Australia’s Impressionists at the National Gallery
The subject of the latest exhibition at the National Gallery comes as a bit of a surprise. The museum is renowned for having one of the best collections of European painting in the world, but the works in this show come from a bit further afield: Australia.
These are artists who, on the other side of the world, drew influence from the new group making waves in Paris and London in the late 1800s. The Impressionists would have a lasting effect on art, and it’s fascinating to see how its famous tropes were discovered, adopted and reinterpreted by the four Australian artists in the exhibition.
Three of these artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – are introduced early in a section which examines the birth of Australian Impressionism. It looks at an exhibition organised by the three men (who were close friends) called the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, held in Melbourne in 1889. The show got its name from the small size of the paintings, most of which were completed on the lids of wooden tobacco boxes. The images are charming and intriguing, drawing the eye into the sparsely rendered scenes.
Their work later developed to include larger and more sophisticated works, many of which drew on European ideas and techniques as well as on the artists’ understanding of Australia. For example, Arthur Streeton’s 1895 painting Ariadne treats a theme from European classical mythology, but in an inescapably Australian way. His loose, textured brushstrokes depict stretches of white sand and red rocks as a dark-haired, dark-skinned woman cries into her hands. It manages to be both sad and uplifting at the same time. This could almost be a metaphor for the Australian relationship with the country’s landscape, which these painters repeatedly depict as both a romantic idyll and a harsh, dangerous reality.
None of the artists on show in the exhibition is well known outside Australia. To put on an exhibition of their work in the National Gallery over the Christmas period is a daring and admirable move. Their rendering of Australia’s shimmering light, vast open spaces and oppressive heat offers a sharp and welcome contrast to the gloomy skies and chilly wind that usually prevail in London at this time of year.
Australia’s Impressionists is at the National Gallery from 7th December 2016 until 26th March 2017, for further information visit here.