‘Hokusai Morning’ – Maslin Beach, South Australia.
Charles Conder (1868-1909) is regarded, along with friends and colleagues Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, as the finest Australian Impressionist artists. Born in Tottenham, Middlesex, U.K. Charles Conder was a bit of a rebel. His strict civil engineer father disapproved of his artistic bent, and sent the 16 years old Charles to Sydney in 1884 to work for his uncle as land surveyor. Charles Conder, however spent more time drawing landscapes than surveying them, and in 1886 he left his uncle’s employ and started working as an ‘artist’ for Illustrated Sydney News. After meeting Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he moved to Melbourne, sharing a studio with Streeton and Roberts. Arthur Streeton, ten years Conder’s and Robert’s senior, was a significant influence on both. Whilst the time they all spent together was relatively short, just 18 months, nonetheless, this type of artistic collaboration produced many of their best works. Despite early studies of beach scenes in Sydney it is A Holiday at Mentone that marks not only the first major success of the then 20 year old Charles Conder but also the beginning of Australian artists capturing the unique beauty, splendour and light of Australian beaches. A Holiday at Mentone has often been called a ‘celebration’. This is not only because of its light ‘holiday’ theme and tone but also because it was painted and exhibited as part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 1888. Furthermore, the painting is highly regarded for its composition and colours. The influence of the American artist James Whistler is possible due to the white and mauve bridge that effectively cuts the painting into two halves; but there is so much more to be gleaned when examining the painting closley. There is also the discernable influence of the then popular Japanese Aesthetic Movement, as well as popular Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. The Japanese influence can also be seen in the up-turned red parasol, and as art critic Jane Clark has noted, the calligraphically-like seaweed. However, despite all this brilliance, as well as the celebratory nature of the painting I find there is something a little disturbing about this painting. Despite the brightness the respective characters are not in summer clothes. Furthermore, no one seems to be actually communicating. The seeming asleep man at the centre of the painting seems more dead than asleep; the discarded red paper, like the red parasol, hint as something lost than something gained. Furthermore, the couple at the front of the painting are distant – an argument perhaps? The figures in black add to this unsettling tone. The elderly couple nearest the gentleman are watching the couple – concerned parents? Whilst the remote black woman with a child behind the woman reading could be a nanny with the couple’s offspring. The seaweed hints at something fractured rather than ordered. The painting, for me, starts to take on a similar complexity to Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), or Stephen Sondheim‘s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) with the expectation that any second someone is going to state – ‘It’s hot up here!’
Sydney Long – The Spirit of the Plains (1914)
Sydney Long (1871-1955) is one of the most unique Australian artists. This is mainly due to his particular poetic and lyrical vision of the Australian bush, which is combined with classical European imagery and characters. Born in Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, he trained at the New South Wales Art Society in 1890. His first major work By Tranquil Waters (1894) caused a scandal, but was bought by the New South Wales Art Gallery.
The controversy brought Sydney Long to the attention of Julian Ashton. Eventually Sydney Long joined Julian Ashton as co-head of Ashton’s Sydney Art School, a position he enjoyed until 1910. The popularity and sale of his works allowed him to travel and studying London, where he stayed until 1925, with a brief return to Australia in 1921. Long continued working and exhibiting. He won the Wynne Prize in 1938 and 1940, and was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1938-1949. He returned to England in 1951, and died in London in 1955. Whilst Sydney Long produced an immense body of work it is, however, his work from the late 1890s and early 20th Century that marks him as unique. His vision and artistry in this period stands in marked contrast to his ‘Heidelberg’ contemporaries Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin. There is an erotic sensuality in his work from the 1890s and early twentieth century, which has a similarity Norman Lindsay. This form was labelled as a new school of Australian art called ‘Australian Paganism’. Virtually all the galleries in Australia display works by Sydney Long. There are two in the Art Gallery of South Australia – The Valley (1898) and The West Wind (1909). These combined with to two other works by Sydney Long in this article – By Tranquil Waters (1898) and The Spirit of the Plains (1914) exemplify the uniqueness and sensual beauty of the art of Sydney Long – making the ordinary extraordinary. Sydney Long – The West Wind (1909)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was born in Rome to English parents, who returned to England in 1854. Waterhouse, nicknamed ‘Nino’, studied at the Royal Academy of Art and began regularly successfully exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1916. Waterhouse belongs to the ‘Pre-Raphelites’ who also include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. He is also known as the ‘modern pre-Raphelite’ partly due to the influence of the ‘Impressionists’ on his painting. Waterhouse’s work is characterised by his subject matter, which is generally based in classical myths and history, including ancient Greece, Rome as well as Arthurian legend. Waterhouse’s works are exhibited in numerous galleries and museums around the world, and Australia is blessed that the respective state galleries have some of his best and well-known work. The Art Gallery of South Australia has The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883) as well as Circe Invidiosa (1892). The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius shows the Emperor in his throne room, preferring to concentrate on his birds than attending to business and his waiting councillors. The drama of the scene is heightened by the spacial arrangement and particular use of colours – the dark reds and crimsons being the domain of the Emperor, contrasted with the paler colours associated with the councillors.
John Brack (1920-1999) is one of the most important and influential Australian artists of the 20th Century. Born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Brack rose to prominence in the 1950s. He was a member of the group known as the ‘Antipodeans’ who reacted against the then popular form of ‘abstract expressionism’. Brack later became Head of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1962-68. Like many artists Brack went through particular periods, re-inventing and experimenting with new forms, genres, styles and subject matter. He is an artist who makes the ordinary extraordinary. This painting – The Lift dates from 1954 and is currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In many ways it is characteristic if Brack’s major works – a very distinctive and deliberate composition; dull, drab and muted colours, his most common colour being brown. On first glance t would seem that this painting is somewhat quite ordinary and mundane. The Lift, however, is a response to the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. As described by the gallery – ‘Rather than making an anguish or impassioned response to this subject, Brack has exercised immense restraint. The unnerving quality of this work comes from imagining that the steps leading up to the seemingly ordinary lift are analogous to the tragic fate suffered by the Jewish people led to their deaths in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany’. Extraordinary.