Iconic Australian Art Comes to London

Some of Australia's best-loved works of art can be seen in London at the Royal Academy of Arts in an exhibition entitled Australia.

This is the first major survey of Australian art to take place in Britain for many years and includes several items not seen in this country until now. The display spans a two-hundred year period, from 1800 to the present day, and features more than 200 works. It focuses specifically on the influence of the Australian landscape and the social and cultural development of the country as depicted in its art.

Layout of the Exhibition

The show comprises paintings, drawings, watercolours, sculpture, photography and multimedia and starts with works by Aboriginal artists such as Albert Namatjira, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

The installation also showcases works by artists of the Papunya Tula group of the Western Desert as well as items by immigrant artists, such as John Glover and Eugene von Guerard. Australian Impressionists are represented by Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin.

Modernists, such as Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, and Roy de Maistre, and twentieth-century astists, including Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Rosalie Gascoigne, Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan are also featured.

The display concludes in the twenty-first century with works by popular contemporary artists such as Gordon Bennett, Simryn Gill, Shaun Gladwell, Fiona Hall, Bill Henson, Tracey Moffatt, Christian Thompson and Judy Watson. Judy Watson (b.1959) has prepared a specially commissioned sculpture which can be seen in the RA's Annenberg Courtyard.

The show looks at the influence of the early settlers and colonisation of the indigenous population, the growth of cities in the 19th century, and the rapid spread of those cities in the 20th century. The exhibition shows the diversity of the populace and the vastness of the country through early and contemporary Aboriginal art, works by early settlers, 20th-century immigrant artists as well as contemporary pieces by many of the country's most respected artists.

Aboriginal Art History

Australian Art in the National Gallery of Australia
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Highlights of the Exhibition

"Ned Kelly, 1946", by Sidney Nolan

The intense light of the Australian summer is perfect for landscape painting and has inspired artists for centuries, although the burning heat and extreme dryness was probably not so welcome.

Artists such as Australian-born Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) have taken advantage of the intense light of high noon, often dramatising it with a palette of vibrant golds and blues as can be seen in the Ned Kelly paintings.

The 27 paintings in the series explore the adventures of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang. They depict key events such as the Stringybark massacre of police constables, the activities of the double agent Aaron Sherritt, and the trial which ended with Ned Kelly sentenced to hang.

The paintings were not intended to be an authentic representation of the Kelly story, rather an expression of Nolan's thoughts on themes of injustice, love and betrayal. Perhaps, more importantly, they offered a new way for the artist to show the Australian landscape. In the painting Ned Kelly 1946, the bold black figure of Kelly on his horse dominates the powerful blue/gold landscape.

Ned Kelly, 1946, by Sidney Nolan

Ned Kelly, 1946, Sidney Nolan
Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of Sunday Reed 1977
Sidney Nolan: Desert & Drought
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Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west c.1885-86 by Tom Roberts

Another key work is Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west c.1885-86 by Tom Roberts (1856-1931). Born in Dorchester, England, in 1856, Roberts moved to Australia in 1869.

Allegro con brio is an Italian musical term meaning 'lively with fire'. This painting, full of lively activity, shows various aspects of Bourke Street, Melbourne. At the far end of the street, almost of of sight, is the General Post Office. This was a vital building for Melburnians because a series of flags located above its clock tower indicated the progress of the overseas mail from arrival right through to sorting.

Women carry parasols to protect against the heat of the sun and the scorching hot wind known as 'the brickflieder'. Relief is offered by the word 'ICE' on a cart located almost dead centre of the painting. The three female figures in the lower-left of the painting were apparently specially posed so that Roberts could show their bright dresses.

The painting also shows the architectural styles of the time, buildings with verandahs and awnings, a street full of pedestrians and vehicles, a line of cabs down the middle of the street - the hustle and bustle of city life. One year after Roberts painted this scene the line of cabs was replaced by track for cable trams.

Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west c.1885-86 by Tom Roberts

Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west c.1885-86 by Tom Roberts
Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1918

Fire's on, 1891, by Arthur Streeton

One painting that particularly interested me is Fire's On, (1891), by Impressionist Arthur Streeton (1867-1943). The painting, which captures the country's scorching heat and brilliant sunlight, shows the construction of the railway line across the Blue Mountains. 'Fire's on' was the call given before a blast, and in this scene workers carry a stretcher bearing the body of a railway worker killed in an explosion.

Streeton was fascinated and inspired by the ruggedness of the landscape and the excitement of the railway project, one of the great engineering achievements of the 19th century. Both factors are supremely conveyed in this painting. Although the theme of the painting is the death of the construction worker, the people are not the main focus. It is the landscape with its huge rocks, piles of stones, and dead tree-trunks clinging precariously to the steep terrain.

Fire's On, 1891, Arthur Streeton

Fire's on, 1891, Arthur Streeton
Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1893

Visit the Show

Australia will be on show at London's Royal Academy of Arts from 21st September to 8th December 2013. Tickets and further information can be obtained from the Royal Academy.

A fully illustrated catalogue is also available. Featuring texts by Wally Caruana, Franchesca Cubillo, Anne Gray, Deborah Hart, Ron Radford, Kathleen Soriano and Daniel Thomas, the book provides a comprehensive examination of Australian art. ISBN-13: 978-1907533440.

Australia has been curated by Kathleen Soriano, the Academy's Director of Exhibitions, and Dr Ron Radford AM and Dr Anne Gray of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The venture is jointly organised with the National Gallery of Australia. The project is supported by Quantas Airways, the Woolmark Company and Campaign for Wool. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales is the Patron of this exhibition.

Getting there...

Burlington House, Piccaddilly, London W1J 0BD

Australia - Royal Academy of Arts Fran5050 2013-09-11 5.0

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