A hundred years ago there was only one place for an aspiring Australian artist — or any other, for that matter — to go: Paris. It was the capital of the art world and it was the fountainhead of all that was modern. As the gifted Australian painter, Rupert Bunny, said, it was only in Paris that an artist could be “in touch with a thousand theories and theorists, with all kinds of movements, some profound [and] some merely eccentric” that made modern art.
NGV Australia, at Melbourne’s Federation Square, is showing more than 120 examples of pictures produced by Australian ‘Impressionist’ painters at the height of this Antipodean love affair with Paris. It covers work produced in the the 30 years between 1885 and 1915 encompassing that late Indian summer of European culture known in France as the Belle Epoque, and a time of rapid evolution in art.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is 26 works by John Russell who can lay claim to be Australia’s only authentic Impressionist painter. But the exhibition also lifts the veil — though perhaps not far enough — on a swag of painters who have been forgotten by the obsession of conventional Australian art historiography with tracing the evolution of Modernism in Australia.
It is a pleasant surprise to see in a major gallery the work of Frances Hodgkins, George Pitt Morison, Hilda Rix Nicholas (not seen here at her best as she’s currently the subject of a retrospective in Canberra), Ambrose Patterson, Edward Officer, and Isö Rae. But an odd balance has been struck. Charles Condor, E Phillips Fox, Ethel Carrick and John Russell predominate.
There is only one painting by Rupert Bunny, none by Max Meldrum, or George Bell, or George Coates, or Agnes Goodsir, or Janet Cumbrae Smith, Nora Gurdon, Clewin Harcourt, William McInnes, Violet Teague, Jessie Traill or Dora Chapman to name a few who were in France during this time. To the answer, not many of these were Impressionists the riposte is that not many exhibited are either. The over representation of some in the exhibition could have been reduced to make way for others and provide a broader assessment of work produced at that time.
In Paris during the second half of the 19th century there were essentially two competing schools for leadership of the avant garde: the Realists and the Impressionists. Both advocated quotidian subject matter and both promoted painting outdoors (pleine air). But the Impressionists were more radical; the caught the zeitgeist and won the argument.
Few Australian painters we now call Impressionist subscribed to the colour theory that underpinned the movement and the variant of its successor, Post-Impressionism. Indeed, Tom Roberts, the founder of the most important school in Australian painting, was essentially a Realist. That dynamo driving the creation of the Heidelberg School of Melbourne painters had been trained by two central European painters (Louis Bouvelot and Eugene Von Guerard) in Melbourne. On a visit to Europe in the early 1880s he came under the enduring influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage, a Realist who championed painting outdoors.
With the notable exceptions of Russell and Condor, most of the Australians who went to Europe gravitated to the more conservative painting schools in Paris, particularly the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi, both of which embraced tried and true methods of instruction based on the primacy of drawing and only flirted with the more avant garde approaches to subject matter and colour. Such tuition turned out artists strong on technique and limited only by their imagination.
Morison is a case in point. Exhibited is a Life Study which he produced for the Académie Julian in 1893. A naked woman sits on a simple chair with her back to us; her left arm rests on the back of the chair. It is a drawing of precision, expertly shaded, subtly defined. His painting, Chailly, of 1891, uses the higher key pallet of the time without any of the visual tensions and dissonances associated with the use of opposing colours of the spectrum.
This is not so with Russell, who really understood what paint could do. On entering the exhibition one is greeted by his The garden, Longpré-les-Corps-Saints of 1887, which features a cherry tree in blossom. Russell has embraced Impressionist colour theory, in the use of complementary opposite colours, predominately blue/violet and yellow; he has also studied Japanese prints (or at least the way his friend Van Gogh used them) with their just-so asymmetries.
Elena Taylor, who devised the exhibition and wrote its fascinating catalogue, says that the 26 Russells on show here are the largest number of his paintings to be seen in one place since a retrospective in the mid-1970s. What a treat they are. The turn-of-the-century paintings of the coast at Belle Île are as good as any his French contemporaries produced.
So too the Condors. He’s a painter of uneven quality but Apple Blossom at Dennemont, Springtime, and Fruit trees in blossom see him at the top of his game. Springtime captures a tree thick with blossom, blindingly lit by the sun, at the same time as rose petals are taken by a breeze. The tree sits in the middle distance; the rose bush and petals up against the picture plane. He pulls it off brilliantly.
There are many such gems in this show and it’s well worth the price of admission, but it’s a pity the net wasn’t cast wider and a larger group of painters presented.
Australian Impressionists in France, National Gallery of Victoria’s Australian gallery on Federation Square, from 15 June until 6 October