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Book reviews: Strange Country; 100 Moments in Australian Painting

STRANGE COUNTRY: WHY AUSTRALIAN PAINTING MATTERS By Patrick McCaugheyThe Miegunyah Press/Melbourne University Publishing, $49.99.
Nanjing Night Net

100 MOMENTS IN AUSTRALIAN PAINTINGBy Barry Pearce NewSouth Publishing, $49.99.

Two profusely illustrated books have recently appeared, both in one way or another offering an account of the past couple of centuries of Australian art and both, coincidently, limited to a consideration of painting only.

Patrick McCaughey is an art critic, art academic and long serving director of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and of the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Yale Centre for British Art in the United States. His Strange Country: Why Australian painting matters presents a most readable account of Australian painting; one which dips into art historical research, but also has a journalistic flair in the expression of strongly held convictions.

McCaughey was born in 1943, and when he was 17 he saw the inaugural Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship Prize exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1960. From then on, he was hooked on Australian painting. His book commences with a quick overview of the modern Aboriginal art movement and then moves into a broad survey of early colonial painting, in which Nicholas Chevalier and ST Gill do not rate a mention. From here the account moves straight into the Heidelberg School, where we encounter interesting insights, such as the suggestion that the swagman in McCubbin’s Down on his luck (1889) is modelled on the pose of Durer’s Melencolia I (1514), but shown in reverse. Such quirky, but interesting observations are scattered throughout the book.

Although on occasion it is difficult to agree with some of McCaughey’s opinions, it is impossible not to admire the literary flourishes with which he discusses some of his selected paintings. When writing on Hugh Ramsay’s The sisters (1904), he observes “The compression of the composition, the closeness of the sitters to artist, breeds an airless claustrophobia. The alternating alertness and ennui of the sisters, bored by having to dress up in evening gowns in the middle of the day and pose in the over-heated studio, adds to the ambivalence of the painting. Far from being an essay in the feminine, the dying painter/brother is under scrutiny of his sisters, even as they fall under his gaze. A suffocating pall hangs over the work.”

His broad brush approach to Australian art history certainly takes few prisoners. In one sweeping overview sentence he notes “Hall and Lambert are now curiosities; perennial attempts to revive ‘late Streeton’ have petered out, and Heysen is hardly taken seriously outside Adelaide.” McCaughey champions Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams as the two giants of Australian painting and concludes with a rather cursory glance at contemporary art practice and with the tactful statement “all of these painters … they stand as representative for many who must go unmentioned …” Much is unmentioned in this book, but that which is mentioned is discussed with passion and understanding.

Although I was occasionally frustrated by the laconic nature of some of the discussion, as a whole, this account of Australian painting sparkles with intelligent insights and with some very memorable expressions in which wit and perception are united in flowing prose.

Barry Pearce in 2012 retired from his position as Head of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales after 33 years in the job. This book is his personal final tour of the collection, pausing to discuss some of his favourite paintings. Apart from personal preference, the 100 selected paintings present something of a chronological account of the development of Australian art as held at the Sydney gallery, a collection which Pearce help to form and develop.

Except for a single bark painting, Indigenous art is excluded from this selection, in part, because he saw his brief as the curator for “Anglo-European Australian” art, but also in part because he felt that Indigenous and non-Indigenous art don’t really mix and when they are put together they do not really make sense. He writes “The intention [to combine Aboriginal and non-Indigenous art] was worthy, but in the end I believe nothing much was gained, other than a temporary frisson of aesthetic confusion in an attempt to identify similarity”. This is not an argument which I personally find particularly convincing simply because so many Australian artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, draw on each other’s traditions and it is this, that to some extent gives Australian painting some of its distinctive character.

The strength of this book is that it is written by a person who has the eye of a curator, a person who is perceptive, passionate and at times possesses a forensic knowledge of the provenance of a particular painting under discussion. We are given wonderful accounts about the hunt for long-lost paintings involving ingenious detective work leading to profound joy on their rediscovery. There are also many passages of detailed observation of paintings and speculation on their evolution, sources and influences. Take for example the discussion of Ralph Balson’s Portrait of Grace Crowley (1939), where we learn not only the artist’s probable source, Millet, but also where he saw a reproduction of this source, an issue of the Studio magazine in the Sydney Art School library, and the reason of why he turned to this source, Julian Ashton’s teaching.

Pearce writes with passion on the paintings which he admires, for example Hugh Ramsay’s wonderful painting, The Sisters (1904), which the young artist painted virtually from his deathbed. Pearce writes “The Sisters shows not so much virtuosity or glamour in its dazzling render of gold and cream fabric, as a dance with the brush about transient beauty and an underlying sense of mortality.” It is such wonderfully evocative and insightful passages that make this book so rewarding to read.

Australian painting, which only a few decades ago in some of our art schools was pronounced dead and obsolete in the context of contemporary Australian art practice, in Patrick McCaughey and Barry Pearce has found two wonderful advocates who guarantee its high profile and ongoing viability.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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