Socialist Worker

Australia show scratches the surface of rich art history

A Royal Academy exhibition is a rare opportunity to see leading Australian artists, but it wastes the chance to explore Aboriginal art, says John Baker

Issue No. 2373

Bush Fire by Eugene von Guerard, 1859

Bush Fire by Eugene von Guerard, 1859 (Pic: Art Gallery of Ballarat)


Having forked out £14 to the Royal Academy, you might be forgiven for expecting its new exhibition, Australia, to cover all 60,000 years of Australian art.

Not a bit of it.

But if you want a historical survey of the 200 years of post-invasion, predominantly non-indigenous, Aussie art in the context of world art, then the new exhibition is the one for you. 

Hung chronologically and grouped into periods accompanied by quality notes, the works can be understood in their historical and social contexts.

Thus, from immigrant artists trained in European artistic traditions reacting to a very different land, we progress to native-born artists continuing the process.

They too were influenced by contemporary European movements encountered during their studies and travels abroad, and more recently in travelling exhibitions.

Happily, among the genre paintings and others propagating ruling class ideas, there are examples of the subversive role of art.

Early on Aborigines are depicted sympathetically, while they were soon to be dispossessed.

Indignant

There are indignant images of the marginalised, the excluded, and the oppressed—and tributes to their endurance, resistance, and fightback.

Some of the works are overtly political, including attacks on the shameful treatment of Aborigines that continues to this day—turn to the writing and films of John Pilger if you’re in any doubt.

In all the show is a comprehensive sampling of non-Aboriginal art, and is to be commended for giving the non-Australian a unique opportunity to get their head round the subject.

But the bulk of the Aboriginal art is confined to three of the 13 rooms. These are mostly bark paintings, or their derivatives on board. 

There are a handful of traditional images, stippled and cross-hatched in matt earth pigments, and then some more recent works.

Wealth

This section is too small, and mostly too mediocre and too recent. It’s a shame this is so limited, as there exists an enormous wealth of Aboriginal art—ceremonial ground designs, rock engravings and paintings, bark paintings, body scarification and painting, weaving, implements and weapons.

However, if you want to explore this you’ll have to look elsewhere. 

Try the upcoming Shifting Sands season of Aboriginal films at the British Film Institute, and the Origins festival of first nations starting in London later this month.

Australia, Royal Academy of Art,
London, until 8 December

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Reviews
Tue 1 Oct 2013, 18:44 BST
Issue No. 2373
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