There is an exhibition at Castlemaine’s delightful treasure-trove of a public gallery that in its own quiet way is subversive of the prevailing orthodoxy about who matters in early 20th century Australian painting. The subject of the show is Australian artists’ encounters with the Mediterranean land- and seascape, under the title Mediterranean Summers. There are old favourites: Will Ashton, Rupert Bunny and E Phillips Fox and his wife Ethel Carrick Fox. But there are also some surprises from artists whom one rarely sees illustrated in conventional histories of Australian painting. These artists were trained mostly at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Gallery School or with Julian Ashton in Sydney. Their number includes Dorrit Black (1891-1951), Herbert Rose (1888-1937), Justus Jörgensen (1893-1975), Harley C Griffiths (1909-1981), Polly Hurry (1883-1963), Dora Wilson (1883-1946), Colin Colahan (1897-1987), Charles Wheeler (1881-1977), and Ambrose Patterson (1877-1967). What they have in common is that they have to a greater or lesser extent faded in memory like the original text on a palimpsest. Today they are visible only faintly through the overwriting of history because on the great teleological juggernaut that is Australian art criticism most of these painters can’t find a seat. Simply put, these artists don’t fit into the grand story of Modernism’s triumph in the Antipodes.
Castlemaine’s Art Gallery and Historical Museum, under the direction of Peter Perry, has long been doing its best to propound a broader view of Australian art history and the small (in number) exhibition under review is one such case. Australians have always been indefatigable travellers and none more so in the early 20th century than artists (and musicians, one thinks of Percy Grainger and Nellie Melba). Typically, after three of four years’ study at the Gallery School or Ashton’s, they went abroad to further their studies, with Paris and the ateliers of Julian and Colarossi finding, but by no means exclusively, favour. Like homing pigeons they returned to Australia, but they had caught the travel bug and many returned regularly to Europe.
The fifty-eight paintings on show at Castlemaine essay a wide range of work from different stages in the artists’ working life. Some are mature works as in E Phillips Fox’s wonderful In Summer Time (c. 1911), Rupert Bunny’s masterly Village, South of France (c. 1926), and Dora Wilson’s lovely views of Corsica and St Tropez from the early 1930s. Surely Wilson deserves a reappraisal. Unlike her one time fiancé Charles Wheeler, whose work deteriorated with age, Wilson’s blossomed, if the pictures at Castlemaine are anything to go by. She reveals herself as an accomplished colourist. As for Wheeler, the pictures by him on display come from the early part of his career (the 1920s) and make one wonder what he could have achieved had he developed the sensibility evident in ‘Albi, France’ (below right), instead of finding comfort in dull representationalism.
Most of the work on show is from the mid years of the artists represented. As Katherine Kovacic, notes in her serviceable introduction to the catalogue accompanying the show, as soon as Australian artists began travelling to Europe they headed for the Mediterranean.
“The light in particular is almost a presence in these Mediterranean scenes,” she writes. “Whether its intensity is expressed throughout a strong counter-play of sun and shadow, the sun sparkling on water, an overall saturation of colour or conversely, a lightening of the palette to a white-gold haze, artists clearly found working with this light both an attraction and a challenge.”
The shadow cast by Max Meldrum is seen in the works by Colahan and Jörgensen who between the two of them have twelve pictures in the exhibition. Colahan’s Provencescape, painted in the late 1940s, finds a Cezannesque abstraction in the landscape. The viewer stands at the beginning of a low, walled path, vegetation on the left rising to the tiled roofs of two buildings. On the right one looks straight at a village house square on and behind it to the pitched terra-cotta tiled roof of another, and behind it the beginnings of a pine forest. Electricity poles cast blue shadows. Jorgensen’s Street Scene, Cassis from 1927, has the same subaqueous shadows one sees in the Colahan. Jörgensen’s use of colour, specifically the key complementary opposites yellow/blue and red/green, is particularly affecting.
Mediterranean Summers reminds us that there is a broader range of serious artistic expression in our past than the disciples of modernism would allow. It shows us that along side the recognised masters such as Bunny and Fox there’s a group of forgotten painters who can hold their own on the gallery walls.