Tuesday, September 17, 2013

'Australia' Exhibition at the Royal Academy - review

Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts is the largest survey of Australian art which has ever been mounted outside Australia.  Its theme is land and landscape.  Its narrative starts in 1800 and continues through to this year's Winner of The Wynne Prize.

Gallery 9: Desert Painting
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia
Prior to this the only significant exhibitions of Australian landscape art were
Most people in the northern hemisphere know very little about how artists living in Australia have chosen to represent their landscape. This is an exhibition which I think will not only correct that omission - it can also "wow" people with some of the art on display.

That includes me.  Despite having a sister who lives in Australia I know very little about Australian art. However I've really begun to appreciate Australian art more and more while covering their major art competitions - one of which (The Wynne Prize) relates to the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours.  (Why don't we have a national prestigious competition on this topic in this country?) The 2013 winner of the Wynne Prize has made the journey and can be seen in the Final Gallery.

Plus I discovered the paintings of Arthur Streeton who was an Australian Impressionist painter of landscapes and was entranced. As a result, I've been really looking forward to seeing this exhibition and some of his most famous works.

I don't think people's ignorance of Australian landscape art will in any way inhibit their appreciation of the art on display.  If anything, my personal view is it's good sometimes to look at new art for the first time with a fresh eye - even if you are ignorant as to its significance and meaning.

I think there's a lot in this exhibition which people will like - although not everybody will like everything.  Those of a more contemporary disposition may find the early galleries tedious.  Those who are interested in the story and narrative behind the development of landscape art in Australia will appreciate the chronology and the overview. Those who like patterns and different ways of seeing and painting landscapes have a lot to choose from.

In this review I'll be showing you images of what they galleries look like.  I waited until the end of the preview when most people had gone to get a clear perspective on some of the art on show. Some look extremely impressive - particularly those which contain aboriginal art or Australian Impressionism.

Below is just one corner of the first gallery. The exhibition starts with the art of the land and about the land which existed a long time before explorers and settlers came to Australia.  While the works on show are contemporary, they still maintain the the patterns and iconic representations which are symbolic and totemic.  I don't think anybody has to understand indigenous art to appreciate its aesthetic qualities - which are awesome - but it is important to understand that viewing it purely in an aesthetic way is to under-estimate its power and significance.

Gallery 1: Indigenous painting
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London
in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia
Gallery 2 includes some of the first landscapes painted by the first Australian artists. I asked Ron Radford, the Director of the National Gallery Artist for a definition of the "first Australian artist".  He excludes all explorer art on the grounds that people did not settle - so Sydney Parkinson (the artist on Captain Cook's trip to the Southern Hemisphere) does not get a mention because,  first, he's not a landscape painter but more importantly because he also did not settle in Australia.

Part of Gallery 2: Early Colonial Art (1800 - 1850)
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
The artwork progresses from paintings of the first settlements from a European perspective and the wilderness beyond.  This also might be the first exhibition in which you see convict art! Mostly it's interesting seeing how people struggle to capture the new sort of vegetation and the different sort of light.

Part of Gallery 3: Late Colonial Art (1850-1880)
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
At least one of the Australian Impressionist paintings is returning to London for a second time. Golden Summer, Eaglemont (second from right in the view below) has already been exhibited at the RA - where it got an Honourable mention and in Paris where it won a prize.
When sold in 1924, 1985 and 1995, Golden Summer, Eaglemont established each time a record price for an Australian painting.
Gallery 4: Australian Impressionism
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
I was very taken with some of the paintings in the two Galleries devoted to Federation landscapes and Early Modernism.  In particular:

(Left) part of Gallery 5: Federation landscapes (1900-20)
(right) Paintings by Grace Cossington Smith in Gallery 6 Early Modernism (1918-40)
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
The Bark Paintings and Desert Paintings in Gallery are absolutely fascinating as well as being very beautiful.  I am totally won over by the idea of paintings as flat surfaces - however I think may be a bit of an obstacle when the exhibition gets crowded.  If you visit, do make sure you get the audio and listen to the explanations of how the paintings are constructed and what they represent.

Gallery 10: Early Contemporary (1960-80)
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
I was less taken with the more contemporary galleries but that's pretty much down to my taste in paintings. Even so there were paintings to like.
Gallery 12: Contemporary (1990s - 2000s)
'Australia' at the Royal Academy - 21 September 2013 to 8 December 2013
By now you will realise that I think this is an exhibition worth seeing.  It's got a lot of content and a huge amount of variety in terms of age and style.  Unlike Adrian Searle I don't have a problem with an exhibition which is telling a story and hence has a lot of different artists.

Now - if you can't get to see the exhibition, you can at least look at all the paintings in the exhibition catalogue.  It has lots of nice large images and the colour reproduction is pretty good. It also has a chronology at the beginning, a large map indicating where different places are and a synopsis of each artist's biography at the back.  Plus essays on different topics which enable one to understand the story behind the art rather better - eg the development of indigenous art in the second half of the 20th century.

I'm intending to follow up on specific aspects of the exhibition on The Art of the Landscape.

Exhibition Details

  • Open to public: Saturday 21 September – Sunday 8 December 2013 10am – 6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm); Late night opening: Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)
  • Admission: £14 full price; concessions available; children under 12 free; Friends of the RA go free

Some other reviews

If you're planning to see this exhibition - or are just interested in Australian art, you might like to read these other articles about the exhibition.


  1. Thank you for your interesting review of this exhibition. As an interested Australian, familar with some but not all of the artists/works, it was good to read your comments.

    This is a huge exhibition, and what a job to try to give an overview of the whole history of Australian art! I'm going back again....and again.

    You mention the two other surveys of Australian art, and I would like to mention the 'official' one at Tate in 1963, that also tried to give a similar overview, and caused some upset amongst artist in particular, that you did not mention. You are right about Bryan Robinson's show at the Whitechapel, but there was another 'unofficial' show that needs bringing to the fore, and that is a 1963 Australian Painting and Sculpture in Europe today, curated by Alannah Coleman. Amazingly this was a comprehensive overview of all those Australians working in Europe (mainly London) at that time. Part of the reason it was never given the attention it deserved was because it was shown in Folkstone before touring in West Germany.

    Keep up the good work

  2. Thanks Wendy - I had been wondering what the Australian fraternity thought of the exhibition!

    Good also to hear about the other retrospective.


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