fig. 1<br/>
Hans Heysen<br/>
b. Germany 1877; arr. Australia 1883; d. South Australia 1968<br/>
<em>Sunshine and shadow</em> 1904 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
176.5 x 114.3 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Felton Bequest, 1906 (248-2)<br/>

The lost art of Federation: Australia’s quest for modernism


Australian art of the first two to three decades of the twentieth century exists today, if indeed it finds focus at all in the received history of Australian art, beneath a cloud: as a regressive period after the Heidelberg School. In the late 1880s and early 1890s the Heidelberg School painters – Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and a few female painters only now professionally noticed – rendered the Australian scene with what is still an acceptable accuracy. The 1985 Golden Summers exhibition has heightened the nostalgia for that precious, short-lived span of painting, contrived en plein air

As is well known, a number of the key ‘Heidelberg’ artists left Australia in the 1890s – Bernard Smith styled it the ‘Exodus’. As a consequence, a hiatus seemed to appear in the first decade of the twentieth century, rupturing the fragile continuity of local tradition. The nineteenth-century tradition appears spent, but that shift to twentieth-century modes called ‘modernism’ is not even felt tentatively in Australian art. Following the European model, the infiltration of modernism in Australia is today devoutly sought, sadly observed to be hesitant in its coming. Grace Cossington Smith’s The sock knitter 1915 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) is an over-watched picture, said to signal the first entry of the new style. Australian art yearns for a genuine avant-garde: I use the present tense, since the desire for an avant-garde is post-avant-garde: the demand is a-historical. 

It may be that the standards for acceptance and rejection of early twentieth-century Australian art are inconsistent and confused. Despite the many discourses of Australian art history, an historicised framework of values does not inevitably operate. If it did so, it would be recognised that the quest for modernism in Australia is, in fact, pointless and a-historical. 

A rhetoric of imperialism – embracing English models and precedents and assuming an upper class ease – became inevitable with Federation; in some early twentieth-century Australian art it quashed nationalism; it superseded colonial content in apparent rejection of Australia-specific themes. There is almost universal agreement among cultural historians that Australian art became tentative and regressive. Gavin Souter, historian of Federation in the first decades of the twentieth-century, lamented: ‘The Australian arts were no great testimonial to the aesthetic side of imperialism’.1Gavin Souter, Lion and Kangaroo: The Initiation of Australia, Collins, Sydney, 1976, p. 289. Geoffrey Serle entitled chapters of his cultural history From the Deserts the Prophets Come, ‘1885–1900, National Inspiration’, followed by ‘Delayed Development, c.1900–1930’.2Geoffrey Serle, From the Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788–1972, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1973, p. 60 ff. More recently, Tim Bonyhady, in Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting 1801–1890 lamented that ‘The reduction of the landscape to a stereotype of bright sunshine and scattered gum trees was a sorry end (my emphasis) to almost a century of painting in which both colonial artists and the Heidelberg School painters had successfully revealed so many aspects of Australian scenery.’3Tim Bonyhady, Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting 1801–1890, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 156. Can this be? Did Australia sacrifice a generation of artists to the shadow of Queen Victoria following the exodus of an earlier generation of ‘Heidelbergers’; or are the reception values irrelevant? Are we not asking that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony be Finnegan’s Wake

European modernism was never so seduced by the artificial need for an avant-garde: it had its convictions, contractions, demolitions, revisions, back-trackings. Conservatism and innovation co-exist or take up an alternating rhythm. Contradictions, revision and inhibitions, however, have not been accommodated in the history of Australian taste. 

As is well-known, the artists of the exodus gravitated conservatively to the Académie Julian in Paris, to Cormon’s, to Jean Paul Lauren’s; they exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon. But the expatriate art of Hugh Ramsay, Rupert Bunny and George Lambert reflected (regrettably in some eyes) not the European avant-garde and the excitement of Parisian modernism – Picasso, Braque et al. – but a retrospective, even regressive set of traditions, more English than Parisian. Yet is there not fluent, accomplished painting: painting of genuine jouissance, that is, if one does not yearn for the moderne

Among the most potent European modes for federated Australia was the intimiste: taking up subjects beloved by the Nabis, but monumentalising them, giving them an imperial grandeur and scale – typified in the women on Rupert Bunny’s balconies, drinking tea, lolling around in their deck chairs, muslin-draped, heavily plenitudinous, never to be troubled by the contemporaneous Cubist campaign. What the sitters have won, what the painter conferred, is status and leisure – with the sitters’ languid, seemingly effortless absorption into a leisure class. What the Australian artists from a newly federated country sought for the less-than-current state of the art they practised, was academy scale and bravura finish: a scale that eclipsed the legacy of the petite 9 x 5s swift, informal painting. The landscape also needed to be endowed with monumentality. This was the mission of Hans Heysen. Are not the statuesque women lolling in Rupert Bunny’s 1908 paintings: The distant song (Australian National Gallery) and A summer morning (Art Gallery of New South Wales) the robust female equivalents to Heysen’s gum-trees – seen from a low viewpoint, dappled in light, with picturesque accent of a dropped wrist and an angled elbow propping up the head? The posture, the viewpoint, the cream-white palette are replete, too, in Hugh Ramsay’s The sisters 1904 (Art Gallery of New South Wales). Between the heroic and the domestic are George Lambert’s family portraits, glamorous and well-scaled, with courtly air evoking Velasquez, setting the equestrian son on his pony as an aspirant squire. 

During these years Australian landscape painting forsook the frontier country, the terrain of the pioneer. Instead, the favoured view was of homestead paddocks with milking cows casting long shadows in early morning or twilight, as they grazed in cool temperate pasture. Elioth Gruner’s Spring frost 1919 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) is a paradigm of the homestead view, reconsolidating after the First World War. Cattle – in particular the dairy herd – domesticated the landscapes of the early twentieth century. In effect the land is brought nearer to ‘Home’ – both in the obvious sense, to the homestead and also to Europe, specifically to England. Sheep inhabit wider landscapes, raising dust in open squatter country – as earlier in Tom Roberts’s Breakaway 1890–91 (Art Gallery of South Australia). Cattle graze in lusher ground, near to the domestic dwelling, in country that confirms, not the possibility of drought, but the quiet plenitude of the land. This is country not readily associated with full summer, but rather with climes compatible with the European experience. The farmer may be present, as he is in Gruner’s Spring frost, but less vivid, less illuminated than the cows. Of course, this is not to say that cows were not painted before 1900, or that sheep did not safely graze after that date: as in Streeton’s inert vistas and Heysen’s Summer 1909 (Art Gallery of New South Wales). It is the omnipresent painted cow which reflects the domestication of farming in Australia in the first years of the century, and the diversification of primary industry after refrigerated shipping was introduced.4Percy F. S. Spence and Frank Fox, Australia, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1910; reprinted, Vantage House, Cheltenham, 1982, p. 15. After the droughts of 1902 to 1904, there followed a period of agricultural boom, which pastoral painting endorses. 

Such a landscape by Heysen or Gruner is anthropomorphised, lived within; it thrives by virtue of an affinity with the picturesque mode which relishes light and shadow, texture of grass, antiquated fences, dappled shaded cows. Though the prospect is closed off, kept intimate between fences, a sense of the sublime is managed. Heysen is the master of the admixture. For Heysen the gum-tree, with its height of column trunk and vast root system, is the antipodean coulisse. As with portrait and figure painting, links with a British tradition of landscape are reconfirmed through Gainsborough, Constable, Samuel Palmer and John Sell Cotman. Heysen is the domestic Federation painter par excellence; his treasured possession the mezzotint engravings by David Lucas after Constable.5I am grateful to Mr Paul Dwyer of Leonard Joel Pty Ltd for making available the auction catalogue, The Hans Heysen Collection, 1970. 

The homely and the heroic co-exist in Heysen. He discovered the potency of the South Australian landscape soon after his 1904 homecoming to Adelaide, following his years at the Académie Julian, Calarossi’s and the École des Beaux Arts. Perhaps mirroring his own return, The coming home 1904 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) is in typical Dutch–English rustic formation, the trees not yet fully indigenous but purposeful in their framing of the view. Mystic morn 1904 (Art Gallery of South Australia), which won the Wynne Prize, has gum-trees curved in arabesques and brindled like the cattle so at home in the middle distance. Sunshine and shadow 1904 (fig. 1) (National Gallery of Victoria) with its grove of light, is dappled, gentle country, quietly lush. Such painting is transitional – the gums near to the birch, the effect delicate and yet not fully European. The work is becoming more assured, larger in scale. The big Heysens – A lord of the bush 1908 (National Gallery of Victoria) and Red gold 1913 (Art Gallery of South Australia) – are potent formulations of awe in front of the great gums, fully realised; yet the figure of man, though physically small beside them, co-exists in harmony. Such paintings have become Heysen’s latter-day antipodean equivalents to Constable’s academy pictures, his ‘six-footers’. 

Man on the land, integrated, almost in Arcadia even: this is the topos most relevant to post-Federation landscape painting. The farmer, with his draught horses, homeward plods his weary way, or works at his plough. A lord of the bush maximises the great bulk of the gum tree seen de sotto in su, with cow, and farmer beside felled tree, dwarfed in scale but in full possession of nature. This is painting of great certitude, sure in its sense of relative scale, confident in the well-worked paint and in the sure sense of grandiose design. Such Heysen landscapes are replete with the sense that the design pre-exists, already supplied by ‘Dame Nature’, creating a monumental antipodean version of the locus amoenus

In Heysen’s oeuvre there are those classically-worked and generously-scaled sleek landscapes that declare his gathering-in of the countryside: like Red gold. Rural motifs have their cossetted quietness: farmyard pictures carry the comfort of childhood and the nursery – in such drawings as Farm stacks c.1905, the pastels of Hahndorf cottages and the studies of barns and rick yards. Heysen’s exit from Adelaide and his eager assimilation, in 1912, into the ‘German’ village of Hahndorf in the Adelaide hills, his appreciation of the enclosed quasi-European community, measures the desirable distance from the pioneers’ frontier. He described Hahndorf in 1908 as ‘so old-world in its features that were it not for its southern setting one might fancy oneself transported into some little “dorf” of the German fatherland’.6‘A German–Australian village’, Lone Hand, 1 June 1908, p. 104, illustrated with line drawings of old barns and wagons and a ‘typical thatched cottage’. 

Crucial in the view of the Federation orientation towards ‘home’, both in its metaphorical European sense and in a more literal interpretation, are a group of works produced by Heysen in the last years of the First World War and immediately afterwards: of men and horses working – ‘the ploughing pictures’, as Heysen referred to them in a letter to Lionel Lindsay.7Ian North, Alison Carroll and John Tregenza, Hans Heysen Centenary Retrospective, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1977, p. 103. Barbizon terrain is revisited – as in The toilers 1920 (Art Gallery of South Australia), winner of the Wynne Prize in that year. It is a classic image of nostalgia and re-consolidation, expressive of the yearning for the simple return to the soil, bred of the European conflict. The orchestration is familiar from Barbizon painting: the horizon low, and land cultivated towards the far horizon. Horses are patient, in control of the farmer who is unhurried, aware, in his leaning posture and absorption, of the acceptable duration of his task; shadows are long, the day near completed, the return home imminent. Thus is the primordial aspect of farming highlighted in archetypal patterns of activity, in the simplicity and plenitude of tilling the soil. The images are pre-mechanical; they exude a sense of harmony with the soil. Early in this topos is the fin-de-siècle painting of Lambert’s: his Across the black soil plains 1899 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), with eye view pitched at the level of the turned sod and the horses, is heroicised by the low-slung melodramatic viewpoint of horses, straining to draw the cart of wool bales. 

fig. 2<br/>
Harold Cazneaux<br/>
Australian 1878&ndash;1953<br/>
<em>Peace after war, and memories</em> c.1918 <br/>
sepia-toned chlorobromide photograph<br/>
26.7 x 30.2 cm<br/>
Australian National Gallery, Canberra<br/>

At the end of the First World War, when Hans Heysen was re-endorsing the values of the soil, Harold Cazneaux made a famous photograph, explicit in sentiment: Peace after war, and memories 1918 (fig. 2). It is a latter-day angelus: the farmer standing beside horses and plough, head bowed; the battle for Europe adds poignancy to the return to the soil. This is an Arcadia of a land that is owned and worked, a land to be nurtured which is in turn nurturing. 

The landscape is domesticated already in the earliest Australian works of Hans Heysen after his return from Europe. The homestead appears perfectly tranquil in the wartime paintings of Elioth Gruner, affirming the peaceful and replete cohabitation of man and nature. ‘Local content’, unique nationalistic images, are secondary to the traditional values of landscape painting that favour the security of the coulisse, the play of light in all its picturesque variety, with preference for the golden hues of twilight or the long shadows of morning. The bleached effect, characteristically seen to embody Australian conditions, was displaced already in the late 1890s. A shift has often been observed in the 1890s: one of the earliest and most acute commentators was Ursula Hoff.8Ursula Hoff, ‘Reflections on the Heidelberg School’, Meanjin, 1951, vol. 10, p. 125. As in preparation for Federation, the sun’s heat was reduced, the light mellowed and the tamed landscape succumbed to domestication. 

There developed a mode of painting that traded day for evening, sunlight for shadow, even reducing attention to vegetation of a typically Australian type. This is already an English orientation in 1880s painting: as Ursula Hoff observed, the Heidelberg painters were largely ignorant of French impressionism and were more alert to Whistler and English movements.9ibid. The ‘nocturne’ – Whistlerian in original inspiration – is one of the primary genres of Australian painting in the last decade of the nineteenth century. It softens the landscape preparatory to the Federation take-over. 

fig. 3<br/>
David Davies<br/>
Australian, 1862&ndash;1938 <br/>
<em>Moonrise</em> 1894 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
119.8 x 150.0 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased, 1895 (p.402.5-1)<br/>

One might consider David Davies retreating from the ‘typically’ Australian themes and treatments of his paintings From a distant land 1889 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and Under the burden and heat of the day 1890 (Ballarat Fine Arts Gallery). The subject of heat epitomised by the bleached landscape seen through the doorway of the settler’s hut in From a distant land gives way to subjects of coolness, acceding to grey-green timbres as in the well-known Moonrise 1894 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 3). The ‘nocturne’ effects of the 1890s feminise the landscape, gently claiming the country as settled: characteristic are the cleared grassy hillock and the well-worn three-rail fence. The spread of the pictures is comfortingly horizontal, with graceful movement from right to left, with distances held in check. An extension of the nocturne is E. Phillips Fox’s The milking shed 1892–93 (Art Gallery of New South Wales); its long low building is reassuring as it spreads close to the earth, across the greenness. 

fig. 4<br/>
E. Phillips Fox<br/>
Australian, 1865&ndash;1915<br/>
<em>The arbour</em> 1911 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
190.0 x 230.7 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Felton Bequest, 1916 (777-2)<br/>

Although central to post-Federation iconography, the ‘going home’ topos is not the invention of post-1901 art: we recall the placidity of Roberts’s Dewy eve c.1887 (Art Gallery of Western Australia), the orchard pictures of Charles Conder, and Frederick McCubbin’s Winter evening Hawthorn 1886 (Castlemaine Art Gallery) with the farmer returning to his dwelling at sunset. Paintings from Charterisville in the 1890s are associated with twilight rather than sunlight: after the Heidelberg ‘golden summers’ of the 1880s came the crepescules of Eaglemont. Figure painting at Charterisville (quintessentially in E. Phillips Fox) gives a prognosis of Edwardianism – expanding in scale, in feminine subjects, in enclosed and relaxed circumstances. The subjects of Fox’s Art students 1895 (Art Gallery of New South Wales) are remote from frontier life, as are all Fox’s figure paintings, conceived in soft window-light with mother and child reading, or in filtered oblique outdoor light; The arbour 1911 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 4) is the epitome of Anglo-Australian gentility.

fig. 5<br/>
Walter Withers<br/>
b. England 1854; arr. Australia 1882; d. Melbourne 1914<br/>
<em>A bright winter&rsquo;s morn</em> 1894 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
60.8 x 91.4 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Bequeathed by Mrs Nina Sheppard 1956 (3389-4)<br/>

Summer passes, not just to autumn, but to winter. With his English-born eyes, Walter Withers changes the frontier to the village, the squatter’s cottage to rustic modes no longer crude and rough in heat and dust. Can it really be claimed that A bright winter’s morn 1894 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 5) is inevitably Australian – winding road to Turneresque skyline, houses veiled by deciduous trees? Dappling and protecting his Eltham landscapes, Withers painted into the decade of Federation, his wife remembering that ‘Walter liked to paint cows, especially English dairy cows such as guernseys’.10Andrew Mackenzie, Walter Withers: The Forgotten Manuscripts, Mannagum Press, Lilydale, 1987, p. 32.

It is Frederick McCubbin who best exemplifies, feels, and creates the shift of sensibility and subject, the passing of the Heidelberg ethos, the renewed English-turning, the English-absorption of Federation. Before the turn of the century, acutely sensitive to the past rural history of Australia, McCubbin had painted Down on his luck 1899, Bush burial 1890, Along the wallaby track 1896 – meditative and sombre reflections on the experience of the jackeroo. 

fig. 6<br/>
Frederick McCubbin<br/>
Australian, 1855&ndash;1917<br/>
<em>The pioneer</em> 1904 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
(triptych); left panel: 223.5 x 86.0 cm; centre panel: 224.7 x 122.5 cm; right panel: 223.5 x 85.7 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest 1906 (253-2)<br/>

The pioneer 1904 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 6) is a key picture in registering the shift to post-colonial values consolidated with Federation. The pioneer aspires to the scale of history painting, which is an inevitable if contrived product of the reinterpreted Anglo-Australian alliance. As is well known, this was a picture McCubbin anguished over, no doubt sensing the retrospectivity of the cause, as, at the same time, he painted the Princes Bridge arch which had been constructed in 1901 for the Federation blessing by the Duke of York 1908 (National Gallery of Victoria). 

fig. 7<br/>
Frederick McCubbin<br/>
<em>A winter evening</em> 1897 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
121.9 x 155.6 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased, 1900 (61-2)<br/>

Already, in 1897, McCubbin had painted A winter evening (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 7): a full entrance into the domestic milieu of the home landscape. Into the picture quacking ducks enter, with foreground deciduous tree, rustic fence and a coulisse of twiggy growth that veils and comforts the rustic home dwelling. Such a painting, with David Davies nocturnes, and the Tranquil winter 1895 (National Gallery of Victoria) of Walter Withers, must have been sympathetically viewed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1898. The experience could not have been alien, and barely to be construed as antipodean. McCubbin settled at Mt Macedon in 1900, a site already converted into a little England with the widespread planting of European trees. McCubbin’s paintings moved more closely into a dense anglicised green. Ursula Hoff quotes McCubbin viewing the countryside through anglicised eyes: ‘I am painting a Turnerian gem … We have all Turner’s skies up here (at Macedon) divine, a storm the other day’.11‘The Phases of McCubbin’s Art’, Meanjin, September 1956, p. 305. Even when there are distant mountains, it is an enclosed and conquered bush where the timber is hauled by archetypal post-Federation ‘toilers’ who have much the same felicitious relationship with ‘nature’ as do the Heysen inhabitants in their landscape. A key work (in our context) is The old fence, painted between 1900 and 1907 (Australian National Gallery) (fig. 8): cows grazing in the background, child playing in the foreground, fence broken and antiquated, providing its gentle opening to frame the distant cows. 

fig. 8<br/>
Frederick McCubbin<br/>
<em>The old fence</em> c.1901; boy added 1907, Melbourne <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
138.5 x 168.8 cm <br/>
Australian National Gallery, Canberra<br/>


The rusticated mode, with all its retrospectivity, tarries in the twentieth century. Necessarily Federation provoked history painting: official and large scale, even though its grandiosity was not endemic, it would seem, to Australian taste. A necessary rhetoric touches Roberts’s Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 1901 (High Court, Canberra), Fox’s uncharacteristic Landing of Captain Cook, at Botany Bay, 1770 1902 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 9) and John Longstaff’s The arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp of Cooper’s Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861 (National Gallery of Victoria) painted between 1902 and 1907. These are indeed the official tokens of Federation. With McCubbin’s The pioneer, the large-scale works are obvious monuments gathering up history in order to convince of its presence. In decorative side-stepping of official style, Walter Withers’s 1902 Purrumbete murals are in Federation mode, celebrating in six panels the 1836 landing and the discovery of Lake Purrumbete, finding water, journeying through the stony country with the bullocky, losing the first homestead, and building the second homestead as the ‘Blacks’ look on. The break with the heroic mode is of interest, since Withers, with decorative intent, unites his settlers, their trees, sheep, horses, stony ground in curvilinear rhythms. In tune with the feminisation of unofficial Federation art are Blamire Young’s meditations on the history of the infant Commonwealth: Elly Fink has emphasised ‘the homely aspect’ of his pioneering episodes: the first christening in Melbourne, Lady Franklin’s reception at Fawkner’s Hotel 1905–6 (Mildura Art Gallery), Fawkner with his press 1901 (Geelong Art Gallery), Buckley acting as interpreter at Indented Head 1901 (Geelong Art Gallery).12Elly Fink, The Art of Blamire Young, Golden Press, Sydney, 1983, p. 16. 

fig. 9<br/>
E. Phillips Fox<br/>
<em>Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770</em> 1902 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
261.6 x 190.5 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Gilbee Bequest 1902 (119-2)<br/>

History painting, circa Federation, oscillated between the effete and the pompous, the heroic and the decorative. The landscape found heroic scale for the gum, but implied heroic status for the small figure of man, or his herd, serene and accommodated beneath the big trees. The trees tower up like great columns; aggressive depths and untamed vistas are closed by the coulisse; the prospect is halted, we dwell in the foreground and the middle distance. Walter Withers, in 1909, opened the middle distance sunlight to the grazing cattle between the vast trunks of The silent gums (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 10). Aestheticism, and art nouveau have tempered the landscape; the desire for settling and domesticating makes graceful demands met by these late nineteenth-century modes. Blamire Young’s watercolours – like Pasture stance (1910–12) – are early in the rush to richly granulated watercolour washes that act also to redeem harshness, framing the brindled cows with angled gums, themselves of matching speckle. 

fig. 10<br/>
Walter Withers<br/>
<em>The silent gums</em> 1909<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
40.9 x 60.9 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Felton Bequest 1909 (382-2)<br/>

The ‘boom’ of etching in the 1920s is but consolidation and conservation of the ethos: for the deep-etched shadows that fall on gnarled tree and ancient bridge confirm the antiquity and friendliness of the view through the safety of well-known pictorial modes. From John Shirlow to Sidney Ure Smith and Lionel Lindsay, the dominant figures of inspiration are Whistler and Seymour Haden, tempering Australian printmaking via the well-established modes of Europe. In photography, the school of pictorialism could only further the conservatism of grace and gentility, taking the less strident and safer effects of the nineteenth-century pursuit of light into a melodious promise, so often endorsed, that the land was tamed and existed within an international milieu. One might consider Lindt’s photographs of his Black Spur studio, cultivated in the alpine manner to reflect not so much his German origins as the widespread obligatory requirement that Europe be accommodated in the antipodes. 

fig. 11<br/>
Sir Arthur Streeton<br/>
Australian, 1867&ndash;1943<br/>
<em>The centre of the empire</em> c.1901 <br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
122.0 x 122.0 cm <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria <br/>
Purchased with funds generously given by Dr Joseph Brown 1986 (A11-1986)<br/>

It may seem that too elementary a dialectic is being posited: the frontier art of aggression against the Edwardian or feminine enclosure; high summer versus the crepescule, the tempering of high noon by the very hands that hymned the summer. The gentle enclosing tendencies of Edwardianism coincided with the Australian need to celebrate belonging. Necessarily Australian art was closed off from modernism, seeking traditional and reassuring beauties. Paris modernism in the first decade of the twentieth-century – in Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Derain – was necessarily aggressive, destructive, for only through attack could it eschew tradition. Australian artists abroad could not participate. They sought views of Venice, of Cairo, of Dieppe – if not tired, then close to cliché. Streeton’s large-scale misty view of Trafalgar Square bears no less a post-Federation title than The centre of the empire c.1901 (National Gallery of Victoria) (fig. 11). Eschewing the Empire, it was Rupert Bunny who came closest to modernism, despite his view that Matisse was ‘humbug’, he absorbs the colour intensity of Fauvism and Bakst.13Gillian Forwood, ‘Roger Kemp and the Example of Rupert Bunny’, Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 3, Autumn 1987, pp. 357–63. Echo and Narcissus 1914–19 (Queensland Art Gallery) is far from the post-Millet farmers painted at home by Gruner and Heysen, or even Bunny’s own Edwardian ladies in the big pictures in the early century. What might have been, for Australia, a series of mildly modernist history paintings, can be glimpsed in Bunny’s sketches for murals for Australia House, London (Australian National Gallery): a project frustrated, around 1914, by the outbreak of war. Its light rhetoric embellished the notion of the country’s now-established wealth – fishing, goldmining, harvesting and shearing, with the central image à la Delacroix – Liberty with an Australian flag leading the people c.1914 (Australian National Gallery) (fig. 12). 

fig. 12<br/>
Rupert Bunny<br/>
<em>Liberty with an Australian flag leading the people</em> c.1914 <br/>
oil on cardboard<br/>
34.0 x 42.3 cm <br/>
Australian National Gallery, Canberra <br/>
Acquired, 1969 (NGA 69.283A)<br/>


Federation necessarily frustrated modernism. Cézanne – the major figure for Australian modernism, such as it is – is preferred because his safety net is capable of repetitive, diagrammatic application to the safe genres of landscape, portrait and still-life. Cézanne remains acceptable as the key model even to post-Second World War Australian artists such as Godfrey Miller and John Passmore. Ours is a gemütlichkeit modernism. Margaret Preston has been daringly elevated as the real indigenous modernist, alert to Aboriginal art, up to date with the Electrolux, and female. But hers is a cosy modernism: an admixture of latter-day ‘Japonisme’ and ash-tray ‘Aboriginisme’. No matter what is written by Margaret Preston – in quite splendid style for Art and Australia in the 1920s – her art does not approximate to ‘the purist ideal of a machine aesthetic’: she stayed with her kitchen scales and her hand-driven egg beater; she did not paint her vacuum cleaner, and one aeroplane does not modernism make.14‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, 1927, reprinted by Ian North, Humphrey McQueen and Isobel Seivel, The Art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1980, pp. 734–77. Nor can the rice-paper woodcut revolution of the 1930s be seen to participate in an aggressive and creative modernism, whatever the charm of Ethel Spowers, Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme: they are post-Edwardian print-makers; their motifs latter-day intimiste, their inspiration safely British Grosvenor School via Claude Flight. 

The genuinely modern revolution, that of Cubism, came only gradually to be felt in Australia, idiosyncratically: in the gauche 1930s paintings of Grace Crowley and the indecisive revisionism of Roi de Mestre. It can be tracked in all its interesting hesitancy in the painting of Sam Atyeo. Russell Drysdale was adroit, in the 1930s, with the decorative aspects of Cubism. Eric Wilson and Frank Hinder came nearer to the centres, and James Cant, in his Departure 1938 (private collection), the closest to understanding the dislocations and aggressions of modernism. It is in the conservative modes that painting found its hedonism and pleasures. To acknowledge the inevitability of conservatism is not to endorse an Academy of Australian Art, nor to ignore the reactionary anti-intellectualism that provoked that mercifully short-lived venture, but to allow Australian art from Federation to the outset of the Second World War its need to be familial, enclosing, comforting, elegaic. The ascendant British sources of the first decades of the twentieth century had a dimension that was obviously political as well as cultural; like the Australian flag, a composite of symbols, pragmatic compromises were expressed. 

In the 1930s, in the Depression, and during the Second World War, discomfiture became the burden of painting. Under new pressures, expressionism, surrealism and primitivism turned Australian artists to forms of art which contradicted the gemütlichkeit of their Australian heritage. Immigrants Josl Bergner and Danila Vassilieff supplied alternatives to the Anglo-Saxon heritage. These were artists associated now with John Reed’s ‘Rebels and Precursors’, alerted to an abrasive environment, both local and international. 

In retrospect, but only with hindsight, the anti-Fascist exhibition held in Melbourne in 1942 decisively shifted the balance of the national and the international in Australian art, severing British moorings. Yet the Gruners, the Heysens and the Herberts still hung uncontested on the walls until the critiques of the 1970s, flush again with arguments of nationalism, particularly as American art appeared to be ‘taking over’, finally unhooked them. Much rhetorical humanitarianism has attended recent exhibitions of art from the mid-1930s to the 1960s: Aspects of Australian Figurative Painting Dreams, 1942–1962, Dreams, Fears and Desires, curated by Christine Dixon and Terry Smith of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, Sydney, and Art and Social Commitment: An End to the City of Dreams, assembled by Charles Merewether in 1984. Social relevance takes on a super dimension, morally righteous in the eyes of its interpreters and yoked at last to artistic aggression. But the moral imperatives that sound the applause for this can work insidiously to exclude other forms of expression, which nevertheless have their relevance and artistic pungency. To yearn for modernism and its concomitant, ‘social commitment’, is to condemn to neglect virtually a half-century of Australian art. It is to ignore, at the peril of a realistic national biography, paradigms of settlement – even, it could be claimed, of civilisation. To ignore the art of Federation (to again employ the metonymical term for earlier twentieth-century Australian art) is to atrophy a necessary process of maturation, to warp and limit the alternatives that have affected the picturing of the country. 

The early 1940s saw the territorial annexing of Central Australia in the work of Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan (and earlier, in the thirties, of Hans Heysen in the Flinders Ranges, breaking from the safety of Hahndorf). Such art was, in a sense, a return to the frontier paradigm, but one conceived no longer in optimism, however productive such art has been in claiming the country for both tourist and imagination. Thus the dry landscape appeared as new territory, countering the imperialism of the pastoral. Arthur Boyd, at the age of seventeen a conventional pastoral painter, later exacerbated the contrast between the two countries, the repellent and the welcoming. Lloyd Rees and Brett Whiteley have reclaimed the settled country, rounding the hills and suffusing ‘the Harbour’ with light. Still today the ambivalence of Federation lingers in the mixed claims made on the Australian landscape and the still-living tyranny of the provincialism problem. 

Margaret Plant, Professor of Visual Arts, Monash University (in 1988). 


This article is a reaction to exhibitions over recent years, particularly exhibitions which have presented, often for the first time, the range of an artist’s work. They include Hans Heysen Centenary Retrospective 1877–1977, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1977, with catalogue essays by Ian North, Alison Carroll, and John Tregenza; The Art of Rupert Bunny and E. Phillips Fox: Paintings from the Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Banyule, 1984, National Gallery of Victoria, 1984, catalogue Jan Minchin; Rupert Bunny’s Mythologies at the Australian National Gallery, brochure Roger Butler and Mary Eagle, 1986; David Davies 1864–1939, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, 1984, catalogue Cameron Sparks; Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond, National Gallery of Victoria, Victoria, 1985, catalogue Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw; Aspects of Australian Figurative Painting, Dreams, Fears and Desires, Christine Dixon and Terry Smith, Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney, 1984; Art and Social Commitment: An End to the City of Dreams, catalogue Charles Merewether. Leigh Astbury drew my attention to Popular Melbourne Landscape Painting between the Wars, an exhibition of paintings by Penleigh Boyd, Harold Herbert, W. D. Knox, W. B. Mclnnes, John Rowell and Will Lowell, Bendigo Art Gallery, 1983, with a catalogue by Ian Burn notable for its succinctness, depth and attention to unfashionable painting. 

Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Alternative Publishing Co-operative, Sydney, 1979), provoked my view of the context of modernism. 

I am grateful to Dr Ruth Zubans and Leigh Astbury for their critical views of my text. 

In conclusion I thank Dr Ursula Hoff for her constructive readings and inspiration over many years. 



1          Gavin Souter, Lion and Kangaroo: The Initiation of Australia, Collins, Sydney, 1976, p. 289. 

2          Geoffrey Serle, From the Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australia 1788–1972, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1973, p. 60 ff. 

3          Tim Bonyhady, Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting 1801–1890, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 156. 

4          Percy F. S. Spence and Frank Fox, Australia, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1910; reprinted, Vantage House, Cheltenham, 1982, p. 15. 

5          I am grateful to Mr Paul Dwyer of Leonard Joel Pty Ltd for making available the auction catalogue, The Hans Heysen Collection, 1970

6          ‘A German–Australian village’, Lone Hand, 1 June 1908, p. 104, illustrated with line drawings of old barns and wagons and a ‘typical thatched cottage’. 

7          Ian North, Alison Carroll and John Tregenza, Hans Heysen Centenary Retrospective, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1977, p. 103. 

8          Ursula Hoff, ‘Reflections on the Heidelberg School’, Meanjin, 1951, vol. 10, p. 125. 

9          ibid. 

10        Andrew Mackenzie, Walter Withers: The Forgotten Manuscripts, Mannagum Press, Lilydale, 1987, p. 32. 

11        ‘The Phases of McCubbin’s Art’, Meanjin, September 1956, p. 305. 

12        Elly Fink, The Art of Blamire Young, Golden Press, Sydney, 1983, p. 16. 

13        Gillian Forwood, ‘Roger Kemp and the Example of Rupert Bunny’, Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 3, Autumn 1987, pp. 357–63. 

14        ‘From Eggs to Electrolux’, 1927, reprinted by Ian North, Humphrey McQueen and Isobel Seivel, The Art of Margaret Preston, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1980, pp. 734–77. 


* fig. 11, The centre of the empire, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Frosty noon.