An exhibition at the National Gallery, London, 7th December, 2016 to 26th March, 2017

AUSTRALIA’S IMPRESSIONISTS, edited by Christopher Riopelle

National Gallery Publications. 128 pages. £16.95. ISBN 978-1857-096-125

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I doubt that much is known about the four artists covered in this exhibition. Charles Conder may be someone recognised by those who are curious about the fin-de-siècle circles associated with writers and artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Condor was born in England, grew up in India, moved to Australia as a teenager, went to Paris, where he knew Toulouse-Lautrec, in 1890, and then to England, where he died in 1909 at the early age of forty-one. He painted in places like Swanage and Newquay in England.

If Conder may only be recognised by a limited number of people, what about Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and John Russell? Roberts was born in England in 1856, moved to Australia as a teenager, was in London between 1881 and 1885 to study art, and became friendly with and was influenced by Whistler. He also spent a short time in Paris. Roberts returned to London in 1903 and stayed there until 1923. He then went back to Australia and died in 1941.

Arthur Streeton was born in Australia. He was the first Australian-born artist to have a painting exhibited at the Royal Academy in London (it was also shown at the Paris Salon), but when he moved to England in 1897 he found it difficult to achieve any sort of recognition for his work. Nonetheless, he stayed in England for thirty or so years before returning to Australia, where he died in 1943.

John Russell, seems to be the artist most favoured by the curators of the National Gallery exhibition. Born in Australia in 1858 he became financially independent when his father died, and he then moved to London to study art in 1881 before going to Paris. Russell stayed in Europe for around forty years, and became associated with many of the leading modern artists in France. His painting reflected that fact. He did eventually return to Australia, dying in Sydney in 1930.

I’ve sketched in some basic biographical details because they seem to me to be relevant in terms of the sort of work produced by each of the painters. Russell, for example, was highly thought of by artists such as Matisse and Monet, and by the sculptor, Rodin. Unlike the others, he never painted scenes of Australian life and locations,  and that, perhaps, caused him to be neglected in his native country, while the fact of his not being French probably meant that he would be overlooked when histories of Impressionism and other Parisian art movements were written. Russell was wealthy enough to be able to build a house on an island off the Brittany coast and live there with his family  for many years. He had no need to sell his work, so didn’t market it widely. It’s said that when his wife died he was so grief-stricken that he destroyed much of it.

I have to admit that, looking around the National Gallery exhibition, I found Russell’s paintings less interesting than those by Roberts and Streeton. They quite clearly demonstrate that he was aware of what was happening in France, and that may have been, for me, something of a problem. I could see Monet in one painting, Cezanne in another. What I couldn’t see was any kind of real individuality. It may be true that what Russell was doing now appeals to art historians and critics, and they can talk about his brushwork and colour sense,  and the fact of his being “the most impressionist of Australia’s impressionists”, which may be true enough, but doesn’t make his canvases any more interesting.

Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton were much more to my taste, and their work, while showing some influences from Europe, seemed firmly located in the landscapes and urban scenes of a developing and energetic Australia. Unlike Russell, and Conder (though he did seem to share some of Roberts and Streeton’s concerns before leaving the country), they wanted to record what was around them. They also wanted to use the natural colour and light to heighten the effect of their paintings. It wasn’t that they were unaware of impressionist techniques, but they didn’t feel the need to follow them slavishly. In some ways, it may be that lumping all four artists under the “Impressionist” label doesn’t do them justice. It has become a catch-all term that appears to be applied to almost everyone painting in a non-academic way in the late-19th century. The catalogue quotes an American art historian, Norma Broude, on the subject of “international impressionism” which she defines as “the impulse to paint contemporary life and experience directly from nature, to study the effects of light, and to use a lighter palette and looser brushwork”.  It occurs to me that it’s a quite broad definition which could be linked to any number of late-19th century artists.

Fine paintings such as Roberts’s A Break Away! (a wonderfully movement-packed picture of horsemen trying to stop thirsty sheep stampeding towards a water hole) and Allegro Con Brio: Bourke Street  West (a street scene in which you can almost feel the heat and the dust rising) attract the attention, as does his quieter The Camp, Sirius Cove. Streeton’s Fire’s On is a large canvas in which workers near the entrance to a mine seem dwarfed by the rocks towering above them. His The Railway Station – Redfern reminds me of Norman Garstin’s Cornish painting, The Rain It Raineth Every Day in the way a wet day is shown, while `the purple’s noon’s transparent might’ beautifully captures the vastness of the landscape we see.

There are paintings by Conder from his days in Australia. Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay is darker than many of the pictures by Roberts and Streeton, where they worked on “the glare” (the impact of the bright sun) to heighten their canvases, but it is striking in the way it captures the crowds on the quayside clustered in the rain. His A Holiday at Mentone is much brighter and perhaps anticipates some of the paintings he produced in Newquay and Brighton. Conder was the tragic one of the four, and often criticised for his bohemian lifestyle. It’s said that other “Australian artists in London and Paris kept their distance from him”, and his death was ascribed to “general paralysis of the insane”, in other words the long-term effects of syphilis.

Australia’s Impressionists is a relatively small exhibition, but is full of interesting paintings. As I said earlier, it did occur to me, looking around the exhibition, reading the catalogue, and watching a useful short film about the artists, that there is a desire among curators, critics, and art historians, to revive interest in John Russell. I had the feeling that because he moved to France, knew Monet and many others, and picked up on new ideas, he’s now being seen as somehow more adventurous than Roberts or Streeton. He didn’t impress me that way . While I was looking at his paintings, the friend I was with pointed to one of them, (Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret) and remarked, “Wynford Dewhurst”.

Dewhurst, known as the “Manchester Monet”, lived in France and, like Russell, knew Monet and other impressionists. He was a talented painter, but not very original, and there have been some moves towards reviving interest in him, including a current exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery. I’m all for revivals of interest in forgotten or obscure painters, poets, novelists, and musicians, but there is a danger that, to satisfy the interests and needs of curators, critics, and academics,  anxious to find some fresh ground to explore, they may sometimes be over-rated.