Art of Australia

From Academic Kids

Australia is home to perhaps the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world - that is, those of the Aboriginal Australians, an artistic tradition that began to receive international recognition in the late 20th century. It has also produced notable artists coming out of Western traditions whose most distinctively Australian feature is the gradual development of a way to represent the equally distinctive Australian landscape.

Aboriginal art

See main article Australian Aboriginal art

Western art

The first depictions of Australia by European artists were mainly "natural-history art", depicting the distinctive flora and fauna for scientific purposes. Sydney Parkinson, the plant draftsperson on James Cook's 1770 voyage that first charted the eastern coastline of Australia, made a large number of such drawings under the direction of naturalist Joseph Banks.

Despite Banks' suggestions, no professional natural-history artist sailed on the First Fleet in 1788, so until the turn of the century all drawings made in the colony were by soldiers, including naval officers George Raper and John Hunter, and convict artists, including Thomas Watling. However, many of these drawings are by unknown artists. Most are in the style of naval draughtsmanship. Most of these drawings were of natural-history topics, specifically birds, but a few depict the infant colony itself. Several professional natural-history illustrators accompanied expeditions in the early 19th century, including Ferdinand Bauer (who travelled with Matthew Flinders), and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who travelled with a French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin. The first resident professional artist was John Lewin, who arrived in 1800 and published two volumes of natural-history art.

As well as natural history, there were some ethnographic portraiture of Aborigines, particularly in the 1830s. Some of the most notable artists include Augustus Earle, in New South Wales, and Thomas Bock.

Conrad Martens worked from 1835 to 1878 as a professional artists, painting many landscapes. He was commercially successful. His work, though, is regarded as softening the landscape to fit European sensibilities. Another significant landscape artist of this era was John Glover.

A few attempts at art exhibitions were made in the 1840s, which attracted a number of artists but were unfortunately commercial failures. By the 1850s however, regular exhibitions became popular, with a huge variety of art types represented. The first such was in 1854 in Melbourne. An art museum, which eventually became the National Gallery of Victoria, was founded in 1861, and began to collect Australian works as well as gathering a collection of European masters. Some of the artists of note included Eugene von Guerard, Thomas Strutt, and Louis Bouvelot.

The beginnings of Australian art are often popularly associated with the Heidelberg School in the 1880s. Some historians, including Sayers (2001), regard this as an exaggeration, noting earlier nineteeth century artists, as well as contemporary artists (particularly women) not recognised as part of this movement, as well as noting the strong connections between the art of the school and the wider Impressionist movement. However, even given these qualifications, Sayers states that "there remains something excitingly original and indusitably important in the art of the 1880s and 1890s", and that by this time "something which could be described as an Australian tradition began to be recognized".

Some the key figures in the School were Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, and Charles Conder. Their most recognised work involves scenes of pastoral and wild Australia, featuring the vibrant, even harsh colours of Australian summers. The name itself comes from a camp Roberts and Streeton set up at a property near Heidelberg, at the time on the rural outskirts of Melbourne. Some of their paintings received international recognition, and many remain embedded in Australia's popular consciousness both inside and outside the art world.

Leading up to World War I, the decorative arts, including miniature, watercolour painting, and functional objects such as vases, became more prominent in the Australian arts scene. Norman Lindsay's works caused considerable scandal around the turn of the century. One famous drawing, Politice verso, caused his first scandal, as it depicted a "writhing bacchanal of nude Romans" giving the thumbs-down to "a scrawny figure hung on a cross". By this time, women's artworks started to attract wider attention, such as the pastels of Florence Rodway.

After World War I, modernist art began to make its presence felt in the Australian art community, causing considerable controversy between its practitioners and detractors (though this is probably an oversimplification). 1921 saw the founding of the Archibald Prize, Australia's most famous art prize, for portraiture, though defining portraiture has always caused controversy - most notably in 1943 when William Dobell's highly figurative portrait of an artist friend won the prize and was challenged in court on the basis that it was a caricature, not a portrait. Also notable in the 1930s period was the photography of Max Dupain, whose images of bronzed (often nude) Australians on dazzlingly-lit beaches added to the mythological connection of white Australia to its coastline.

In the 1930s and 1940s the opening up of Australia's interior saw an increasing cross-pollination between Western and Aboriginal art, with European artists imitating Aboriginal styles and some Aboriginal artists adopting Western techniques. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Albert Namatjira.

In the 1940s a new generation of artists began experimenting with styles such as surrealism and other techniques. Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker were prominent, and a number of artists spent time at Heide, a house in Heidelberg - the site of the Heidelberg school several decades before. Amongst the artists that spent time there are Joy Hester and, most prominently Sidney Nolan, the best known artist of the immediate postwar period. The effect of the Ern Malley poetry case, its cover illustrated by Nolan, also reflected around the art world.

The aspects of Australia's landscape depicted by artists continued to widen, with the suburban landscape brought to attention by such artists as John Brack. One of the more well-known modern painters was the Sydney artist Brett Whiteley, who returned to Australia in the 1970s after spending time in London and, amongst other subjects, produced many landscape of Sydney and its waterside environs.

The 1970s saw the widespread introduction of the government funding of Australian arts, and thousands of artists continue to produce a huge variety of works in media from oils to digital projection. The National Gallery of Australia was opened in 1982, and the state galleries have continued to expand.

See also


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