Blemishes mar a sumptuous history of Australian art

Aboriginal Art Directory | 10.01.09

Author: Suzanna Clarke
News source: Courier Mail

In 1886, there was a tussle for control over the future direction of Australian art. At its heart the dispute appeared simple, but it highlighted a deep division. A student of the School of Art in Melbourne, Alice Chapman, was expelled because she dared to show her work at the newly formed Australian Artists' Association (AAA) before it had been shown in the annual National Gallery exhibition.

Hardly a hanging matter one would think, but for 10 days letters flew about, and debate raged in newspapers until Chapman was re-admitted.

As told in John McDonald's new book Art of Australia, Volume 1: Exploration to Federation, George Folingsby, master of the National Gallery School of Art, had a great suspicion of the "foreigners" in the AAA who advocated "French" plein air painting.

Instead, he was obsessed with teaching students to paint gloomy Victorian genre pieces, blocking in their subjects with bitumen and vermilion. "The man who paints landscape in open air is a fool," Folingsby declared.

Exacerbating the division was Tom Roberts, who had returned from Europe, eager to apply his newly acquired Impressionist enthusiasms to Australian landscape painting.

Heidelberg School

As history has shown, Folingsby's technique fell out of favour and what became known as the Heidelberg School flourished. However, some painters such as Frederick McCubbin were strongly influenced by the training Folingsby had given them, as is evident in the melodramatic Home Again, 1884.

McDonald rightly points out that the claim the Heidelberg School painters were responsible for the first "true" painting done in this country is rhetorical hot air.

Their work was just as romantic, albeit in a different fashion, reflecting the need of an immigrant society to establish itself by creating its own myths.

McDonald's style is engaging, with occasional amusing asides, such as his likening the bizarre cult created after the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, and the flurry of monuments and artworks about them, to the public hysteria surrounding the death of Princess Diana.

"At least they were spared a musical tribute by Sir Elton John," he writes.

Art historians including Robert Hughes, Bernard Smith, Christopher Allen and Andrew Sayers might have trod the ground before him, but McDonald redresses some balances, such as an extensive section on the work of romantic painter Eugene von Guerard, and also includes Brisbane artist Isaac Walter Jenner (albeit in the epilogue).

Art of Australia is an impressive book at 650 pages, but it is really the story of Australian colonial painting (with a small amount of sculpture and photography) through a series of potted biographies. Aboriginal art may bookend the volume, but its inclusion has a perfunctory feel.

Some 50,000 years of indigenous art is covered in the equivalent of one page and five pictures and 19th century Aboriginal artists are relegated to the epilogue, rather than included chronologically.

Annoying errors

Given that the book is a handsome volume, containing many expensive plates, it's surprising to find several errors. Along with a number of typos, there is also the substitution of one painting for another.

The Lawn at Flemington on Cup Day 1887 by Carl Kahler is definitely not the painting included in the book. Instead, we are shown a repetition of Derby Day at Flemington 1886 on the preceding pages. These flaws are disappointing in an otherwise highly readable and informative book.

Art of Australia: Volume 1, John McDonald, Macmillan, $125.


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