Arthur Streeton  The Selector's Hut: Whelan on the Log 1890  National Gallery of Australia


"New Worlds from Old":

19th Century Australian & American Landscapes

Eugene von Guérard  North-east view from the northern top
of Mount Kosciusko 
1863  National Gallery of Australia

 An Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne,
3rd June to 10th August 1998

Reviewed by Lorraine Murphy


In the last half of the 18th century western European civilisation 'discovered' the landscape. Clearly it had been there before because people had inhabited both the 'Old' and 'New' Worlds for a hundred thousand years and, no doubt, they had also 'discovered' it before, as the bucolic poets and the earliest eclogues can testify. But as history is a process of continual rediscovery and reinvention, so its charms were suddenly discovered anew; reintroduced into the European line of vision in a radically different way.

Now it was its 'natural' beauty which came, quite perceptibly, into dramatic focus as a subject both of wonder and acclaim. In Britain, the Peak District, the Lake District, and the Highlands of Scotland became places of pilgrimage. Here 'Romantics' such as Wordsworth found 'the imprint of the Hand of God' and professed themselves humbled by 'the awful presence of an unseen Power'. Further afield there were the wild places of Europe, where the wonders of the Black Forest and Mount Vesuvius became as important a part of the Grand Tour as the cosmopolitan treasury of Rome. And for the very adventurous, of course, there was also that pinnacle of unspoiled wilderness, the 'New' Worlds of America and Australia.

Not surprisingly, these 'discoveries' were being made at a time, especially in Britain, when such wild places were rapidly disappearing under a tide of 'improvement' as the commons were enclosed to make fields and parks for the expanding gentry and nobility of a growing capitalist society; a gentry with the leisure to enjoy the wilderness that was visibly disappearing. The concept of 'landscape' requires a self-conscious observer; an observer separate from the scene being observed and conscious of this separation, which is, therefore, able to be described (or imagined) in its entirety. So landscape gardeners were brought in and a new wildness was imprinted on the once mundane, working landscape of Britain. In its place the 'picturesque' was born; a self-conscious landscape of trees and waterfalls; lakes and winding paths; discreetly built and sited 'monastic', 'Greek' or 'Roman' ruins.

In the brash 'New' worlds of America and Australia, both of which huddled along the east coast of vast continents, a newly emerging gentry was also constructing their own personal idylls and pondering on that whole new wilderness which lay waiting to the west. This wilderness was inhabited by indigenous peoples; 'noble savages' who became part of this vision of nature as they squatted, minuscule, before an awesome backdrop: figures dwarfed by their vast Garden of Eden.

This major exhibition, Esso Presents New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian & American Landscapes, has been jointly curated by the Wadsworth Atheneum and the National Gallery of Australia to compare the traditions of nineteenth century landscape art in both countries, and includes 100 of the best landscape paintings ever produced in Australia and America; 50 from each country. The majority are of oil on canvas but there are a small number of watercolours on paper and a few albums of prints.

Thomas Cole  Scene from 'The Last of the Mohicans', Cora kneeling at the feet of Tamenund
1827  Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest of Alfred Smith

The paintings in the exhibition include works by Australian artists Augustus Earle, John Glover, Eugene von Guerard, Conrad Martens and Arthur Streeton; and American artists Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington. Many of the works have never been shown in Australia before. Apart from a number of American masterpieces these include two unique Australian works by John Glover, which have been in the Louvre since 1841.

Designed to be thought provoking rather than just as a sensory aesthetic experience, curators Elizabeth Johns, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Andrew Sayers believe that 'the exhibition will offer present day viewers - the very people now affected by many of the same issues that gave rise to nineteenth century landscape painting - an opportunity to examine major works from both countries and to discern provocative parallels and differences'.

Landscape painting itself, the curators say, should 'be explored as subjective interpretations rather than objective reflections of a cultural reality'. For this reason the exhibition has been curated so that it 'moves beyond the standard focus on nationalism - with its narrow stylistic and cultural exegeses - to explore larger global issues of social migration, economic change, politics, and comparative intellectual history.'

John Glover  Cawood on the Ouse River 1835 
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart Gift of Mrs G.C. Nicholas 1936

There are two faces implicit in this vision of landscape; faces which are intrinsically contradictory. On the one hand there is a recognition of something which mankind has not created and from which something can be learned. On the other is the image of a shaping of nature; the control of the land and its contours as the gentry reconstruct the landscape into 'pleasing prospects' or the 'pioneer' pushes through into new territories. In American paintings this often becomes a struggle of epic proportions as white Americans battle Indians, or drive civilisation deep into the wilderness in the shape of bridges and railroads. In America, as Robert Hughes describes in American Visions, the 'discovery' and opening up of the continent became the 'Manifest Destiny' of the American people - to bring light into the dark places of nature and, as the contemporary commentator William Gilpin declared, 'to teach old nations a new civilisation - to confirm the destiny of the human race...'

In Australia, the experience was a different one; the ideology less epic. But if the vision is less grandiose, it is still a vision of nature motivated by the same contradictory impulses and the same fascinating heritage. As we near the end of the twentieth century it is interesting to look back and take stock. To reassess; to marvel; to ponder; and yes, to wonder.

Lorraine Murphy is the Editor of Education Australia.

Arthur Streeton  The Selector's Hut: Whelan on the Log 1890  National Gallery of Australia

See also: This Other Eden - BRITISH ART from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale, Exhibition at the AGNSW




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