From The Seine To The Outback

An exhibition of Australian Impressionism demonstrates the movement’s global reach

Michael Prodger

For a movement that concerned itself largely with the landscapes of the Seine valley and the environs of Paris, Impressionism’s reach was global. It was a short hop across the Channel to influence the likes of Whistler, Sargent and Sickert but it was a rather longer one to America where a great number of artists quickly adopted its lessons and mannerisms, among them Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam. The open brushwork, plein air painting and high colours of Monet, Pissarro et al didn’t, however, stop there but kept on going to the furthest side of the world — arriving in Australia within a decade of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874.

Impressionism was not the first foreign style to reach the country; a variety of European-trained artists had been working there for decades. The Devonian history painter William Strutt, the Somerset-born view-taker S.T. Gill, the Austrian mountain specialist Eugene von Guerard, and the Russian-born landscapist Nicholas Chevalier all brought different aspects of the old world to the new. Impressionism though, with its freedom, tonal range and its radical modernity, was the style that could be best adapted to the landscape and mindset of the young country.

The National Gallery’s new exhibition, Australia’s Impressionists (from December 7 to March 26), looks at four of the country’s most accomplished home-grown painters who bent the style to Australian ends: Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and John Russell. All these painters worked at some stage in Europe and all lived into the 20th century, Streeton being the longest- lived, dying in 1943. Their work is united too by a growing sense of national pride as the six British self-governing colonies approached federation in 1901.

Of the four it was Russell who was the most European. Born in Sydney, he spent 40 years as an expat, studying at the Slade in London and then moving to Paris, where he worked with both Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. He later moved to Brittany where he got to know Monet and the young Matisse. When he returned to Australia he brought this formidable painterly provenance with him. As this might suggest, the Australian Impressionists didn’t restrict themselves simply to Impressionism but adhered to naturalism and also adopted elements of aestheticism and symbolism.

This mixture of late-19th-century styles  represented a new way for Australians to look at their land. Roberts, Conder and Streeton introduced their countrymen to this hybrid at the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889 which presented 180 oil sketches — “impressions” — painted on cigar-box lids with the dimensions of 9×5 inches. Some showed urban scenes, many were pure landscapes, while others were of subjects that fed on the country’s hard-scrabble foundation narrative.

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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