200 years of Australian art on show in London

LONDON- A major exhibition of Australian art opens in London on Saturday, charting 200 years of extraordinary change through the country’s relationship with its dramatic landscape.

Twelve rooms at the Royal Academy have been taken over for the show, which includes bark paintings, early colonial watercolours, heroic pioneer scenes and modern works.

The landscape forms a thread that links them all together, from the inhospitable bush portrayed by the early settlers to the abstract indigenous paintings of ceremonial places.

“Two hundred years is a lot of ground to cover,” said Kathleen Soriano, the Royal Academy’s director of exhibitions.

The exhibition is largely chronological, although it begins with a room of modern interpretations of tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal art, containing rock engravings, body paintings and ceremonial ground designs.

“The first room represents 50,000 years of a culture,” Soriano explained.

In one of the most comprehensive surveys of Australian art seen outside the country, the 200 works by 146 artists shine a light on the diversity of its people, its land and how it became the nation it is today.

The earliest colonial art shows a wariness of Australia’s terrain, which the first British settlers in 1788 found hard to cultivate, portraying settlements as bright spots in a dark and dangerous landscape.

But the paintings chart how those who survived built railways and raised cattle, and finally began to enjoy the views — and the beach.

Many early works are watercolours in the English tradition, but after the gold rush other Europeans and Chinese began arriving, bringing different styles with them.

Some artists acknowledged the price the indigenous people paid for the colonial expansion, including Eugene von Guerard in his “Stony Rises” (1857), which shows a group of Aborigines cast in darkness as the sun sets.

“It’s the sun setting on the Aboriginal people,” said Ron Radford, director of the National Gallery of Australia who co-curated the show.

The exhibition showcases some spectacular Aboriginal art, including eucalyptus bark paintings from Arnhem Land, northern Australia, and works by Albert Namatjira, who learned watercolours while acting as a guide and painted some of the earliest and most striking pictures of the Australian desert.

There are works from the 1970s, when Aboriginal men in the Western Desert began to paint their mythology or “dreaming” on discarded building materials, and more modern paintings such as Anatjari Tjampitjinpa’s concentric circles from 1981, depicting ceremonial grounds in central Australia.

The exhibition also looks at the establishment of the landscape as part of Australian identity, with pictures celebrating the heroism and strength of those forging a new life in rugged terrain.

Frederick McCubbin’s 1904 triptych “The Pioneer” shows a young couple starting out with only a wagon, then with a homestead and a child, and finally the son at his father’s grave, a new town in the distance.

Four decades later, Sidney Nolan presented his vision of Ned Kelly, an outlaw character similar to England’s Robin Hood, outwitting the comically stupid police.

By the 1960s, the landscape had been distorted, as shown by Fred Williams’ “Yellow Landscape”, which discarded the horizon and depicted trees as mere dots and dashes of paint against a rusty background.

The exhibition closes with modern works, from Peter Dombrovskis’s famous photograph of the Franklin River, which became a symbol for the green movement in the 1980s, to Fiona Hall’s sardine tins, each with a lid moulded into a plant and a sex act depicted inside the aluminium container.

“Australia” runs from September 21 to December 8.