Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Walking Through Australian Art

Penned upon the 19th of July, 2009

I thought it high time for something local here on FrillyShirt, and so devised this little art history piece specifically for Melbornians and for visitors to our fair city and its fair-weather fair weather. Specifically, this shall be a short, informal walking tour to the National Gallery’s collection of turn-of-the-20th-century Australian art. I am far from an expert, but there are a few pieces which overlap with my studies and interests – including with that research which I did for the League of Temporal Voyagers presentation of Euchronia 2008, though I shall endeavour that the content here be original.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s Australian collection is, of course, housed at the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. Entering the 19th-century display on level 2, you’ll soon see the Heidelberg School artists’ works – these painters are best-known for their nationalistic works, but the gallery rightfully emphasises their variety and their keen interest in international styles. Tom Roberts and Charles Conder, in particular, lived and worked together on Collins St through the 1880s, and both had connections to the Paris bohemian scene and the cutting edge of Art Nouveau and post-Impressionism – Roberts had travelled through Europe and made numerous connections, while Conder moved to France to make his fortune, and was close to Wilde and Toulouse-Lautrec, before ultimately perishing of a complaint acquired from a Sydney landlady.

For this international influence, look in particular for Roberts’s portraits: Blue eyes and brown, which the gallery notes to be an homage to Whistler’s Symphony in white, and Lily Sterling, which stand out with their richly textured Aesthetic backgrounds and Orientalist patterns. Lily Sterling is hung next to Roberts’s famous Shearing the rams, too – and was, like it, in all probability painted at his studio in Grosvenor Chambers; a dedicated artists’ space set up by the Paterson Brothers.

In this collection, you’ll also find pieces from the 9 x 5 Exhibition – a collaborative experiment in modernist painting, including Conder, Streeton, McCubbin, et al. As well as that excellent display, though, you should see Minnie Boyd’s still lifes, including Corner of a drawing room and The window seat. As well as serving as further examples of the popularity of Aesthetic decoration in Melbourne at the time, incorporating layered patterns and Orientalist objets d’art, these intensely detailed interiors rival those of Tissot. And, on a considerably sillier note, have a look at Ugo Catani’s Lovers’ walk, Mount Macedon – as well as being dressed for several decades before the picture was painted; is it just me, or are the titular lovers slightly transparent? Is this a spectral outing we’re witnessing? A haunting of the forest path?

Now, back to our own walk – had I been writing this tour a few months ago, I would have directed you to John Ford Paterson’s grand landscape, Fernshaw: A bush symphony. Alas, such are the necessities of the gallery that it has been rotated temporarily out of display – but, to make up for it, you can cross the corridor, where, in addition to the Joseph Brown Collection, you’ll find a fascinating spotlight on Bernard Hall. Hall was a past Director of the NGV and head of its art school, and himself a consummate modernist. You’ll find some quite beautiful pictures there, revealing his Aesthetic and Symbolist influences, which have not been part of the usual display, so it’s an excellent opportunity.

Your tastes may draw you to quite different works, of course, but I think these few serve, not only as beautiful art, but as fine examples of the vitality of the Australian art scene at the time, and its worthy contributions to the great movements. These painters were dang hip, and talented! And they looked out for each other, though that’s another story. Still, these Symbolist pieces, especially, capture not just something national but something eternal, some small insight into the workings of the mind. And, naturally, the permanent collection is free, so it’s not a bad way to spend a day contemplating on the cheap, not at all.


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