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Review: Australia's Impressionists

Arthur Streeton, ’Ariadne’, 1895, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Raise your hand if you knew there was an Australian Impressionism. If by chance you didn’t, there’s no need to worry! The National Gallery is here to help with an entire exhibition dedicated to the topic (the first one of this type organized in a European art institution). With 41 paintings coming from Australian art museums (mostly the National Gallery of Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales) and private collections, Australia’s Impressionists is a small but effective way to discover the main artists who, inspired by European Impressionism, brought this pictorial language to their continent and defined it in a specifically ‘Australian’ way.

The exhibition begins with the ‘9 by 5 inches Impressionist Exhibition’ held in Melbourne in 1889 where some of the paintings executed by Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909) were painted onto small cigar boxes measuring, you guessed it, 9 by 5 inches. This was the first time an Australian audience experienced this style of painting in their own country – a style derived from a direct observation of nature, and of luminous and atmospheric effects. The birth of an Australian Impressionism is credited to these three artists, whose paintings are characterized by an extreme clearness of light, which runs as a thread throughout the whole second section. Here, grand landscapes are transformed by Australian Impressionists into history paintings. Rocky coasts, unlimited beaches, infinite landscapes hosting both the work of the soil and of the mines become the real protagonists of Australian history. Nevertheless, light is also the indisputable focus of more intimate images documenting life in Australia in the late nineteenth century. In A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder, a small painting documenting bourgeois enjoying a sunny afternoon at the beach, a crystalline light illuminates the scene and transfigures the trousers of the proper dandy with the bowler hat, almost making them transparent.

Charles Conder, ‘A Holiday at Mentone’, 1888, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

The last section, dedicated to the artistic production of John Russell (1858-1930) is probably the most typically ‘European’ room of the exhibition - mainly because the artist soon left Australia to spend his whole life and career in France. Although not strictly related to the narration of how Impressionism was used by Australians to construct a sense of national identity, this section is valuable as it shows the impact of artists such as Monet, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec on an artist coming from the other side of the world, equipped with a different baggage of cultural and intellectual experiences.

Australia’s Impressionists is thus a unique opportunity to learn about a less know side of Impressionism. This Antipodean brand of Impressionism feels no less interesting than the French and it offers an opportunity to look at late nineteenth century painting from a fresh point of view. All of this without spending 24 hours on a plane, instead it’s just a few minutes from The Courtauld!

Australia's Impressionists is at the National Gallery until 26th March.

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