Andrew Lambirth

Show of wonders

Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas (British Museum, until 11 September. Part of an Australian Season sponsored by Rio Tinto)

Text settings

One of the art books purchased in recent months that I’ve most enjoyed has been Arthur Boyd: Etchings and Lithographs, published in 1971. Boyd was an Australian painter, potter and printmaker, born in 1920 in Melbourne, who came to England in 1959 and made his home in this country. A deeply interesting image-maker, he came from a dynasty of artists, was largely self-taught, and evolved a powerful style that owed much to surrealism and expressionism, but was entirely his own vision. Boyd created a beguiling world of mythical beasts and figures, many of them involved in events of unusually potent religious or sexual drama.

At one point we saw a lot of his work in this country, and it was a great enlivening force. The art critic Peter Fuller was a consistent supporter of Boyd, but since the deaths of both men (in 1990 and 1999 respectively) there has been an absence of Boyd on the exhibition circuit. He is, however, one of the stars of the current exhibition of works on paper by modern Australian artists in Room 90 at the British Museum, and it’s most instructive to see him in this context.

The entire show comes from the BM’s new collection of Australian prints and drawings, built around a generous gift of work by the artist Fred Williams, donated by his widow in 2003. Other artists, collectors and supporters have followed suit. The collection is now, in effect, a compact history of the past 70 years in Australian art, and as such covers a wide range of style, content and attitude. The average visitor is unlikely to respond with equal enthusiasm to each and every exhibit, so my advice is to focus on those images that have an immediate appeal, and skim over the rest.

Although this is not a huge exhibition, there is enough material here to exhaust anyone who attempts to look with diligence at every item; there’s also a handful of artists I would hate to think of anyone overlooking. Beginning with Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Robert Klippel, these include the exceptional Fred Williams, and a magnificent selection of work by Aboriginal artists. This is a show to savour.

In the vestibule to the exhibition is a large four-sheet colour lithograph of the Simpson Desert in central Australia by John Wolseley (born 1938). Essentially topographical, its swirling red terrain is punctuated by close-ups of butterflies, grasshoppers and dragonflies, a kind of ecological cartography. Turning left into Room 90 for the main display, my eye was immediately taken by a group of 1954 Nolan landscape drawings in black felt-tipped pen made in response to a documentary film called The Back of Beyond. A strong sensation of the vastness of the outback and its pitiless and destructive heat emerges from these drawings. A second group by Nolan introduces the quasi-surreal: a ram in a tree (flood follows drought) and the iron-helmeted Ned Kelly.

A different kind of strangeness emerges from the Boyd prints, but again relating to man and the environment. Notice the beautiful drypoint ‘Nude in cornfield’ (1962–3) and ‘Dark joined figures’, in which the legs are reminiscent of the scissoring tree roots of Graham Sutherland’s Welsh landscapes. Another magnificent drypoint depicts the biblical story of Nebuchadnezzar, eating grass (here cornstalks) with the beasts of the field. Compare this to the oddly mournful clarity of ‘Old men carrying faggots to smoke out the women’, an etching to illustrate Lysistrata. Boyd deserves greater recognition.

In a flat cabinet nearby is a darkly surrealist drawing by Albert Tucker entitled ‘Image of modern evil’, a one-eyed monster in ink and coloured chalks. On the walls adjacent are other images by Tucker with a more derivative modernist presence, recalling most obviously Picasso and Rufino Tamayo. I was more interested in Charles Blackman’s haunted figures, and particularly the trenchant simplifications of his sprayed black stencil drawing from 1962, ‘Children Playing Handball’.

Robert Klippel (1920–2001), an artist new to me, is impressive in his use of collage and gouache to make abstract sculptural forms that conjure up the Fifties in their particular mix of the biomorphic and mechanical. I also liked the two works in another flat cabinet: a black-and-white scrapheap with three totems, and an all-over organic composition of short colourful curvilinear strokes, wiggling like bacteria under the microscope; an interesting comparison with Fred Williams’s work.

The section devoted to Fred Williams (1927–82), Australia’s leading landscape painter, is only a small proportion of the BM’s substantial holding of over 100 prints and nine drawings. This is one of the high points of the exhibition, and includes an early figure etching inspired by Sandy Wilson’s musical comedy The Boy Friend, made when Williams was in London at the Central School and first learning to etch. But his best and most distinctive work is a semi-abstract interpretation (a little like Mark Tobey) of the Australian landscape, composed of marks and squiggles and flecks. Out of these minimalist touches, Williams evokes the plains and hills, the scattered trees, the ferns regenerating after the devastation of bushfire or the beaches on the southern coast of New South Wales.

Most radical here is the lovely 1963 conté drawing from the ‘You Yangs series’, the marks in black, ochre and sienna, smudged and gouged imperiously. More typical of Williams’s vision is ‘Australian landscape no. 10’, a gouache panorama from 1969 lightly divided into three sections like a triptych. Here is the quiddity of Australia rather than a specific place, rendered in exquisitely placed gouts and clots of paint.

Don’t miss the liquid line of Brett Whiteley and Colin Lanceley’s surrealist personages, depicted with all the horrible clarity of hangover, but the other great strength of this exhibition is the Aboriginal work, in the room on the other side of the vestibule. Consider the powerful black-and-white patterning of Gloria Tamerre Petyarre or Dorothy Napangardi, like the essence of all life streaming in the firmament. Or the abstract colour narratives of Lucy Napaljarri Kennedy and Judy Watson. Accompanied by a handsome and expertly informative catalogue compiled by Stephen Coppel (£25, paperback), this really is a show of wonders.