Thursday, 12 January 2017

'Australia's Impressionists' at the National Gallery

On a gray, gloomy damp January afternoon in London, what better thing to do than bask in the hot and dusty Australian sunshine of an interesting exhibition at the National Gallery? 'Australian Impressionists' is in the Sunley Room so is relatively small and features four Australian artists - Tom Roberts, Arthur Stratton, Charles Conder and John Russell - that I've not come across before so it's nice to find out a bit about them. I attended a preview of the exhibition before Christmas but this was an opportunity for a more leisurely viewing.

The first painting I really looked at was 'Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West' by Tom Roberts.  It made me want a glass of water to get the hot dust out of my mouth. It's not very big but is filled with small, sketched detail and busy-ness. Just look at all those wagons and the dust cloud kicked up by the trampling of the horses and the people wandering round. There is heat and dust in this painting, midday shadows and the look of people wanting to get into the shadows and out of the hot sun. It's quite easy to translate this scene into a bustling Parisian boulevard by any of the Impressionists, but this one is on the other side of the world.

The next painting that made me gawp at the sun and heat in the painting was 'Fire's On!' by Arthur Streeton, a long, thin painting of exposed rock and rubble reflecting the sun. While I'm basking in the heat of the painting I'm ignoring the subject matter of a mine tunnelling back into the rock and small figures in the bottom right hand side bringing out the body of a miner killed in the last explosion. You can see the small body with his arms crossed across his chest.

I loved the deep blue sky (and the thick brush strokes you can see in the light) and the earthy, sandy colours of the rock face and the rubble, the darker earth streaming from the back of an open wagon and the scrubby trees. It's an interesting composition with the 'action' in the painting taking place in a relatively small section of the painting but it's size gives it a sort of majesty.  'Fire's On' was the shout from the engineers that an explosion was about to happen and everyone should clear away from the mine.

A similar type of painting is 'A Break Away' by Tom Roberts, again big, again hot and dusty and very dramatic. It's a sheep-drive (is that even a term?) in the countryside, moving sheep from one part of the country to another and two cowboys - sheep boys? - on horses trying to stop and direct a panicking herd of sheep. Bottom-centre is a dog who's running so fast he loses his footing and is turning over on his back. The dog and the wildly riding cowboy reaching out his arm give a sense of pace and movement to the painting. The second cowboy is partially hidden in the cloud of dust raised by the sheep. Once again, there's a largely clear blue sky and earthy colours reflecting the heat of the day.

A painting that, quite frankly, had me worrying for the health of the subjects was 'A Holiday At Mentone' by Charles Conder. How can they possibly wear all those ridiculous clothes in that searing sun and the heat?  It was an automatic response (and by this time I was opening a button on my shirt for more air). The gorgeous beach with the brilliant sunshine beating down on the fashionable people strolling along the beach and that poor lady sitting reading a newspaper without even a parasol for protection. It's a really lovely painting of a time long ago when beaches had white sand and people wore their Sunday best to promenade on the beach and pier.

Another beach scene is 'A Holiday Sketch At Coogee' by Tom Roberts. This time it's more of a landscape painting that could have been painted in the south of France with it's blue bay and white sand except, I expect, there'd be more green in the vegetation. I noticed this one for it's colours and also it's name of Coogee Beach which was in the news at Christmas for an illegal rave party on Christmas night 2016 that left the beach covered in tonnes of rubbish after a beach party. It's nice that the beach is still there and still used after all these years and that people care about it enough to make a fuss after the 'party'. I wonder what Mr Roberts would have thought about it nearly 130 years after he created this painting?

I'll leave you with a painting by John Russell, 'Les Terraces de Monte Casino' from 1889. Russell is the odd man out in this exhibition since he actually lived in Europe for around 40 years, had some of the Impressionists as friends and even tutored Matisse for a short time. This painting, with its pink and purple landscape and clouds, is reaching out to the post-Impressionist use of colour and simplicity. It doesn't have the heat of many of the other paintings in the exhibition since it was actually painted in France. I love the candy-floss clouds and mountains and would be happy to wander in this colourful wonderland.

It's not a big exhibition - around 40 or so paintings, I think - but it's worth seeing and is perfect for this time of year (check your coat and scarf before you go in otherwise you'll boil in the heat of the paintings). I'll go again when I need to warm up!

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