You still have another 12 days to see the exhibition of Australia’s Impressionists @NationalGallery in London. If you can get there before it closes on 26 March 2017, I’d recommend you give it a go.
Billed as an escape from the darkness of winter, the time for that might have passed but, who knows? This is London, right? If you like the impressionists’ style, working rapidly, in front of their subjects and often in the open air rather than in a studio, you’ll find much to charm you here.
The exhibition is in the Sunley Room, straight ahead at the top of the main staircase in the older part of the Gallery. The large rectangular space is divided up into three main sections, the paintings hung at head height and readily accessible. There’s an introductory film in a small viewing space to the right of the entrance and it is worth taking the time to see that.
The Impressionists featured are Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, and John Russell. The former three worked mostly in Australia and share the first three sections of the exhibition: 9 by 5, Urban Australia and National Landscape. Russell stayed in France after studying in Europe, counted Van Gogh, Monet and Sisley among his friends and mentored Matisse on colour. He has a section devoted to him. This organisation creates some interesting context for the work but also makes it harder to distinguish between the three artists other than Russell.
9 by 5 is an intriguing way to start. In 1889, Streeton, Roberts and Conder staged an exhibition to introduce the public to their work, in the same way that the artists had done in Paris. They called it “9 by 5” and this was the small size (roughly 9 by 5 inches) of most of the ‘impressions’ that made up the exhibition, many of them were painted on cigar-box lids, obtained cheaply from a friend of the artists. These were readily transportable for outside work and allowed Roberts, Streeton, and Conder to capture at great speed the ‘impression’ of a transient moment – its light and mood – in front of the subject.
The National Gallery exhibition reproduces a small portion of the 1889 exhibition showing us a selection of the small paintings. They are exquisite but quite hard to see. It is as if you are looking through a small window, glimpsing the world outside. I particularly liked Arthur Streeton’s The National Game 1889. This portrays a game of Aussie Rules football, introduced in the colony of Victoria to keep cricketers fit in winter. The goal posts stand tall and sharp on the left, a representative of each of the teams in their colours stands next and then the game is a flurry of shapes with flashes of the two colours. I thought it was very clever and beautifully composed. Looking at Hoddle Street, 10 p.m., also by Streeton, I realised that the painting is actually quite blurry. It is the fact that it is a glimpse of life that gives it precision when you look at it. That same affect is seen in Streeton’s Railway Station, Redfern 1893. It’s fast and minimal but there are lines, delineating carriages and parts of buildings, which creates important contrast.
The biggest section of the exhibition is about the countryside. In the late 19th century immigrant Australia was building itself into a nation. In 1901 it became a single commonwealth rather than a set of colonies. Streeton, Roberts and Conder painted the landscapes of the country to help define a sense of national landscape. Thinking back on the paintings now, it does occur to me that most of the work, if not all, took place in the coastal fringes in places that are now part of the built-up suburbs surrounding the cities, if not actually part of Sydney and Melbourne. So, Heidelberg where Streeton established a camp for his colleagues to be able to work “en plein air” and in front of their subjects is a suburb of Melbourne; and Sirius Cove where he established a similar camp on the banks of Sydney Harbour is also built up although I recognised Camp, Sirius Cove in Roberts’s 1899 painting as being close to Taronga Park Zoo.
Maybe that is a clue why I appreciated the Australian pictures more than Russell’s. Several of them portrayed places I have been and could vaguely recognise even though it is over a hundred years later. Or, like Fire’s On 1891 by Streeton, it shows a countryside I recognise but is also a tunnel that we probably rode through on the train. They are evocative paintings, capturing the colour palette of Australia, which is quite unique. They also reflect the harshness of the light when the sun is so high in the sky. In A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Conder shows the brightness of the light, casting almost no shadows. It is glaring. How did they manage in those heavy clothes of the Victorian and Edwardian ages?
Trying to distinguish one artist from the other is hard, as I’ve mentioned. There are three paintings that help. In 1888, a painting expedition along the Pacific coast near Sydney produced two paintings of contrasting styles, Coogee Bay by Conder and Holiday Sketch at Coogee by Roberts. It seems to me that Conder’s is less realistic and has more green with less contrast between the sand and the vegetation, whereas Roberts paints bright blue water, bright white sand, and brown vegetation with some orange and a hint of pink in the sky. Then Streeton, painting The Blue Pacific in 1890 on the clifftops just above where the other were, gives us the bright blue ocean but yellows and greens in the sky and pinks and oranges in the cliff-top. Not convinced? Well, I’m not sure I am either. I’m not sure I’d recognise the one artist from the others if you just showed me a series of pictures. However, I hope I would recognise the general style of Australia’s Impressionists.
Russell’s work looks more like the work of the European painters, becoming increasingly abstract and wild in its use of colour. His Cruach en Mahr, Matin is built up of layer up on layer of colour, vivid pinks and purples and limes creating an impression of the darkness of a west-facing cliff as the sun rises. In 1905 its exhibition helped name the newest of the avant-garde painters, the Fauvistes. I didn’t dislike his work but I found the work of the others more interesting and fresh to me. If “Russell poses the question of what it meant to be an ‘Australian Impressionist’”, as it says in the National Gallery’s notes, then for me the answer is that art is supranational. Someone from the other side of the world can enter a milieu and produce pieces to match and lead the others in that milieu, if they are allowed the freedom to do so. At the same time, people can take the techniques to the other side of the world and use them to create the highest quality portrayals of the geography and society there. There were Australians who were Impressionists and painters who produced Impressionist views of Australia.
If you want to find out more, the National Gallery has introductory material on line. Click here to find it.
By the way, in writing this, I’ve been surprised by how much of this art you can find on line – just in case you can’t get to the exhibition, of course. Here are some links. If you search yourself, for John Russell, use “John Peter Russell” or you’ll get an 18th century Englishman.
For Tom Roberts, click here.
For Charles Conder, click here.
For John Peter Russell, click here.