Australia: Art from the Strange Continent

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On my first trip to Australia in the late 1980’s I felt that I had been dropped into a strange new world; a land of eerie outback spaces and modern glass cities which hung onto the rim of a vast continent. A trip to Uluru or Ayer’s Rock, as it was called then, epitomised for me the dichotomy of how humans might relate to this seemingly inhospitable land.  The ochre of the desert floor rose up into a vast red form like the relaxed back of a somnolent animal. A mile or so away from the rock it seemed that the only colours were red earth and blue sky, yet closer up I could see that fissures in the rock were alive with greenness where they dropped down and met the desert.  Trees and plants had found places to root around the base.  In these harsh conditions these living things had clustered together to form a small eco-climate and were kept alive by the rainwater that poured off Uluru. The rock was alive and feeding a small forest of greenness at its base before it plunged further down into the desert. I had never before been so aware of a living landscape as I was on that trip to Uluru.

In the 1980’s you were still allowed to climb the rock. The aborigines have since managed to reclaim it as a sacred place to be respected. Thirty years ago a rope threaded through metal posts pieced the back of this gigantic animal and tourists flowed up and down in ego fuelled streams, ticking off another event on their tour. For them it seemed that Uluru was something to be conquered; a vast beast that could be pinned down and climbed over.  I stroked the rock with my hand but could not bring myself to climb it as that seemed sacrilegious. Visiting the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy this week brought back to me some of this divergence in approach to landscape that I had felt at Uluru; how we see and experience landscape can be startlingly out of kilter with each other.

The exhibition opens with a room of large contemporary indigenous pictures. These wonderful paintings confidently proclaim that landscape means something very different to the indigenous painters than it does to a Western audience. A painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra is laid flat, a foot or so from the floor. She would have painted it on the ground like this, approaching it from all sides, and this is how we are meant to view it. Tiny zigzag yellow lines on a brown background give the effect of a woven material, but a woven material that has been crushed along its length. It appears not as a flat surface but as a series of hills and valleys seen from high-up in space. It is as startlingly beautiful as pictures of the earth from a satellite can be without the detachment that that can bring. This is an intimate picture, a picture of Nakamarra’s feelings about her native land.

Nakamarra doesn’t title her picture but another stunning floor painting shown at the end of the exhibition from another woman artist, Dorothy Napangardi is called Sandhills of Mina Mina. This painting creates a similar effect to Nakamarra’s only this time her  swirling rows of tiny dots explore the sensations this landscape generates. The painting shows how the Mina Mina sand-hills have impressed themselves on Napangardi’s inner world. As you walk around it, it appears as if there are three- dimensional shapes rising out of the canvas. It is not a representative painting, rather it is as if the sand-hills have themselves taken a stick with paint on it and painted their own story. It is a painting of homeland. The picture gave me the same sense of wonder as Uluru and its green gardens did twenty years ago.

Australia is an exhibition about two ways of seeing and relating to a continent. It is a strange and demanding exhibition in that it throws you back and forth from one style of painting to another with seemingly no connection between the two. The first time I went I was there with my husband who knows Australia well and worked there in the 1970’s. As a historian he was immediately drawn to the rooms of 19th century watercolours and oils painted by immigrants to this strange land. He also remembered seeing the paintings by John Glover in Adelaide art gallery when, as a young man he was struggling with the oddities of Australia and he responded to this artist’s attempts to turn the Australian landscape into a contained and less frightening place. A View of the Artist’s House and  Garden, in Mills Plains, Van Diemen’s Land 1835 is a painting of Glover’s small Georgian looking house and barn backing onto a wooded hillside and looking out onto a garden of English roses and flowering broom. This picture is full of longing, and hope, hope that a piece of England can be transported into the Australian outback. I find it a melancholy picture, a picture about lost dreams not found ones. Glover however is a meticulous painter and he turns Cawood on the Ouse River, 1838 into a delicate landscape of rolling hills and British looking trees. Apart from three small kangaroos in the foreground this could be a landscape of Victorian England, the lost homeland.

Before Australia became a Federation of States in 1901, immigrant painters had given up some of this backward looking and had begun to explore where they actually were. Their paintings depict struggles with the scale of the Australian landscape by showing man as tiny in relation to the vast forests or mountain ranges. In the Sassafras Valley, Victoria, 1875 by Isaac Whitehead, vast trees tower over tiny figures. Each leaf and fern is picked out in detail and in the centre on a fallen tree a minuscule man raises a stick as if in defiance against this huge and troubling landscape. The relationship is now a more realistic but not a comfortable one. Immigrant painters of this period are expressing a defiant rage against this seemingly untameable beast, which is not the longed for and beloved European landscape.

In the late 1800’s this longing is then translated into an echoing of European styles. Impressionism creeps in and landscapes, homesteads and the newly populated beaches are painted in dashes of colour and blurred edges. Evening Train to Hawthorne 1889 by Tom Roberts with its dark buildings and flurry of white smoke could be an early Monet. How We Lost Poor Flossie 1889 by Charles Conder, is a slip of an impressionistic painting of a wet town scene with a coach and horses and women with umbrellas. Two small dogs greet each other in the middle ground. It is hard to believe that this painting was not painted in Paris and the realisation that it was not brings with it a strong sense of the painter’s feelings of loss. There is more in this tiny picture than the memory of a disappeared dog, there is also a reaching for identity and a desire to be elsewhere.


Despite two visits to the R.A. I took in little of the other late 19th century paintings. Amongst some of the early 20th century painting however there was a surprise. Dry Weather 1912 by Blamire Young is a pale yellow and green watercolour of a hillside. It could be Britain but it could also be Australia. The clusters of dark brown paint in the valley and the joins in the hills communicate sensitivity for and love of this land that I felt was missing from other post-Federation work.

In a small side gallery there is a remarkable collection of bark paintings by indigenous people. The earliest made around 1884 is a simple red ochre painting of Nadubi Spirit-Woman, with Possum, Magpie Goose and Fish. This totemic painting is a record of the spirit-woman’s tools, a small hymn to the importance of possum, magpie, goose and fish. Other bark paintings date from the 1960’s, and depict animals that are central to aboriginal dreaming, such as the kangaroo, or whole stories from the dreaming and the song lines. These bark painting are both very personal and very direct and like the contemporary indigenous paintings exude a confidence that is often lacking in the colonial era.

One room, later on in the exhibition is almost entirely given over to Sidney Nolan and his paintings about Ned Kelly. I have always found Nolan’s painting rather unforgiving. The paint is dragged and stretched across the board or hardboard that he uses for his work and his palette is dark and unsubtle. However I do admire the oddness of the Ned Kelly pictures. The metallic armoured body of Kelly with the cut out head piece setting out across the unending outback has understandably become a highly significant picture of post Second World War Australia; an image of the hero/anti hero setting out alone on an adventure. Quilting The Armour 1947, with the enormous female figure (mother or wife) in the foreground, sewing brilliant turquoise material into Kelly’s helmet, is set against a poor isolated homestead with one horse and a man chopping wood. The individual, be he criminal or hero, needs a protective armour, as he sets himself up against the continent. The need for the individual to conquer is carried through from the original colonial encounter.

The last three rooms, which are grouped together as post-colonial art from 1950-2013,  were the least interesting to me. This was maybe because these artists seemed to be striving to leave behind their colonial past and to present themselves as contemporary artists who happened to work and live in Australia. I felt that the real power of this exhibition was the juxtaposition between the indigenous view of the land and that of the settlers; a cultural clash that continues to exist in modern day Australia.

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