Australian Modern Painting
Origins, Characteristics: Sydney and Melbourne School.

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Death of Constable Scanlon (1946)
By Sidney Nolan.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Part of Nolan's Ned Kelly series,
which ranks among the most iconic
of all modern paintings by an
Australian artist

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.

For a guide, see: Definition of Art.

Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-60)


What is Australian Modern Painting?
Nationalist Style of Australian Art
Characteristics of Sydney Culture versus Melbourne Culture
Sydney School of Painting
Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan
Melbourne School of Painting
Arthur Boyd (1920-99)
John Perceval (1923-2000) and Albert Tucker (1914-99)
Abstract Art in Australia
Australian Painting 1956-1960

Art in Australia Series
Aboriginal Art (c.50,000 BCE onwards)
Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880)
Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900)
Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-60)

Sofala (1947)
Art Gallery of New South Wales.
By Russell Drysdale.
Depicting the harsh dry scenery of
a typical Australian township.

For details of periods and groups,
see: Modern Art Movements.

What is Australian Modern Painting?

The term "Australian Modern Painting" is a most imprecise description, but it suffices to describe 20th century modern art in Australia up to about 1960, an era which opens with the end of Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900) - also known as the Heidelberg School - and whose end coincides with the high-point of the career of the great Australian modern painter Russell Drysdale (1912-81). The start of the twentieth century introduced an expatriate period in Australian art. During the Edwardian years the two most important Impressionist painters, Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), were both in London and so were various younger Australian artists. There were others settled in Paris. Some of these expatriates returned to Australia after World War I, especially if, like Streeton, they had not been very successful abroad. Here they succeeded in dominating Australian art between the wars.

Nationalist Style of Australian Art

In particular the ageing Streeton's blue and gold landscape formula was imposed as a nationalist orthodoxy. This academic impressionism devoted to gum-trees and sheep was now a commercial product very different from his youthful sensitivity. To paint otherwise was considered unpatriotic. Following the early era of Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880), an "Australian" art was regarded as necessary, especially since the nationalist movement which led to the federation of the 6 Australian colonies. And since the Impressionists had been the first group to demonstrate an authentic feeling, indeed love, for Australia, and to capture, accurately, the unique quality of Australian light and atmosphere it is easy to understand why the style and its favoured subject matter should take such strong hold.

Aussie Impressionism
For more about Australian Impressionism, see also: Charles Conder (1868-1909); and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917).



Characteristics of Sydney Culture versus Melbourne Culture

Inevitably of course the necessity for an "Australian art" would be questioned - not least one might say, because such a thing already existed: see Australian Aboriginal Art - and the nature of an Australian art would be redefined. The former has happened most frequently in Sydney; the latter in Melbourne. Although none of the six state capitals is provincial, Melbourne and Sydney, sharing a population of four million, are the two major cultural capitals. Here one can hazard a statement of some differences between them.

Sydney is the oldest, an eighteenth century convict settlement more concerned to forget its past than to remember it. It has a strong belief in the new, and little respect for the old. At times it was run by rootless men, hastily making money to take back to Europe. It is warm, sub-tropical, and hedonistic, sometimes vulgar, taking many of its values from outside Australia.

Melbourne, six hundred miles away, had only just been founded when Queen Victoria came to the throne. It was a free settlement of men with dynasty-founding ambitions, with intentions of remaining permanently. Very soon Sydney was temporarily overtaken in size and wealth. Melbourne's public buildings, unlike Sydney's, were meant to last forever, and indeed there can be few cities in the world so pervasively Victorian - in morals as well as architecture, and in some ways, as we shall see, in painting too. The cities, one in the colder south, the other hot and humid, have developed different attitudes. Melbourne can be more intellectual and polemical, Sydney more easy-going.

A formalist Post-Impressionism was quite strong in Sydney between the wars, but not in Melbourne. Roland Wakelin and Roi de Maistre and their friends were exhibiting schematic formalized landscapes and portraits in strong pure colours around World War I. In 1919 they even produced a number of abstract paintings, investigating the relation of colour and music and bearing titles like "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow Green Minor". This was however only a brief experiment. By the late 1920s Post-Impressionist painting, Cezannist or decorative, was almost fashionable in Sydney.

In Melbourne because the Post-Impressionists gained less acceptance they were more conscious of their modernity. Streeton lived there. His national tradition of landscape painting, young as it was, seemed stronger, and when it was on the point of being embalmed in an Australian Academy of Art (luckily short lived) the reaction was urgent and noisy. A Contemporary Art Society was formed, and held its first exhibition in 1939.

For this reason 1939 can be regarded as a turning point in modern Australian painting. It also saw the first large exhibition of European modern artists, including Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Braque, Picasso and Dali. The works of these masters proved influential, but not crucially so, for much was known to the always well-travelled Australian artists, not to mention familiarity through reproductions. The exhibition was more important in its effect on public taste.


Sydney School of Painting

In 1939, again, a number of artists returned from abroad. One was William Dobell, a scholarship winner who had spent ten years in London. Dobell remains one of the most famous modern painters in Australian art. This is partly a matter of notoriety, for a large portrait prize awarded him in 1943 was contested in the Courts. The painting had a certain degree of distortion, and was alleged to be a caricature, not a portrait. When the highly publicised case was lost it was popularly interpreted as a victory for modernism, and so it was to some extent, for it helped re-establish the case for art as discovery and personal expression, not as innocuous decoration. The effect on public taste was important too, for art became news. Public apathy was replaced by interest, often unfavourable of course; and since then Australian newspapers have devoted quite an astonishing amount of space to art.

Yet Dobell was more old masterly than modern. He set a standard of excellence, but was not otherwise influential. In his penetrating and marvellous portrait art he is happier with men than with women, more comfortable in vulgar society than polite, and this cannot help but reinforce the old image of Australia as a man's country. Only here it is not gold-diggers and stockmen, but the urban proletariat, tough journalists and businessmen.

Most other Sydney painters of the 1940s are considered by the new generations of artists to have been purveyors of innocuous decoration. They were christened "The Charm School" and it is true that there are often close resemblances to English wartime neo-romanticism.

The artists in question were not escapists from social and political situations. Theirs was a positive reassertion of the values of painting itself. They showed with the Contemporary Art Society (which now held its exhibitions in other cities besides Melbourne), and felt as avant-garde as anyone. Many of them were European-born or trained. Once settled in Sydney they were impatient with provincialism, and backwardness, and incompetence. Modern French painting in its more classicist aspects and to a lesser extent early Italian painting, set their standards. Jean Bellette, Justin O'Brien, Jeffrey Smart, Tom Thompson, Ray Crooke (not a Sydney artist) and Donald Friend stand for several generations of this continuing attitude. Lloyd Rees and the Swiss-born Sali Herman can be mentioned here though they are interpreters of the landscape as well, including the beauty of Sydney's congested urban scenery. Note: For an explanation of some of the great works of Australian modern art, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Russell Drysdale (1912-81) and Sidney Nolan (1917-92)

Donald Friend is the most lyrically charming, and the wittiest. In the forties Dobell, Donald Friend and Drysdale were a holy trinity of Australian art. There was no doubt then, even in Melbourne, that the Sydney school was best.

Russell Drysdale left Melbourne for the tolerance of Sydney after the squabbles of 1939. He is as much a stylist and as much a romantic as any of his Sydney colleagues. Unlike them he is passionately concerned with Australian subject matter; and the discovery and definition of Australia became his primary artistic activity for decades.

In Australia there is much that cannot be related to European experience, and the chaos of impressions that assails an inhabitant still needs to be channelled and ordered by the suggestions of art.

Tom Roberts provided a method of seeing the blonde grasslands and the sparkling sea coasts. But there are many different Australias, and Drysdale has given us the red-gold outback. At first he paid tribute to those areas of some European settlement where the people have come to dignified terms with the land. Later he was more concerned with the Aboriginal north. At all times there has been admiration, awe, and love for the land.

His own words are the best:

"Magnificent in dimension, old as time, curious, strange and compelling, it rests in ancient grandeur indifferent to the challenge of man. This is a land mysterious and unknown until the last century, that held within itself curious forms of life, that in the rest of the world had long ago passed into the remote darkness of time. Into this thin ownership came the settlements of a new incongruous partnership. Cadillacs and camels, flying doctors and brolgas, corroborees and cinemas, the tuckerbox and the deep-freeze. There was room for them all. A world both sparse and plentiful, of loneliness and life, but a world that is strange, exciting and splendid."

Drysdale's first Sydney exhibition immediately established him as the leading exponent of a new kind of national painting.

Six years later (1948) Sidney Nolan exhibited his Ned Kelly series of paintings, and left Melbourne for Sydney. Melbourne was surprisingly neglectful of its avant-garde art in the 1940s, but its creators were a raw angry lot, not easily cherished. Albert Tucker was a central figure. Socialist realism, the downtrodden Aboriginal, concentration camps, war-time corruption in the city of Melbourne, these were the concern of the painters who captured the Melbourne Contemporary Art Society from its chief founders, the post-Impressionist formalists. Surrealism became their vehicle; most of them lacked the graces of art school training.

Nolan was not interested in such immediately serious problems, though he was closely involved with the group, and with various writers as well. His art was more light-hearted, more imaginative, and more visual.

His visual freshness is comparable with Tom Roberts's. As accurately and as effortlessly as a camera he observed certain scrubby landscapes, Melbourne suburbs, or mountain ranges, and put them down with no forcing into a formal mould. This was done insouciantly though sunnily; there was little of Drysdale's emotional commitment.

Nolan has populated the empty landscape, and provided it with folklore, at times with wit and irony. Fifty years earlier, the same need for folklore had been felt when naked European maidens were set, with the God Pan, beneath mauve, Art Nouveau gum-trees. Ned Kelly in a naturalistic landscape was a far better solution, for Kelly was a bushranger from Australian history, and his story was widely known.

There are other narrative series, Mrs. Fraser and the convict for example, and this simple narrative quality is the essential point. The best myths have a strong narrative line. He has helped provide us with a folklore, and with a mode of vision, but also with a past. A new interest in Australia's past is testified by a recent flood of history writing. Nolan has fed this appetite with his almost entirely Victorian Australia. His stories came from the Victorian period, and even when there was no specific narrative he chose Victorian buildings, and staffed his pictures with figures in Victorian dress; he painted unashamedly from Victorian photographs in the public archives. He was aware that the nation's Victorian adolescence had marked it permanently.

While Nolan lived in Sydney he and Drysdale stood at the head of the Sydney Group, an exhibiting society which aimed to set the highest standards over the ten years around 1950. These two bridged the Melbourne and the Sydney schools.

Melbourne School of Painting

Arthur Boyd (1920-99)

Arthur Boyd exhibited with the Sydney Group too, for his painterly gifts were as considerable as his poetry, but he remained in Melbourne. He was the most Melbournish of all Australian painters, the most "old-fashioned", and the most literary. Surrealism was an early influence, then Pieter Bruegel, and later Marc Chagall. He has given us a Victorian Australia that still exists, one of village life and suburban visits, and also a medieval Australia of busy Bruegelian farming activities and shepherds.

Boyd's anti-Impressionist landscapes are an original contribution of the greatest importance. His grey bushland, ragged and menacing, typical of the mountains near Melbourne, has now been incorporated into the national consciousness. It was liked by certain Victorian painters of the 1870s; and D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s had found malignance in similar bushland. But most Australians found it merely dull until Boyd saw its fascination. Crowded trees fall, and rot. The processes of evolution are underlined by the figures, sometimes heaped like logs, sometimes only part formed organisms not yet evolved to human completeness. Their behaviour, erotic or angry, is direct and primitive. He has made the landscape of this "new" country not merely old, but primeval. He is adding a little more to Australia's sense of the past.

John Perceval (1923-2000) and Albert Tucker (1914-99)

Of the other Melbourne Australianists, John Perceval painted expressionist tangled landscapes, oddly for a modern artist, en plein air. Albert Tucker, a member of the Heide Circle, and another veteran of Melbourne's angry years, created, while abroad, a set of mythical Antipodean folk heroes out of explorers and bushrangers. The ambiguous symbolic heads take on the quality of cratered deserts, of sore desiccation.

Tucker returned in 1960. Boyd and Perceval had exhibited with a small group called the Antipodeans in the previous year. Their companions included the second generation Melbourne expressionists or social commentators, Pugh, Blackman, and Brack, and Dickerson from Sydney, a kindred painter whose lonely figures are in many ways an urban counterpart of Drysdale's. The Antipodean exhibition was a group manifestation in defence of "The Image". A written manifesto made an appeal for figure painting and Australian subject matter, on the grounds that non-figurative art was unable to communicate properly, and that in particular it could not communicate the Australian artist's experience of his time and place.

Abstract Art in Australia

The rearguard manifesto criticized the concrete art which by then dominated Sydney, notably Tachisme, the European offshoot of Art Informel: "The great Tachiste Emperor has no clothes. He is only a blot - a most colourful, elegant, and shapely blot." "We are witnessing an attempt to reduce the living speech of art to the silence of decoration."

Sydney's non-figuration was consolidated in 1956, a key year. There had been a thin stream of Cubism merging into geometric abstraction, some of whose practitioners grouped together in "Exhibition I" in 1939, that other key year in modern Australian art. But the rejuvenated Sydney school of 1956 was, rather loosely, called abstract expressionism. One focal point was a small group which that year held an exhibition called "Direction I".

John Passmore, Eric Smith, and John Olsen participated, and Olsen's painting "Western World No. 1" is typical of the new movement's interest in spatial form, as well as of its high quality as painting.

Apart from a normal aspiration towards the mainstream of modern art, a large official exhibition of French painting in 1953 may have influenced these developments. It contained work by abstract painters like Pierre Soulages (b.1919), Hans Hartung, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92).

Another important reason for the sudden move into abstraction would have been the presence, from the early fifties, of three older men whose paintings inspired immense respect. They were Ian Fairweather (1891-1974), Godfrey Miller (1893–1964), and John Passmore (1904–84), who has already been mentioned in connection with Olsen and Direction I.

These three are not Australianists, though the environments of Fairweather (a Queensland island, mangroves) and of Passmore (Sydney waterfronts, casual fishermen) penetrate their work. Neither Fairweather nor Miller is Australian born; both have travelled in the East, and both are interested in Eastern philosophy. But most important was the formal excellence of these three. It must have demonstrated, more effectively than the often decorative Australian formalism, how the problems of painting itself could offer as much in the way of discovery as could the problems of regionalism.

Fairweather in particular speaks the universal language of form with an undeniable authority. He has no equal in Australia and has little need of interpretation for a European audience.

Australian Painting 1956-1960

Post-1956 Sydney abstraction is represented by Lewers, Hodgkinson, Gleghorn, Coburn and others. Some of them grouped together as the "Sydney 9, 1961". It was felt that the best of the younger non-figurative painters needed a focus of attention as an alternative to the figurative Antipodeans. Olsen, Rose and Smith reappeared in this group, and there was also Hessing, Plate and Rapotec.

Olsen's Direction I paintings were concerned with his experience of Sydney's industrial waterfront, while others can be as Australianist in intention as anything the Antipodean manifesto could wish for. They undoubtedly expressed his experience of his time and place - as a total environment. Joyful emblems of breast and buttock, wheels and ladders, maps, beasts and flowers, words, pubs and loutish drinkers, convey a euphoric Australia in paintings bearing titles such as "Australian Flux", or "Journey into the You Beaut Country." Few Australian paintings are so alive, so full of physical wellbeing, so painterly. Of the young painters, that is the men in their thirties, he is one of the most influential.

Some of the new Sydney non-objective art expresses its environment without intending to do so, but much of it deliberately seeks the familiar Australian imagery of light, heat, and antiquity. Coburn's "Song of the Earth" is closely related to a desert saltpan which he happened to see from an aeroplane, but many of the young abstract painters, following Drysdale's example, actually travelled to the outback, to the ancient heart of the continent. The fact that two thirds of Australia's inhabitants, and nearly all the artists, live in the great cities is no real objection to the wish to go outside their immediate environment. The areas untouched by European settlement, or where a pastoral way of life unique to Australia has evolved, are felt, rightly at this stage, still to require full understanding and definition.

Two Melbourne painters stood apart. Leonard French (b.1928) - whose emblematic religious compositions of stained glass art transcended but did not deny his signpainting origins - was in no way Australianist, though he does share Melbourne's concern for significant content. While the early landscapes of Fred Williams (1927-1982) were not made to carry a multitude of ideas but seek the essence of only one particular subject, usually sapling forests. They are more abstract than most previous Melbourne landscape painting.

Australian modern paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums in Australasia, including: the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in Brisbane, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney, the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide, the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in Perth., and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.

• For the chronology of Australian painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about modernist painting in Australia, see: Homepage.

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