This tiny but beautiful exhibition at the National Gallery coalesces around a previous show that took place in Melbourne, Australia in 1889. It allows those who, like me, come from ‘the provinces’ compare the different ways our countries have dealt, firstly, with the creation of a ‘national’ painting and, secondly, with how our ancestors have depicted the landscape. In Australia’s case, a group of artists composed by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and (very differently) John Russell decided to apply the visual resources of Impressionism to depict the Protean aspects of their changing land.
I particularly loved this show because it deconstructs the way those artists created identity by helping the Australian Federation create its own visual self awareness. On that same line of thought, earlier this year, a failed show took place at the Centro Kirchner in Buenos Aires Argentina called ‘Our Landscape’ only to show our incapacity to either curate or conceive art that shows our land which, by the way, its one of our main assets as a nation. So why are Aussies so good at it while Argies are so helpless?
The 1989 Melbourne Exhibition was called ‘9 by 5’ because of the the size of the boards (the top of cigar boxes) on which these painters worked. Tom Roberts was the leader of a group which most talented figure seemed to be Arthur Streeton. Today, we refer to them as a group because they wrote a manifesto and defined themselves as ‘the Austrial avant garde’, a hundred years after the arrival of the Brits.
At first glance, one might think that their ‘modern’ style is an adaptation of French Impressionism but, according to the curators, Whistler was Roberts’ inspiration after he saw one of his paintings in London. Having said this, what gave a sense of identity to this group was the fact that they used to paint ‘outdoors’. There was something of ‘action painting’ or ‘performance art’ in the way they squatted barns and huts and created a bohemian environment in the countryside redefining that well established European dichotomy between ‘villeggiatura’ and ‘country houses’. There was something Romantic in the way they believed their bodies could express the essence of the Australian landscape by experiencing it.
The exhibition at the National Gallery is structured in three areas. The first one is dedicated to the urban landscape, the second one to the national landscape and the third one to John Russell who instead of bringing Impressionism to Australia goes to France to paint as a fauvist. At the end of the day, this show is about how provincial painters construct identity by borrowing from the style of the metropolis.
It was the room dedicated to the ‘National Lanscape’ the one that particularly interested me in relation to the way Argentine painters from the ‘Generacion de 1880’ saw the land. While in Argentina, the countryside is ignored only to focus on views of the Port of Buenos Aires with the arrival of the immigrants and as a gateway to Europe, in Australia, these artists created a visual language of earthy and golden hues where the land has the structure of waves that cowboys seem to surf. There is something imperial in the way the Australians tried to register what they had probably in fear of losing it. I loved this show. J A T