Light and nature in The Australians

The Hunter by Arthur Boyd 1944

'The Australians' (a two hundred survey of Australian art linked by the theme of landscape at the Royal Academy) held two traditions in parallel. The indigenous tradition of Aborigine art, with which the exhibition opened, has continued to develop its own unique and powerful styles and, periodically, you noticed it having an effect, leaving traces in the contemporaneous tradition of 'Western' art.

At the outset of 'Western art' in Australia, artists confronted by a radically new land, confined themselves to painting their new settlements and their immediate surroundings but they soon branched out in Romantic, Impressionist and Modernist directions, making an art that was both indebted to European forms and yet held something other, conditioned by a new landscape and especially new attributes of light and space.

Aborigine art is of a landscape peopled with meaning, a place spiritualised and though that can mean spiritual drama, of warning and failure, the ultimate sense is of it being a welcoming home and the 'Western' art selected for the exhibition accompanied, rather than antagonised, this vision of placing, leaving you to wonder where was the art of anxiety? Australia is a highly urbanised culture on a fragile continent: a culture forged in colonial displacement and the unearthing of natural resources but that Australia was only present, all too understandably, in the Aborigine art except perhaps in the work of the above where Boyd has a hunter aggressively intrude into a nurturing nature.

Most of the 'Western art' was of a sympathetic landscape (with or without its indigenous inhabitants) and a city is a landscape too...

However, this editorial query aside, the whole exhibition is a wondering delight from the large Aborigine canvases, apparently at first sight abstracted yet concrete with symbol and story through to modern pieces of beautiful lucidity and light, including a ceiling painting of sunlight, suspended from above, as if dangling over Sydney Harbour!

 Long Spirit of the Plains by Sydney Long

My favourite painting was 'aberrant' as the only obviously 'Symbolist' painting in the exhibition (above) with a piping female figure followed by dancing cranes across a wooding landscape. It had the ethereal nature of vision and yet felt deeply anchored in the visionary potential of an actual place. And the artist 'discovered' was undoubtedly Arthur Boyd whose three works were 'expressionist' masterpieces of stark commentary on human nature (as above) and a wonderful, Bruegel like, painting of a mining camp, spilling with human fallibility and the seductions of greed.

It was all enhanced by the RA's extraordinary ability to write excellent captions to all the works - masterpieces of compressed illumination.


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