200 Years of Australian Art at the Royal Academy: Connections Between Painting and the Spiritual Realm
From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, the arrival of the first British settlers, dismay, denial and idealization, to acceptance, new understanding and redemption, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy in London took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of my own experience of this great continent.
As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”
Reviews of this exhibition have been mixed, with a lot of criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a convict settlement, neat, peaceful, 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, this exhibition was for me an opportunity to revisit and relive my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.
In particular a swirling picture by a Queensland artist of the rainforest-clad mountains near Brisbane seemed to reflect exactly my own experience of this beautiful landscape.
The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive use of rarrk – the 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.
Two phrases seemed to touch the heart of this exhibition : “access to” and “isolation from”. Both of these were exemplified in a painting by John Brack, The Car (1955) which I couldn’t help responding to with amusement and yet behind it lay a profound resonance: a family in an ugly cheap car, out for a day trip, the father at the wheel, the mother smiling, the two children in the back staring straight at you, the viewer… and behind them the vastness of the Australian landscape.
And the picture “Australian Beach Pattern” by Charles Meere (1940) of the bronzed perfect bodies on the beach, men, women, children and babies, all strong, confident, was for me worryingly reminiscent of the kind of the pictures produced by artists in the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda campaign for the Soviet communist party. Yet later, the trauma of the Second World War affected the mood of optimism and this image was superseded by Albert Tucker with a painting of red,scorched hunks of flesh on another beach.
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 people of Australia were the ones who fully understand and imbued the earth with sacred forces. They were the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. And yet I can,too, be thankful to those eighteenth century settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to the most sublime of scenery. Even now when I drive up a steep winding road I think “Mount Glorious” . And when I saw Kenneth McQueen’s picture I thought “Yes!” And my heart lifted. “Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I experienced it and remember it now, in swirling patterns of movement.