The Australian Impressionists of the late 19th Century attempted to depict a country undergoing huge changes, a nation searching for an identity, a land with many faces and extreme environments ranging from busy new cities to vast, ancient landscapes. With the National Gallery’s exhibition on Australian Impressionism coming to an end this month, catch the show before it finishes to find out more about the little-known cousin to European Impressionism.
Australia’s Impressionists at The National Gallery explores the impact of European Impressionism on the work of Australian painters in the 1880s and 1890s. This was a time when Australia was undergoing rapid and important transformations, with modern cities such as Melbourne and Sydney springing up. A stronger and more unified national identity was emerging amongst the non-Indigenous population, who felt that their young country was now coming of age. The pieces on display at this show - the first exhibition in the UK to focus solely on Impressionists from Australia - reflect the style of the better-known European Impressionists, whilst also offering a distinct new perspective inspired by the Australian landscape and cultural environment. The colour palettes used here are subtly different to those used by European painters from the time, as though these pieces have been infused with a different light - a significant detail considering that the unifying factor between all Impressionists was the focus on painting outside, “en plein air”, in the natural sunlight.
The content of these images is also different from their European counterparts. The Australian Impressionists’ paintings show a new world being created. Instead of the ancient facades that feature in European Impressionism – such as Monet’s famous cathedrals – we are shown both new buildings and untamed landscapes. Muddy cityscapes show the rapidly changing faces of places like Melbourne and Sydney, revealing a highly urbanised and industrial society. Many of these paintings of cities are very quick oil sketches which show brief snapshots of a world that was constantly evolving and will shortly be transformed once again.
Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On is arguably the stand-out piece in the exhibition; a gorgeous, imposing painting which depicts both the wildness of Australia’s landscapes and the industry with which man was attempting to tame this land. The painting shows a fire breaking out during the construction of the Lapstone Tunnel through the Blue Mountains near Sydney – a fire in which a man was killed. The scene contrasts the energy and industry of the human figures with the stillness and serenity of the natural world around them. Although man has scarred the landscape by tunneling into the hillside, the trees lining the horizon give an impression of immovability and timelessness, while the beautiful, unblemished blue sky dwarfs the tiny figures in the image, remaining unpolluted by the smoke from the almost-insignificant looking fire. Nature is supremely unconcerned by the human industry and tragedy taking place. Yet despite the seeming implacability of the natural world, the teams of workmen in the picture are undaunted, and we cannot doubt that over time they will impose their will on this wild landscape.
Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton 1891 Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Although this is quite a small exhibition, there are a broad spectrum of paintings on display, from the muted grays and browns of urban cityscapes by Tom Roberts and Charles Condor to John Russell’s lurid blue seascapes. There are tiny oil sketches painted on the lids of cigar box as well as large paintings that give a real sense of the sheer overwhelming size of Australia’s landscapes. We are shown civilized ladies relaxing at the seaside, industrial cities, sun-bathed countryside, and seas struck by rough winds. Talking about the exhibition, The National Gallery’s Christopher Riopelle says that these artists “were actually inventing a way for Australians to see this vast and various land, its suddenly teeming cities, and the abrupt new intersections of nature and the man-made.” Indeed, there seems to be a clear and obvious alignment between these Australian artists and their Impressionist ideas; we can see how a style obsessed with trying to capture fleeting moments and changing light complements the ever-changing country, society and landscapes shown in these paintings.
Australia’s Impressionists runs until 26 March 2017 at The National Gallery. Find out more here.