The Royal Academy’s new exhibition shows how little Brits know about Australian artby Germaine Greer / October 17, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
John Olsen’s Sydney Sun, 1965, on display in the “Australia” show © DACS 2013
Australian art used to be well known and widely collected in Britain. As long ago as 1898 the Grafton Galleries could put on a show of Australian painting without apology or explanation. In 1923 the painter Elioth Gruner curated an exhibition of Australian art at Burlington House. In 1961 the Whitechapel Gallery hosted an exhibition called “Recent Australian Painting” with works by Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, John Brack, Russell Drysdale, Ian Fairweather, ST Gill, John Olsen, Jeffrey Smart, Arthur Streeton, Albert Tucker and Brett Whiteley. The Tate bought Whiteley’s Red Painting from that show and mounted its own exhibition of Australian painting two years later. In the 1960s and 70s Boyd, Nolan, Whiteley, Colin Lanceley, Charles Blackman and Barbara Hanrahan were familiar figures on the London art scene and so successful that the most prestigious galleries were happy to represent them. Collectors understood what was different about the Australians, which was only possible because they could also see what they shared with the European tradition. The artists, too, learned how to represent Australia by positioning it against the dim green country around them. Nolan’s vision of Australia roared into incandescent life against the rolling hills of Herefordshire.
At the same time Aboriginal painting was being invented. The most befuddled of the British critics confronted with the “Australia” exhibition, which opened at the Royal Academy on 21st September, stated confidently that Aboriginal painting represents “a tradition stretching back tens of thousands of years before the first Europeans even glimpsed the Australian mainland at the start of the 17th century.” Another critic, Adrian Searle of the Guardian, begged someone to explain whether we should see Aboriginal paintings “as a kind of art, a means of communication, maps, cosmologies, ceremonial artefacts, stories or abstract paintings to hang on a wall.”