Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Australian art from a British perspective: Landscapes at the Royal Academy

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, August 2013

The Royal Academy of Art's exhibition of landscapes, Australia, will most likely be a spectacular guide through Australian art history. As a visual proposition alone, the sight of the uniquely Australian grains, hues and tints of some of the nation's most celebrated works surely cannot help but be enhanced, and benefit from added meaning, in the grand, regal surrounds of the Royal Academy's London galleries.

But at the same time, this landmark exhibition does give rise to some questions, and perhaps problems, regarding Britain's relationship with its former colony.

Australia was first announced in 2011 amid much excitement from the Academy, who crowed that it would be the "most significant survey of Australian art ever mounted in the UK". And indeed it is nothing if not comprehensive; included are Aboriginal artists Albert Namatjira, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, as well as early immigrant artists John Glover and Eugene von Guerard. Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin fly the flag for 19th and early 20th century impressionism. Modernism is represented by Grace Cossington Smith and Roy de Maistre among others, while 20th century giants such as Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan are naturally included. Modern practitioners such as Christian Thompson, video artist Shaun Gladwell and photographer Tracey Moffatt complete the line-up, which is defined by this flexible, wide-ranging notion of 'landscape'.

And it is this theme that hints at a telling attitude towards Australian art from Britain. To deem it patronising is perhaps too strong, but for Joanna Mendelssohn, Australian critic and associate professor at the University of NSW's College of Fine Arts (COFA), there is an undercurrent of a rather parental determination to project, and even smother with, a certain manner and values.

Noting landscape as an ingrained part of the British artistic tradition, Mendelssohn says, "What I find surprising about this exhibition is that the brief seems to have been fairly conservative. The landscape is such a very strong British tradition, and it seems when they look to the art of the former colonies they do tend to cast us as much as possible in their own image. When the British want to look at Australian art they do insist on the landscape.

"There's a particular British consciousness that doesn't seem to get over the fact we stopped being a colony some years ago."

Because of the colonial ties, it was inevitable during Australian art's formative years that it would reflect Britain's devotion to the beloved landscape before its own character and idiosyncrasies took shape. And while accusations of the exhibition's outdated premise are valid, the Academy is nevertheless embracing of the peculiarities of Australian art from the mid-19th century onward, albeit within the boundaries of landscape.

Australia is curated by Kathleen Soriano, director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy. "Certainly the influence of English, French or German art is much more evident in the early periods, in the early 1800s to mid-1800s," she says. "What I wanted to show was how Australian art develops a real distinctiveness, associated with the landscape and the light."

The fusion of 'tradition' of the European kind with something more specifically Australian, and often personal, is crucial to the exhibition and extends particularly to some of the more contemporary artists involved.

Sydney-born video artist Shaun Gladwell is a neat example of these complications. A truly international, globetrotting artist practicing within a multi-cultural context, he still is able to locate his work within a lineage that goes back to British landscape art from the 19th century. So while it may seem narrow for Britain to reduce Australian art to the landscape, there can be little denying British landscape painting is still relevant to a current generation of Australian practitioners, however indirectly.

One of Gladwell's most notable works is Approach To Mundi Mundi, which will feature in Australia. Arguably his most famous piece, however, is Storm Sequence, a video of Gladwell himself skateboarding on the Bondi seafront as one of Sydney's signature brutal storms lingers offshore. It is Gladwell's nod to the landscape (or seascape) tradition, tinged with his own individualism.

"I always thought my work was bad examples of landscape," he says, "particularly in terms of weather. Storm Sequence is a shocking postcard of Bondi, it's kind of the antithesis of advertising and tourism promotion images. This huge storm was blurring the detail of that space.

"To show my work in this show might make some sense because I was interested in Turner and the idea of atmosphere affecting vision, something I was really interested in around the time of Storm Sequence. I was thinking about this tradition of Romantic landscape but I wanted to make it personal, I didn't want to just embark on appropriating imagery from elsewhere. I wanted to bring it to my experience and my world through skateboarding and beach culture."

When visitors first enter the exhibition the first thing they will encounter will be Indigenous art, the idea being that these works warrant the prominent position because it was 'first'. Over the last couple of decades London has hosted many successful exhibitions of Aboriginal art in smaller spaces, but for Soriano, Australia represents an opportunity to place such art in a new context, and with new relationships to the art of the settlers and white Australia.

"One of the reasons landscape struck me as being the right theme was because Aboriginal art started in and on the landscape," she says. "[The exhibition] is a beautiful meshing of the two different kinds of art, that allowed me to bring them together comfortably and honestly with this theme. It was important for me to present Indigenous art to audiences at the Royal Academy, and I felt it was important that it was seen as part of Australian art history, rather than a separate exhibition on its own."

One way the Aboriginal art in this exhibition must categorically stand apart is that it is generally not beholden to a tradition or style from a distant land, nor cares about its approval. Another issue this exhibition seems to bring up is how Australian artists have, in the past, perhaps looked towards London or Europe for vindication, and whether anything like this still persists. For Gladwell, it is an emphatic no.

"Maybe that was an attitude or a reality before," he says, "but I guess I'm part of a generation of artists that is part of a few different scenes. I'm not really worried about trying to get recognition anywhere. You have guys in the Seventies like [art historian and critic] Terry Smith talking about provincialism [Smith's famous article, 'The Provincialism Problem'] but I really don't feel that's the case anymore. We're all so connected, in a different way.

"I don't have that thing that might have happened at some point in history where you try and erase your Australianness to become part of an international scene."

Mendelssohn also points out London's increasing irrelevance to today's generation of artists, somewhat undermining the pomp surrounding the impending exhibition in London.

"China is the most important art market in the world," she says. "If you've made it in Shanghai, you've made it. The world has changed. My students, who come from all over the world, really want to see Venice Biennale and Art Basel, but they're not fussed about going to London.

"When I was growing up, London was the destination, and then when I was at university all the smart young things wanted to go to New York. Now they want to go everywhere. There's no such thing as the centre and the periphery like there used to be, it's much more complicated. Part of that is the internet, but its also just the changing centres of economic power – art tends to hang around where the rich and powerful are."

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