• A different world

    Art exhibitions at the big public galleries in London usually focus on European works, not unnaturally, with American paintings very much in the minority. Their rarity often leads to nice surprises, as with the Royal Acadmy’s superb George Bellows show the other year. Artists from Austrialia, an even younger entrant into the Western canon than the US, receive even less exposure here. Fortunately, however, a more-or-less last-minute visit to the National Gallery’s current presentation of Australian Impressionists this weekend was a revelation, thanks to the presence of a number of luminously beautiful pictures by one Arthur Streeton.

    Essentially unknown here in Britain, Streeton is lauded in his home nation. He was one of a trio of artists who helped define its cultural identity as a settled, industrialised territory at the end of the nineteenth century. When Federation status was achieved at the turn of the twentieth, Australia could face the mother country as an equal, its cities and railways, docks and trade as impressively substantial as those in Liverpool or Manchester.

    But whereas the French Impressionists focused on those precise attributes of their own urban territories, Streeton and his friends – whilst they did record bridges, streets and buildings – largely turned their attentions to the landscape of Australia, outside of the cities. It is this, combined with his specific technique and the exquisite results that the two together produced, that have caused many to note that Streeton might best be aligned with the work of the Naturalist painters. This includes the likes of Jules Bastien-Lepage, George Clausen and perhaps Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

    The NG’s own website gives a summary of Streeton’s life, but for me it is his works that speak to the fullest. Six of real merit feature, all of which demonstrate Streeton’s particular method of working – multiple, small, loose brushstrokes which are nevertheless kept closely brigaded. The outcome is a picture that is simultaneously precise yet hazy, a hovering, diffuse reality that is perhaps the most present that I have ever seen. The deep blues of the water and greens of the trees, the yellows of the reeds and startlingly rick colours of rocks and land all reward great study.

    Some of these paintings are very large, but Streeton, like many other painters, favoured long, thin formats for some of his smaller works, oriented either vertically or horizontally. This is the influence of Japanese art, whilst the occasional cropping or snap shot quality comes from the aesthetics and technology of photography.

    This is extraordinary work, and deserves to be seen. The exhibition closes soon, so do make the effort. You won’t be sorry.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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