Australia comes to London with an excellent exhibition at London’s Royal Academy this month, the most significant show of Australian art ever mounted in the UK.
This large exhibition brings together over 200 works from the most important art collections in Oz, most never seen before in the UK.
The show brought back a flood of memories from my trip to Australia in 2003, and made me remember what I loved about art from down under.
The light, the rich colours and the sense of danger, adventure and discovery are captured brilliantly by artists from the early 1800s through to the modern day.
Cast aside your traditional view of art history from Europe and North America, and this exhibition is like opening a door to another world.
Australian art is inextricably linked to the country’s landscape – its vast size, the unique light and the rich palette of colours.
In a week when Australia’s bush fires have ripped through the country’s Blue Mountains, it was sobering to stand in front of a work by Eugene von Guerard showing a fire rampaging across the landscape in the mid 19th Century.
The work welds together the dramatic beauty of the Australian landscape with a sense of danger and fear.
Before my trip to the show I thought that the early works in the exhibition might be dull and boring but they were quite the opposite.
From paintings of pioneers, early settlers and farmers to images of cities and the country’s vast interior, the early works have one thing in common – they capture Australia’s special quality of light.
It’s a thrill to see these images of the “red continent” with landscapes depicting fierce sunlight, harsh earth and withering heat.
There are also some incredible stories in the early paintings which make you sit up and realise the wealth of the country’s history, a story that Brits (shamefully) never learn at school.
Impressionism and modernism
I love the Australian Impressionists who – like their French colleagues 10,000 miles away – play with light and impressions, but the colours in their works also capture the heat, dust and beating sun of the southern hemisphere.
Frederick McCubbins’ huge painting, The Pioneer, dominates one room – and, although not my favourite work, it captures the pioneering spirit of Australia.
Tom Roberts’ impressionistic Bourke Street West (below) is an engaging snapshot of the urbanisation of Australia as new settlers faced the challenge of creating a identity through bricks and mortar.
Taming and controlling the ‘savage’ landscape is a big theme in these early paintings.
Things get really interesting when Modernism arrives in Oz especially in the 1920s.
Grace Cossington Smith’s The Bridge in Building from 1929 captures the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a sense of the vitality and modernity of the new Australia.
A selection of photographic works of the bridge also shows how cities were starting to inspire artists to capture urban as well as bush landscapes.
My favourite works are those of Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd who capture the essence of the Australian landscape and its people – with a modern twist.
Sidney Nolan was a revolutionary in the Australian art world, an outsider, a modernist and bohemian who lived in an art commune called Heide near Melbourne, a creative hot bed.
Nolan’s colourful life story reads like a film blockbuster – bursting with sex, revolution and adventure as well as trips into Australia’s red centre and wilderness territories.
His monumental Ned Kelly paintings grab the attention with their naive-style illustrations charting the story of an Australian rebel through a series of 36 iconic works.
The first time I saw the paintings was during a trip to Canberra’s excellent National Gallery of Australia (see top image above) where they blew me away.
Four of the Ned Kelly works are displayed in this exhibition and for many visitors they’re bound to be a highlight.
For Nolan an understanding of landscape was central to his work – and the bush was one of his favourite subjects.
I remember visiting Glenrowan in Australia, the scene of the Kelly gang’s final stand where a giant-sized statue of the bushranger wearing his home-made metal armour glowers over the town.
He’s a character that has always fascinated me and Nolan’s paintings capture his story brilliantly.
Another artist working in the 1940s at the same time as Sidney Nolan was a more conservative painter, Charles Meere, who captured one of the most enduring images of life down under with his beach bathers.
This strangely static Art Deco painting is all about white Australia with not a hint of the country’s ethnic mix or its aboriginal roots and culture.
One of my first excursions in Sydney was to Manley Beach with its golden sands which is one of the archetypal images of the country, together with Bondi beach.
This painting captures the colour and sense of fun of living in Australia with the arrival of a new wave of European immigrants, even if it is devoid of any native Australians.
Again, it’s the brightness and sense of light that makes this as memorable an image as my own trip to Manley on a hot, sunny day 70 years later.
Beach life is captured in a series of paintings and photos in the show – they illustrate the golden glow of outdoor life and the celebration of physical perfection which became synonymous with Australia in the 20th Century.
It’s strange to think that my parents nearly emigrated to Oz and I wondered what I would have thought of these works if I had grown up in sunny Hobart rather than rainy Manchester!
If the beach photos and paintings seem blindly about ‘white Australia’, the exhibition’s excellent selection of aboriginal art and works by indigenous artists blast away the sense of whiteness.
The main room as you enter the show is a riot of brilliant patterned and textured works from aboriginal artists like Albert Namatjira, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, some on tree bark.
An elderly woman came up to me and asked if she was allowed to touch the works.
Sadly, it wasn’t permitted, but her desire stemmed no doubt from the natural and beautiful shaped works which demanded to be touched and engaged with.
Elsewhere in the show, there’s also a great section of works from the Papunya Tula group of the Western Desert, which draw on organic forms and shapes in the Australian landscape.
I remember seeing some of these works for the first time in Sydney and Canberra’s art galleries where they were so bright, striking and dramatic that I never forgot their power.
There’s a directness in the dots and lines of the Western Desert paintings whilst the colour field paintings of the Great Sandy Desert are equally at one with the landscape that inspired them.
I was struck by how modern the older works looked even though the heritage reflected in them dates back centuries.
Conversely, the modern aboriginal works look back as well as forward – they are timeless, spiritual and universal.
My favourite work from this aboriginal collection is Red Plains Kangaroo (1962) by Yrawala Kundaagi with its bold stripy lines and brilliant brown-red, earthy colours.
Its simplicity is awe-inspiring, a meeting of the ancient and modern through Australia’s most emblematic marsupial.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of gorgeous textures and patterns to admire on a large canvas – nowhere are Australia’s epic landscapes caught so brilliantly as here.
Rover Thomas’ Cyclone Tracy was created as late as 1991 but its use of natural earth pigments and textures provide echoes of an earlier aboriginal history and tradition.
Today’s Australian artists continue to confront and express the landscape of their country, sometimes in uncompromising ways.
It’s intriguing that the opening work in the show is Shaun Gladwell’s Mundi Mundi, a video installation depicting a journey across Australia’s great red wilderness.
A motorbike rider travels along an endless road, sometimes stretching out his arms in a Christ-like pose, a sacrifice to the scorching hot landscape.
It’s a hypnotic work which takes you along on this great road trip across Australia’s ancient landscapes where danger lurks around every small twist and turn in the road.
It shows how far Australian art has come, from throwing off the shackles of European artistic conventions in the early years to today’s artists who play with notions of what national identity and a sense of place means for them.
These artists have developed a sense of freedom, far away from European rules and traditions.
This sense of freedom makes this exhibition so enjoyable and eye-opening; seeing the world from ‘down under’ provides a very distinctive perspective on the world.
Take the trip to the Royal Academy and capture the light, colour and extremes of the Australian landscape… and journey to the heart of a remarkable continent.
Banish those autumn blues and bathe in the golden glow of Australian art – you won’t be disappointed.
Tammy’s top Australian art tips
Australia is at the Royal Academy in London until 8 December. Admission prices apply. The nearest Tube is Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.
If you’re lucky enough to be planning a trip to Australia in the near future, there’s a wealth of galleries including Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, Canberra’s National Gallery of Australian Art and Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA).
Another intriguing place to visit to get a sense of Australian modernist art is Heide outside of Melbourne where Nolan and a group of artists set up their original artistic community. There is now a major gallery also located next door to the artists’ house.