Australian Art and Society 1901–2001
8 Dec 2000 – 11 Feb 2001
Federation is the most comprehensive survey of Australian art since the Bicentennial exhibitions of 1988. It juxtaposes familiar icons of Australian art alongside unusual and little-known works to chart the growth of a distinctively Australian culture. It features landscapes and people, wars and celebrations, natural disasters and favourite pastimes.
Beginnings features works of art from the early years of Federation.
Australia’s birth as a nation was the signal for six consecutive weeks of ceremonies and celebrations. On 1 January 1901, half a million people watched processions winding through Sydney streets to Centennial Park where the Proclamation of Australian Unity was read and Ministers of the first Commonwealth Government took the oath of allegiance.
Four months later in Melbourne, the grand ceremony for the Opening of the First Commonwealth Parliament took place. Artists captured the pageantry and opulence of the occasion.
In general the art of this period reflects both a pride in Australian identity and an ongoing respect for the traditions inherited from Britain. It was a golden age for portraiture, and a time when decorative artists produced a distinctive blend of Australiana and Art Nouveau.
In the period leading up to the First World War, the art of portrait painting exhibited a degree of skill and sensitivity that has probably never been bettered in this country. Not only did artists depict statesmen, businessmen and the grande dames of society, there were many intimate portrayals of friends and relatives, self portraits and images of typical Aussies.
The early Federation period was a time of cultural curiosity and a growing sophistication.
The Land explores evolving interpretations of the Australian landscape.
The early agricultural development of rural Australia by European settlers has provided some of the most enduring myths about Australian identity. By the beginning of the 20th century agriculture had delivered enormous material benefits to pastoralists, and initial anxieties about the untamed quality of the Bush had been replaced by feelings of expansive pride.
At the time of Federation, Australia was a largely urban society looking to the country for the natural resources that guaranteed national prosperity. Many artists continued the tradition of landscape painting en plein air [in the open air] that had been espoused by the painters of the Heidelberg School towards the end of the 19th century.
As the centre of the continent became more accessible by air and road, artists discovered the desert – a landscape that provided an irresistible metaphor for a world ravaged by war. Artists have responded variously to the impact of fire, flood, drought, cyclone and even rabbit plague – those moments when nature has risen up in full fury have not only emphasised the resilience of its victims, but unified the nation in support.
In the work of Aboriginal artists a profoundly spiritual connection with the land is given expression and, in this section, works by artists from Arnhem Land and the desert are shown alongside paintings by white Australians. Interesting reverberations and connections between these two distinctly different but compatible cultures occur.
In recent times, as the environment and its degradation have become pressing concerns, artists have rediscovered the unique and fertile aspects of the land, but as wilderness, not as a source of wheat and wool.
Cities & Suburbs
Cities & Suburbs looks at the urban landscape and its inhabitants.
Throughout the 20th century artists have explored everyday views of city streets, but these works were not highly regarded alongside the ‘gumtree’ school of local landscape painting. The turning point was the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in March 1932. It was acclaimed as the world’s largest arch bridge, and its construction captured the imagination of the Australian public and the many painters, printmakers and photographers who recorded every stage of its progress. In its soaring geometry, the Bridge appealed to progressive artists, particularly women artists who were drawn to modernist movements such as Cubism and Abstraction.
The other great stimulus to painting the urban scene in the 1930s was the Depression, which prompted artists to paint scenes of hardship and social unrest. By the 1950s, with the country in a more optimistic mood, artists set out to capture the distinctive life of the cities and suburbs. Contemporary artists have continued this tradition, revealing the darker side of the ‘urban edge’, as well as the changing face of Australia’s major cities which have grown from unsophisticated towns to places of both excitement and danger surrounded by sprawling suburbs.
Boom & Bust
Boom & Bust reflects the economic contrasts of the 20th century - cycles of confidence, disillusion, decline and regeneration.
One of the chief catalysts for Federation was the Depression of the 1890s. Colonial governments and businesses had been borrowing heavily from British banks, financing the rapid growth of railways and an urban land boom. When the Depression put a sudden brake on the expansion of local wealth and industry, it was felt that only a unified Australia would be safe from such catastrophes.
The decades following Federation saw rapid development which led many to believe that they lived in a land of limitless possibilities. Confident in the future, Commonwealth and State governments again allowed their borrowings from British banks to run out of control. When the credit was turned off and the loans were called in, the ensuing Depression of the 1930s resulted in an unemployment rate of 30 per cent as businesses came crashing down.
The most memorable art created at this time was the social realist work of those painters who portrayed urban poverty and unhappiness in the starkest terms, without demeaning the dignity of the workers and the unemployed.
Within this section there are images that reflect Australia’s rural and urban industrial strength. George Lambert’s Weighing the fleece is a tribute to the wealth of the wool industry, while works by other artists dramatise mechanical and industrial sites by the use of unusual viewpoints and an emphasis on formal design.
For a nation that has never fought a war on its own shores, Australian history has been crucially shaped by our participation in international conflict.
The First and Second World wars were central to our realisation of a national identity. The lasting impact of Australia’s military experience in these conflicts is demonstrated by the reverence in which the Anzac ideals of mateship, sacrifice and duty are held. The Korean and Vietnam wars emphasised our growing ties with the United States of America; and, at the end of the century, the East Timor conflict confirmed Australia’s role as an important peacekeeper in the Asia-Pacific region.
Perhaps the most famous image from the First World War is William Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight, which shows the ghosts of soldiers rising up from the battlefield. The painting toured the country to huge acclaim throughout 1928.
The artistic response to the Second World War was more complex, with less emphasis on the heroic nature of fighting for King and country. Australians were shocked by reports of atrocities and by the sacrifice of 39,000 servicemen and women – artists found little to celebrate. Some accentuated the anxiety and social dislocation created by war; others portrayed women who had been given the opportunity to take on roles usually reserved for men.
In Australia as in America , the conflict in Vietnam saw civilians back home involved in demonstrations and political unrest. The art of those years reflects the anger of the protest; artists also graphically portrayed the trauma of active service.
When Australian forces undertook the role of guardian in East Timor, the Australian War Memorial continued the tradition of the official war artist. The two artists who were appointed have shown the reconstruction of the country and the revival of the spirit of a people. Australian troops are presented not as heroes of war, but as preservers of peace.
No country has worked harder at its leisure than Australia, so it is fitting that the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games crowned our first century of nationhood. At Ease deals with sport and leisure – the way these aspects of our culture have defined our self-image and presented us to the eyes of the world.
The passion for sport has inspired images of individual sporting heroes such as footballer Nicky Winmar and jockey Norman (Whopper) Stephens. Artists have also used sporting imagery as a vehicle for their own preoccupations, as in John Brack’s Strapper and horse.
Traditional leisure activities, at the beach, in the ‘pub’ and – from the early 1950s onwards – driving in the car, have provided artists with subject matter to explore. While Australians are primarily coastal dwellers, images such as Max Dupain’s Sunbaker – which acts as a mediating element between the sea, the sand and the sky – confirm Australia’s unity with the land.
‘Life-style’ became important to Australia’s economy in the 1950s when middle-class families bought cars, television sets and appliances in a consumer spending spree after the austerity of the war years. The family car allowed Australians to become tourists and day-trippers in their own country. The FJ Holden was known as ‘Australia’s own car’. It soon became a part of urban folklore and an object of desire for young males. The passionate bond between men and their cars has been neatly satirised by the feminist art and craft movements of the 1970s.
Encounters brings together works of art that deal with the most problematic and persistent issues of the 20th century, including race relations, immigration, religion and censorship – works that have encouraged Australians to think about art, or themselves in different ways.
In a nation proud to present itself to the world as a multicultural society, it is easy to forget that the White Australia policy persisted until after the retirement of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1966. Artists have powerfully represented the postwar migrant experience - a mixture of hope and anxiety is captured in David Moore’s famous photograph of new arrivals looking over the side of a ship entering Sydney Harbour. Some artists have dealt with the loneliness of exile while others celebrate ethnic traditions.
Throughout the 20th century the Aboriginal presence has figured prominently in art, with some of the most powerful works by indigenous artists being produced within the last 30 years. Aboriginal issues remain prominent in local political debate, and Aboriginal artists have responded passionately to the stories of the ‘stolen generations’, and to the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Another important subject is Aboriginal land rights, which were finally acknowledged by the Whitlam government in 1972, and given new force by the more recent landmark legal judgements of Mabo and Wik.
Social politics has generated some of the most powerful works of the 20th century. Issues such as feminism, the environment, and Gay rights have been the subject of much clever, satirical imagery. William Yang’s work, dealing with the human cost of the AIDS epidemic, strikes a deeper chord.
This section also includes works which reveal some of the controversies around art that has no overtly political intentions - those works which caused a scandal when they were first shown, or when they were purchased by public collections. For example, during 1978-81 Ron Robertson-Swann’s public sculpture Vault was named ‘the Yellow Peril’ and moved from Melbourne’s City Square in the dead of night after sustained public outrage. The affair was a turning point in Australian cultural awareness.