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Arts feature

Barry Humphries: in praise of Australian art

A major exhibition of Australian art is about to open at the Royal Academy. Barry Humphries believes visitors will be surprised

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

In my career as a music hall artiste I travel the world, mostly in the Dominions, the United States and the cleaner countries of Europe. Aside from giving incalculable pleasure to thousands of people, I love, on my days off, to visit picture galleries: usually the porticoed kind, in search of those overlooked little masterpieces that lurk, not seldom, in provincial museums. Today, most art galleries have a shop selling postcards of paintings from other museums, Magritte oven mitts and Piero della Francesca fridge magnets. They sell books as well, sometimes useless coffee table tomes like Art Deco Cufflinks Down the Centuries and London Transport Textiles and Their Creators.  However, it was in Toronto that I first came upon Tom Thomson, a ‘Canadian master’ of whom I had never heard. There were simply huge monographs devoted to his paintings of lakes, mountain peaks and snow-decked conifers, executed in a creamy Brangwynesque impasto. He, and several other artists like him, are all world famous in Toronto.

It’s the same with Australia, which has produced, in its short history, a host of fine artists, some fetching a fortune in local auctions but totally unknown and unregarded abroad. The forthcoming exhibition of Australian art at the Royal Academy, the first major show since Bryan Robertson’s Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, will probably be an eye-opener to its visitors, and I am proud to say that most of it stands up very well against the competition. We have our own Tom Thomsons, of course, and excellent they are, but our Impressionist school, well represented in this show, will be a revelation. At the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th, there were groups of regional painters practising their own brand of Impressionism in many countries, including Denmark (Skagen), Cornwall (Newlyn), Hungary and America, but especially the artists of the so-called Heidelberg School, named after a picturesque village outside Melbourne, where Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder painted their early masterpieces.

Australian landscapes from the colonial period and late 19th century diffuse a feeling of isolation, melancholy and exile, emotions which can still sometimes be felt in the suburban streets of Melbourne on a late Tuesday afternoon in August. Landscape was the preoccupation of our first artists and the problem they wrestled with most vigorously was the problem of the gum tree. Finding a new way of interpreting this intractable vegetation, alien to western art, was their central mission. A fine painter and Australian symbolist, Sydney Long, whose works later sank into oblivion or were relegated to dentists’ waiting rooms, saw the sinuous forms of the eucalypt not, as some have said, in terms of an enervated Art Nouveau but through the eyes of the Vienna Secession, as illustrated in special numbers of the Studio Magazine, which found its way to Australia. Some of Long’s work, in particular ‘The Spirit of the Plains’, might have been painted by a member of the Klimt-Gruppe.

The most famous Australian painting in this exhibition is ‘The Lost Child’ by Frederick McCubbin. It illustrates powerfully what has been described as ‘colonial fear’. To its early settlers, Australia still seemed like an inimical place at the world’s end, where people vanished or were swallowed up in the terrible vastness of the land. The lost child and the theme of being alone and forsaken in the bush was pervasive in our early art and literature, and in the days of the convicts it seemed kinder to make the rejects of society disappear rather than to overcrowd the prisons and overwork the hangman. Australia became the oubliette of Britain.


Peter Weir’s 1970s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on a story by Joan Lindsay about the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls, touched a profound and familiar chord with Australian audiences. The fact that most people believed that this palpable fiction was a record of a real event is not merely a tribute to the writer and filmmaker but a testimony to the atavistic power of its theme.

Australian artists were themselves lost in the bush for several generations. They had to interpret a landscape for which they had no references; the boscage of Barbizon, the Arcadian glades of Fragonard and the cosy pastoral vistas of the English watercolourists just didn’t work with Australian subjects. Central European painters took up the challenge of the Australian landscape with more success, as will be seen in the great panoramic works of the Swiss-Russian Chevalier and the Austrian Von Guerard, who captured the loneliness of Australia.

Australia had its own Nicholsons, Orpens and August Johns in Elioth Gruner, George Lambert and William Dobell, and painters like Phillips Fox and Rupert Bunny, who both showed their work at the Paris salon with distinction. John Peter Russell, a friend of Monet and Van Gogh, can now be seen as no mere colonial disciple of Impressionism.

The great George Lambert, whose best work rivals Sargent and Boldini, was elected to the Royal Academy in 1922, in the days when you had to be good to get into the Academy. But by the 1920s, our artists were looking beyond the gum tree and the Black Stump to new subjects and new styles of painting. Paris, naturally, was the destination for many and the salon Cubist André Lhote was a favoured teacher, spawning a whole swarm of artists in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, who painted exactly like him. Later, we had a folksy variety of Surrealism that never quite took off. The Surrealist temperament just didn’t suit Australians. We don’t do eroticism or Freudian fantasy. It would be like trying to get Shane Warne to recite Les Fleurs du Mal.

I recall a conversation that occurred sometime in the late 1960s with one of Australia’s most successful art dealers, who had honed his skills in the rag trade and used-car business. I was asking him about the trends in collecting Australian paintings and I remember he lent forward and said in a conspiratorial tone, ‘There’s an increasing interest in Overseas art.’ ‘Overseas’ was somewhere we all secretly wanted to be and where everyone knew better than us, though we would never let on. A Sydney dealer said to me once, ‘Come into the back room, Barry, I’ve got a nice Overseas landscape to show you.’ Today, on the whole, Australian dealers play it pretty safe and Overseas art could burn their fingers, so most private collections look the same: Williams, Whiteley, Smart, Blackman, Boyd and Nolan. Well, they’re all pretty good artists and sometimes of Overseas quality, as you will see at the RA.

Zimmering through a gallery of ‘contemporary’ art, the painter Margaret Olley would sometimes pause before a particularly sterile and ill-wrought canvas or installation, and mutter her laconic verdict: ‘Nobody home, darling.’ Visitors to the impressive survey of Australian art at Burlington House may sometimes echo her judgment but not, I think, often. © Barry Humphries

Australia is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 21 September until 8 December.


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