Australia may not be known for either classical or modern art, but this latest exhibition at the Royal Academy is seeking to change this by taking us on a 200 year journey through Australian art – from aboriginal art, through to modern day via the colonial era.
The exhibition opens with a captivating video: artist Shaun Gladwell rides a motorcycle, hands-free, striking a Christ-like pose as he freewheels along a road scything through the Australian outback. As impressive a feat it is, what’s even more impressive is the vast expanse of arid scrubland either side of the road which seems to go on forever.
We’re then taken on a chronological tour of Australian art starting with the unmistakeable abstract pointillism of Aboriginal art. As Europeans came to Australia, the art that came with them was always going to be a poor imitation of the Romantic and Impressionist creations from Europe. However, the colour and landscape of Australia rescues these works by giving them brighter and warmer tones than the greens, blues and greys of Europe.
Eventually Australian art did forge its own path, most notably with Sidney Nolan and his series of paintings on the life of the cult outlaw Ned Kelly. His most arresting work here is of the outback as a swirling ocean of red – despite depicting a rocky landscape, it seems to be ready to burst into motion at any moment.
Even the modern pieces on display owe a lot to their country’s unique landscape, whether it be of nature preserves in Tasmania or the glaring sun. It’s proof that Australia is still producing innovative and thought provoking art even to this day.
This is a massive exhibition and though it does run out of steam a little towards the end, it’s a comprehensive collection of the rich and diverse history of Australian art.
Australia is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Westminster, W1J 0BD, from 21 September until 8 December. Tickets are £14 for adults, concessions available.