I have just been to see the most exiting exhibition at the perfect time of year!
We are just planning all our landscape painting courses and I have booked some landscape painting trips. I have been getting my pochade boxes ready and Scott has been making lots of perfect panels.
This exhibition makes one long for the season where you can stay outside and paint. It is a beautifully sunny day and the second day of the meteorological (as opposed to astronomical) spring and all the anticipation of the spring and summer freshness is around us!
The exhibition has a great little film, which is utterly unpretentious but totally clear. It is a small and exquisite show that unlike so many others doesn’t have fillers, so the message of the curators is simple and therefore so much more compelling.
In 1874 in Paris a group of artists lead by Degas, Monet and Berthe Morisot (yes a woman!) calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, put on an artist led exhibition. By their third exhibition they were to be the Impressionists. They weren’t part of the grand Salon and were not being guided by the rules of convention.
A group of Australian artists across the world followed suit and in 1889 put on their own exhibition in Melbourne. I find it wonderful how soon after the French exhibition this took place. Many artists today, and many curators like to paint an image (excuse the unintentional pun) of artists being independent creators, devising inspiration from their own individual and isolated worlds. And yet the beauty of art is that it has always been an international movement, with ideas and visual trends not isolated but shared both consciously and subconsciously across continents.
The small paintings most attracted me. There is a series painted on cigar boxes roughly 9’x5”. Compositionally they are fantastic. I thought the framing was incredible in these large unapologetically impressive frames (though maria didn’t like them).
The first few by Tom Roberts have an incredibly muted palette, as the catalogue rightly points out, still impressionistic but not French impressionism, rather reminiscent of Whistler. It is one of the reasons I love painting in England. There is ironically so much more beauty in the colour when there is colour harmony and subtlety. It is not garish obvious colour but understated and evocative. His paintings are utterly un-linear, painted in clear value masses of varying greys.
These three paintings are all of London; Trafalgar Square, Fog Thames Embankment, By the Treasury
Arthur Streeton’s small sketches have a little more colour and the brushwork is laid on thick. He plays a lot with colour shifts within the same value planes. The painting sketch of Sandridge is compositionally daring with the dark values on the right and lights on the left, but this imbalance emphasise the subtle colour shifts. I think all these 9×5 are wonderfully painted in mass with subtle value or colour shifts to describe distance, focus or atmosphere.
There is a comment next to Tom Roberts painting of Saplings that the brushwork is rapid. The paintings may be small but it is wrong to think they are therefore rapid or hasty. If you look closely they are incredibly deliberate and cleanly painted. Rapid is definitely the wrong word. In the film the truer word vigour is used to describe the difference between the studio paintings and plein air paintings. I love painting plein air, I think the choices you make as an artist are more instinctual and less contrived, more immediate and reactionary, but that does not mean hasty.
In my opinion the urban paintings don’t translate so well on the larger scale. They are still impressive but the colours become a little cruder and less harmonious, the image a little more drawn and less massed in. Compare Arthurs Streetons Between the lights to his Hoddle Street. Perhaps it is when they are dealing with the urban landscape, they have found it a little harder to reduce the information and give us the balanced colour, so that the colour become muddy and can clash. Compositionally they remain strong.
In the second room there are two paintings by Tom Roberts that have such an English palette, all warm greens and browns. The painting of the Gardiners Creek is so compositionally original and clever, a perfect balance of drawing and atmosphere. The bridge and reflections are boldly placed in strong value contrast to the atmospheric background and distant trees.
The most impressive paintings are Arthur Streetons two large-scale landscapes titled after the Romantic poets Shelly and Wordsworth, the style may be impressionistic but the delivery is utterly bucolic within a romantic vision. The purples moon’s transparent night is so amazing. The simplicity of touch and bold paint application does not mean a lack of drawing skill. The colours are so harmonious, the chroma but not the colour melting away to give the sense of distance and atmosphere. In his painting of Golden Summer the colures are richer, the values stronger and he continues the play of atmospheric perspective, so ingeniously. Look at the sheep on the right, how they are so beautifully drawn in the foreground and melt away into the abstract mass of the grasses as they recede. I find these paintings so inspiring.
In the last room there are two painting of the same view of Coogee Bay by Conder and Roberts. The comment states that the paintings are ‘strikingly different”. The only difference is a slight colour palette; the approach to painting technique and the reliance of values to create form remains the same. They are in fact strikingly similar and show a great camaraderie. I love the idea that these painters were together, painting together, discussing ideas together and putting on exhibitions. I love painting with artist friends. We are so lucky to have friendships that go beyond just the chat, standing in fields together trying to capture colours, mood, atmosphere and so much more.
John Russell is a very different artist. He painted in the South of France and is much more impressionistic and even expressionistic. Some of the colours are startling and wonderful but it is less to my taste and for me seems over stylised and lazy, but perhaps at the time it was considered fresh and groundbreaking.
There is so much more I would like to share about this exhibition but perhaps the best thing (if you haven’t already) would be for you to visit. I think we are going to go next friday evening 10th March. Join us!
I find there is a beauty in the honesty and clarity of the other artists’ work, Roberts, Streeton and Conder. They have experienced and seen the work of the early impressionists and have taken the naturalism from the work and translated and interpreted this to their own native country and palette, thereby creating there own unpretentious and unique style.