I’ve just seen one of the most fascinating shows in a long time. It takes place at the Royal Academy and it is called ‘Australia’. The exhibition spans more than 200 years from 1800 to the present day and seeks to uncover the fascinating social and cultural evolution of that nation through its art. Two hundred works including painting, drawing, photography, watercolours and multimedia shed light on a period of rapid and intense change; from the impact of colonisation on an indigenous people, to the pioneering nation building of the 19th century through to the enterprising urbanisation of the last 100 years.
The way its curated has a clarity that astonishes and I can say that after one hour in that show, I learned many things about an art and a country about which I virtually knew nothing. The story of Australia is inextricably linked to its landscape and for Australian artists, this deep connection has provided a rich seam of inspiration for centuries.
The way the indigenous art is placed in the first big room shows how abstraction works for them and the relevance of that in-between ‘dimensions’ way of conceiving the world. Their works are like maps that have a zenith view point which not only includes the morphology of the land but also its spiritual aspects. In the painting that you can see in this blogpost, the trail of a devastating hurricane is depicted and you can see the blackness of its passage against the ripped desert. In another painting, the spiritual ‘points’ in the desert are marked and interconnected as if it were the London tube map. It works in the same way.
Then we pass to the colonial and European depiction of the land. Through a Claude Lorrainesque or Nicholas Poussinesque lens, the land is glorified but the natives are always there. The presence of the original inhabitants is so strong that says a lot of the blondness of that land. So we have the romantic era and the Friedrich-like transformation of Alice Springs into a copycat version of the Alps. It doesn’t work but in the process transform the pigments into the land itself and the Australian romantics end up painting almost like the natives. I am going tot go back to this show because I am very excited about it. Just a thought.
AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY