Cover image of the review
Ethel Carrick, Flower Market, 1907. Oil on wood panel, 26.4 x 35.0 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by the late Major B. R. F. MacNay, and Mrs D. MacNay, Fellow, 1994.

She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism

5 Jun 2021
The Ian Potter Centre | NGV Australia 2 Apr - 22 Aug 2021

They’re amongst the best and most beautiful works in Australian art—we’ll be pointing out some of them here—but any new show of the Heidelberg School is first and foremost an exercise in Australian art historiography. There have been so many exhibitions of Australian Impressionism—going back to the first one at Buxton’s Rooms in Swanston Street in 1889—that any new one is entering a long and congested field of discussion. Put simply, a new exhibition of the Heidelberg School necessarily represents an argument about Australian art altogether. It tells us as much about the people putting it on as the art itself. It’s a little like Tom Roberts painting Lena Brash playing a banjo in his Plink-a-plong (1893), included in the show. Of course, it’s just as much the artist who painted his subject strumming a deliberately stringless instrument who is wanting to be noticed here, and we might say the same of the curators of She-Oak and Sunlight.

Tom Roberts, She-oak and Sunlight, 1889. Oil on wood panel, 30.4 × 30.1 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Jean Margaret Williams Bequest, K. M. Christensen and A. E. Bond Bequest, Eleanor M. Borrow Bequest, The Thomas Rubie Purcell and Olive Esma Purcell Trust and Warren Clark Bequest, 2019.

The canonisation of Australian Impressionism could be said to start with the purchase of Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1893, or even before the existence of the Heidelberg School with the purchase by the same gallery of Charles Conder’s The Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) the very year it was painted. And as soon as the magazine Art in Australia was founded in 1917 it began to devote pages to what Anne Gray (one of the curators of the exhibition) calls the “quartet” of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin. The art historian Ann Galbally for her part has pointed out that as early as the second issue Lionel Lindsay, “anxious to give the newly-aroused nationalism a history and heroic context, chose Streeton as his protagonist and hailed him as the ‘discoverer’ of the Australian landscape”. This consecration was overseen too by William Moore in his pioneering The Story of Australian Art of 1934, which included chapters on ‘The Camps around Melbourne’ and ‘The Australian School of Landscape Painting’. And some 28 years later in his canonical Australian Painting, Bernard Smith begins his fourth chapter, ‘Genesis’—and by that he truly does mean the “genesis” of Australian art itself—with the words: “Between 1885 and 1890 a distinctive school of Australian painting sprang into existence”.

After Smith’s history came the justly celebrated Golden Summers: Heidelberg and Beyond, curated by Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw, which toured the country throughout 1986 in time for the Bicentennial, which included Jane Sutherland, Florence Fuller and Clara Southern, the first women to be featured in the foundational narrative. To carry this further, in 1992 art historians Victoria Hammond and Juliette Peers put on Completing the Picture: Women Artists and the Heidelberg School for the Heide Museum of Modern Art, which took as its subject all the women artists of the wider Heidelberg School who had hitherto been excluded (among them, Alice Chapman, Dora Meeson and Emma Minnie Boyd). Around this time there was also artist and art historian Ian Burn’s important social history essays on the Heidelberg School, pointing out how its artists brought a particular urban perspective to the Australian bush.

Then there was the first comprehensive and scholarly take on the Heidelberg School and Australian art more generally with Terence Lane’s Australian Impressionism at the National Gallery of Australia in 2007, which began to think the movement in terms of the European occupation of the land and added Jane Sutherland to “The Big Four”, making the quartet a quintet. There was also the important Australian Impressionists in France exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013, curated by Elena Taylor, which traced the presence of Australian Impressionists living and working in France and followed their connection to those artists working back in Australia. And, following on from this, there was the retrospective of John Russell by Wayne Tunnicliff at the AGNSW in 2020, which integrated Russell into French art at the time and made the point that not only did he work with Roberts in England and Spain from 1883 to 1884 but remained in touch when Roberts returned to Australia, keeping him up to date with events overseas. And all this is not even to speak of the ongoing series of monographic exhibitions of the “original” Heidelberg School members, most recently Charles Conder at the AGNSW in 2003, McCubbin: Last Impressions at the NGV in 2009, Tom Roberts at the NGA in 2015 and Streeton at the AGNSW in 2020.

So, the question facing anyone coming to She-Oak and Sunlight is: where does this show fit into this long-running history of curatorial discussion? What does it add to what we already know? How does it acknowledge what has come before and, if it does overlook it—sometimes necessary for truly original thought to be produced—how does the argument it comes up with compensate for this omission?

Undoubtedly, She-Oak and Sunlight is an exhibition for our times. On the gallery’s wall labels, instead of the usual Melbourne and Sydney marking the birth or working place of the artists, we have the Indigenous Wurundjeri Country and Gadigal Country. In the triumphalist last room of the show where the curators finally allow us to see the much-loved nationalist monuments of the movement—Roberts’ Shearing the Rams (1889-90), McCubbin’s Bush Burial (1890) and Streeton’s Fire’s On (1891)—on the opposite wall we have a series of works on paper by Wurundjeri artist William Barak painted around the same time. There is a room of the women artists who attended E Phillip Fox and Tudor St George Tucker’s art school at Charterisville near Ivanhoe (Violet Teague, Ina Gregory, Clara Southern and Helen Peters). There is a room showing the Australian artists working in England after the first moment of the Heidelberg School (Roberts and Streeton in 1904 and 1905, Mary Vale a little later in 1907). And there is even a room of the Australians who worked largely overseas (Iso Rae in Etaples, Tudor St George Tucker in Etaples, and Paris and John Russell with both Claude Monet at Belle-Île on the Brittany coast in 1886 and Alfred Sisley in Moret, south of Paris, in 1887). The whole revisionist tenor of the show was indicated by its title: not the usual high-beam “golden summer” midday, but a soft, “feminine” afternoon light, which characterised also the hang of the show, with delicate dappled shadows running across the floor and into the comfortable armchairs, in which the spectator was encouraged to sit and relax. It was an environment complemented by the broadcasting throughout the show of birdsong, not of course the sound of horse and carriage, which would remind us too much of the urban origins (and subjects) of the movement and its connection with other cities all around the world.

But, as always, seeing the works for the umpteenth time, there were things that still caught the eye. There are the crazy impossible reflections in the water of Roberts’ Mosman’s Bay (1894), fully as fictitious as those in Paul Cézanne’s Lac d’Annecy (1896). There is that weird space-age city in the background of McCubbin’s The Pioneer (1904), which looks like Marion Mahoney’s drawings for Walter Burley Griffin’s Theosophy-inspired plan for a Canberra yet to be built. There is the ecstatic white of Conder’s Bronte Beach (1889), which is like a fluorescent remake of his earlier A Holiday at Mentone (1888). There is the magnificent dry scumble of Jane Price’s Plough Land in Summer (c. 1900), which is like an agrarian John Russell in dry Naples yellow as opposed to liquid aquiline blue. There was Jane Sutherland’s famously enigmatic Obstruction, Box Hill (1887) finally face to face, which led to a heated argument between the two of us as to whether it was a cow or a bull on the other side of the fence. And just before lockdown, when one of us visited the now empty gallery for a second look, we couldn’t help pointing out to the lonely security guards the tiny red tongue flopping out of the side of the dog’s mouth and the even tinier black brushstrokes that make up the sheeps’ faces in Roberts’ A Break Away! (1891).

Jane Price, Plough Land in Summer, c. 1900. Oil on canvas. Private collection courtesy of Smith & Singer Fine Art.

And yet for all of the inclusiveness of the show, for all of the obvious intelligence and narrative logic of the hang (rooms devoted to the 9 x 5 show, portraits of the main players, the women of the movement, the expatriates, Barak, the holding back of the classics to the end), we were still left with something of a sense of its art-historical limits. This was not perhaps any fault of the curators (Angela Hesson, the NGV’s Curator of Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Anne Gray, ex of the NGA and curator amongst many others of exhibitions on Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton’s war paintings) as a matter of the challenges any proposed Australian art history is now up against. If the Heidelberg School is synonymous with a summer midday sun and this show proposes a more modest autumn afternoon, we might suggest that the lights are going off for such panoramic “Australian” surveys as this, and even on the term “Impressionism” itself. As the spectators leave the exhibition looking down the black tunnel of Streeton’s Fire’s On, they might see the art-historical train coming towards them. For we have the undoubted feeling that She-Oak and Sunlight will be the last of its kind. After it, the whole unity of the Heidelberg School and the entire project of Australian art history will have to be rethought.

Arthur Streeton, Fire’s on, 1891. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Purchased 1893.

Where to start? To begin with, for all of the show’s attempt to open up a wider perspective onto Australian Impressionism (after the first half of the show across a corridor there was a room dedicated to Roberts and Streeton in London and another to Russell in France), the essential impression was that the Heidelberg School’s overseas moment happened after its Australian one and somehow outside of it. But if the spectator looked carefully at the labels for the paintings, they would realise that Roberts in fact spent considerable time overseas before Australian art’s “genetic” moment. Australian Impressionism was from the beginning international, and even had its name (the Heidelberg School­) given to it by a visiting American art critic in 1891. In other words, the Russell room should have been at the beginning of the show and not towards its end. However, more than this, while the show included work by such immigrant artists as the Italian Girolami Nerli, who was indeed an important influence on other artists in the show, the presence of the Italian Ugo Catani and the Portuguese Arturo Loureiro is entirely unexplained, either in the show or the catalogue. After all, these latter two were not in any obvious sense Impressionists. And, speaking of immigrants, the Gallery School-trained student of Nerli, the New Zealander Grace Joel, is barely present, except for her paintings of male artists. And where are Brisbane’s Swedish-born Friströms, Oscar and Edward, whose inclusion would have taken the story out of the over-familiar Melbourne/Sydney axis? Indeed, we might even have wanted to include the English-born Brisbane artist Godfrey Rivers, who is famous in Queensland for his painting not of a eucalypt or an oak-tree but a jacaranda. And if Ethel Carrick can be included with four paintings done between 1907 and 1909, why can’t Adelaide-born Richard Hayley Lever’s paintings of St Ives from the same period be likewise? Finally, if we are going to include a number of the women painters of Charterisville who do not work in the classic outdoors Impressionist style but indoors, why not include a true plein air fin de siècle woman Impressionist like the Sydney-born Sophie Steffanoni, who was a student of Tom Roberts and worked in the Southern alps, Tasmania and in particular on the south coast of NSW near Wollongong before her untimely death in 1906?

Sophie Steffanoni, Beach Scene, c. 1905. Wollongong Art Gallery, The George and Nerissa Johnson Memorial Bequest, purchased 1996.

But perhaps the artist who was really waiting to be discovered for the show was Grosvenor Thomas. Born in Sydney in 1856, Thomas was an autodidact who left for the UK in 1885, settling in Glasgow the following year. There he became associated with the so-called Glasgow Boys, a group of Scottish artists that also included the Bacchus-Marsh-born EA Hornel and James Nairn, who would later emigrate to New Zealand, where he introduced a Scottish version of Impressionism to that country. Influenced in particular by the naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the Glasgow Boys took to painting the landscape around the city, and it was those landscapes that Thomas often presented in his work, which was shown all around Europe in the early twentieth century, most notably in the seventh, eighth and ninth Venice Biennales. Thomas exhibited too in the Allied Artists Association and Royal Academy exhibitions in London, as well as with the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, who elected him a member in 1892. Although remaining in touch with his contacts amongst Scottish artists, he eventually moved to London, where he died in 1923. His work is held in the collections of museums in Glasgow, Budapest and Weimar and at the NGV. For all of this, there is not a single reference to Thomas in all of Australian art history.

Richard Hayley Lever, Distant Steamer at Sunset off St Ives, Cornwall, undated.

What does the story of Thomas tell us? It is perhaps not ultimately a matter of merely adding another artist to the list in some kind of endless inclusiveness. But he does allow us to ask several important questions. First of all, what counts as an Australian artist? Thomas, because of the way he lived in Scotland but always identified as an Australian, has fallen between the cracks of the two national art histories. He is both too Australian to be Scottish and too Scottish to be Australian. What he in fact belongs to is a certain class of “transnational” artist who is the true precursor to the artist of today.

But perhaps even more profoundly Thomas’ work, along with that of any number of other artists in She-Oak and Sunlight, allows us to ask whether “Impressionism” is the right word to encompass the art of the period. This was precisely the kind of misunderstanding that Ann Galbally was concerned to avoid decades ago when she wrote in the ‘Introduction’ to the Golden Summers catalogue:

The knowledge of French Impressionist techniques was minimal amongst this group (of artists) in the 1880s. It grew with the return of and subsequent teaching of Emmanuel Philips Fox and St George Tudor in the 1890s—but at no stage was Impressionism practised in Australia in the 19th century as it was practised by Monet and Renoir in the 1870s. Rather, the overseas models for artistic revolution for Streeton, Roberts, McCubbin, Conder and their cohorts were the plein air French artists of the 1860s and 1870s, Jean-François Millet and his follower Jules Bastien-Lepage, and their subsequent English interpreters George Clausen, Stanhope Forbes and Henry La Thangue. Technically the idiosyncratic ‘square brush technique’ found in Roberts, the early Streeton and Conder was derived from French art via the Cornish Newlyn School artists, as was the ‘tone and value’ so prized by Roberts and especially McCubbin in the 1880s and 1890s.

Like the category of “Australian”, the category of “Impressionism” now seems to dissolve out into the surrounding night—the vast and almost immeasurably large set of commensurate practices from around the world.

This show at NGV Australia Fed Square, like all big institutional exhibitions, had to balance many competing demands: telling the story of Australian Impressionism to first timers and schoolkids, to members of both the interested and uninterested public, and to those who have seen most of it all before. In the room-by-room narrative hang, as well as let us call them minor mistakes in priority and selection, we are also shown the limits altogether of the exhibition as a way of telling such a complex and exhaustively repeated narrative. Maybe, given the difficulty of the task, the writers did as well as could be expected, offering finally an overly legible and a little underexplained revision of existing accounts. But then should the exhibition have been attempted at all? Was the increasingly loose category of “Impressionism” and its association with the blockbuster coming up at the NGV on St Kilda Road ultimately the real driver of the exhibition?

It is undoubtedly the catalogue that was the deeper disappointment, with little mention, for example, of the ground-breaking Australian Impressionists in France exhibition at the same venue and no acknowledgement of the series of global Impressionist exhibitions and their accompanying scholarship that have been staged and published around the world (the most well-known example of which is Norma Broude’s World Impressionism: The International Movement 1860-1920) in 1990 and the latest example of which is the 2021 volume Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts, which includes an essay by American art historian Emily C Burns entitled ‘Frontier Impressionisms in the United States and Australia’, although this admittedly would have been too late for the show). However, certainly, the catalogue writers do not appear to be aware of, or were simply unconcerned by, all of those new, transnational questions being put to the writing of Australian art history over the past twenty years. It is not just Roberts and Russell but a whole series of Australian artists who had world art connections at the time.

In future histories of Australian art, this show will hold a special place. After an interminably long sequence of shows celebrating the Heidelberg School and its artists, a sequence that as we say is virtually synonymous with Australian art history itself, She-Oak and Sunlight will prove to be the last. After this—and the show inadvertently made the point—it will no longer be possible to tell the story of the “Heidelberg School” in any coherent or unifying narrative, or even in terms of any nationally identifiable Australian art. This show wants to renarrate the same old story with a few add-ons, but in the future it will be these latecomers who will be the soloists and the original “quartet” who will be the accompanists. The fire was on throughout the twentieth century, but in the twenty-first it will be switched off as the world gets warm around us.