A shot of sunshine for the soul
Like many people, I've got a soft spot for Impressionism. Perhaps it's because the very first exhibition I ever saw in London was 'Monet in the '90s' at The Royal Academy.
I can still recall quite clearly the frisson of excitement I felt when I stood before the canvases, so much bigger and brighter and bolder than all the posters and postcards stuck to the walls of my bedroom had lead me to expect.
Since then, I've been very fortunate to have seen lots of exhibitions of Impressionist art. In the last few years alone, there's been 'American Impressionism', 'Impressionist Gardens', 'Inventing Impressionism', 'Painting The Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse' and, only last autumn, 'Inspiring Impressionism'. All immensely enjoyable. And yet, when I heard that The National Gallery was mounting an exhibition entitled 'Australia's Impressionists', my enthusiasm was slightly tempered by a nagging doubt that my love of the genre might have reached saturation point. But, having visited the exhibition last weekend, I am pleased to report that the works on display, delighted me just as much as Monet's canvases did almost 30 years ago.
That said, our visit didn't start on a particularly upbeat note, mainly because we'd decided to go on foot to Trafalgar Square. Normally we enjoy strolling through cities admiring the architecture and indulging in a little window-shopping along the way, but last Saturday the wet and windy weather conditions in the wake of 'Doris' made our walk to The National Gallery a decidedly grim trudge so that we arrived at the exhibition feeling a bit grumpy and out of sorts. Yet, in a strange way, being in a state of chilly windswept dishevelment seemed to render the impact of the paintings on display even more powerfully beautiful than might otherwise have been the case. The effect of standing in front of glorious sun-drenched scenes, such as The Purple Noon's Transparent Might by Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder's A Holiday at Mentone, with their vivid depictions of searing light, wide azure skies and pale bleached sand, boosted our spirits with what felt like the emotional equivalent to a hefty dose of Vitamin D.
'Australia's Impressionists' offers more, however, than wall-to-wall images of sun drenched Arcadia. Some of the works, being of rainy cityscapes, tend toward gloomy, whilst one or two of the most glaringly bright paintings convey harsh reality rather than bucolic harmony. In Streeton's Fire's On, the body of a man who has been killed during the blasting of a railway tunnel through a rock face is being carried from the scene, whilst in A Break Away! by Roberts, the billows of dust whipped up from the parched landscape by the frantic feet of horses and sheep act as a salutary reminder that unrelenting days of soaring temperatures come hand-in-hand with the arid conditions caused by sustained periods of drought.
Notwithstanding, the overall mood of 'Australia's Impressionists' is one of refreshing buoyancy, the brisk brush strokes and wide views conveying a quivering energy and sense of expansion. In part, this is perhaps a reflection of the artists themselves, all of whom were still relatively young and effervescent with enthusiasm, fearless and revelling in the heady adventure of finding their own distinctive artistic voice. But it's more than that. It's equally expressive of the burgeoning economic success and cultural confidence of a land on the cusp of modernity, poised to be reborn and assert itself on the global stage. For in 1901, just a decade after the heady summers Roberts, Conder and Streeton spent camping and exploring and painting en plain air, the Australian Federation was formed, fusing the hitherto six independent colonies and giving birth to the Australian Commonwealth and the country we know today.
For me then, 'Australia's Impressionists' scintillates with the energy of being at the very beginning of something new and excitedly embracing the opportunities which lie ahead. And, as our own nation faces the challenges posed by forging a post-Brexit identity, it strikes me that we could do worse than adopting a little bit of the early Aussie optimism which radiates so strongly from this vibrant and energising exhibition.
© Pamela Moore 2017
Mr Moore says-
The works featured in 'Australia's Impressionists' provided much to contemplate regarding not just the subject matter but the composition and format of the paintings themselves. Indeed, the excellent audio-guide that accompanied the exhibition highlighted the potential of the aspect ratio to affect the way in which artwork is observed. For example, Tom Robert's A Break Away! has an almost square format, which lends equal importance to the drovers on horseback, their sheep, the trees and sky, so that the observer’s attention swirls across the image, like the dust clouds created by the stampeding sheep, picking out the individual details.
In comparison, Arthur Streeton's Ariadne is presented in an almost 'Cinemascope' wide format, the viewer’s gaze being drawn from left to right, unfolding the story within. A different linear technique is used in Streeton’s Sirius Cove where the tall, thin banner-like image is reminiscent of Japanese woodblocks, which were certainly an influence on the European impressionists. The stacking of elements, with the foreground rocks in the lower part of panel, the water of the cove in the middle section and the distant wooded slope positioned toward the upper part, directs the eye from bottom of the painting to the top.
A novel perspective is provided by the ‘9 by 5’ series of works, so called as the majority were painted on cigar box lids of roughly nine by five inches. The cropping of these paintings within the much larger wooden frames gives an effect similar to that of looking at the scene through a letterbox. The enticing vignettes of landscapes, urban views and figures were displayed at the first exhibition staged by Roberts, Streeton and Conder in Melbourne in 1889. These quickly painted works convey something the dynamism of the fledgling artistic movement and the country that was their inspiration.
Mention was also made of the palette used by these artists and it is interesting to contrast the works of Roberts, Streeton and Conder to those of John Russell, who is also featured in the exhibition. Russell, an Australian by birth and friend of Tom Roberts, moved to Europe spending most of his career in France working with the French Impressionists. The saturated hues Russell used in his paintings reflect the European school more than the artists who were working in Australia at the same time. The tones they used seem to more accurately portray the effect of the Antipodean light on their subjects.
As with all works of art no reproduction on screen or in print can really convey the richness and texture of the original, so to enjoy the full impact of these paintings, MooreMundi recommends that you visit ‘Australia’s Impressionists’ at the National Gallery in London, before it closes on 26th March 2017.