone tree in an empty landscape.