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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. 

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Ronald Monroe
September 28th, 2013
8:09 PM
Corrected version of previously sent commemt: Response to Michael Prodger in Standpoint ‘Australia’s artists can be counted on one finger – Nolan.’ Well one finger to you too mate. Just because the likes of Drysdale, Dobel, Lambert, McCubbin, Preston Friend, Cossington-Smith, Ray Crooke, Read, De Maistre, Wakelin, Lloyd-Rees, Eric Wilson, may not have made the RA cut (some did) does not mean they are not worthy of being counted. I think that Dobel portrays the Oz landscape far more validly than Nolan The early artists on the continent were obviously not Australian, hence their difficulty in validly portraying the Australian landscape. Not until locals who grew up there, and absorbed the visual idiom, became artist did that occur. Prodger fails to differentiate between artists working in Australia, and Australian artists. ‘Morally dubious origins;’ they were, don’t forget British criminals, not Australian, and there were actually very few of them; 150,000 in total during the first 72 years compared to a total of about 3 million. Despite Kenneth Clarke, the landscape was often painted for it’s own sake, vide McCubbin, Cossington Smith, Ray Cooke and many others. And how in heaven does Prodger get to equate Ned Kelly (actually a real, murderous, politically embittered Irish immigrant who brought his family’s political past to his new home) with Don Quixote (a fictional, delusional fantasist)?

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