From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy, London, in November 2013 took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of Australia.
As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”
Reviews of the exhibition were mixed, with a lot of criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a convict settlement, neat, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, the exhibition created, for me, a strong sense of connection to my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.
There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below, demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.
The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.
But in addition to the aboriginal artworks, there were others which touched me deeply. In particular a swirling picture by Kenneth McQueen, a Queensland artist, of the rainforest-clad mountains reflected my own experience of this majestic landscape. I felt connected, then, to one of my former favourite haunts, Mount Glorious, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, forming the backdrop to the city of Brisbane. As soon as I saw his painting I thought “Yes! Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I remembered it, in swirling patterns of movement.
The indigenous people of Australia are the ones who fully understand and imbue the earth with sacred forces. They are the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. But I can be thankful, too, to those eighteenth century European settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to this sublime scenery.