Lazy Luddite Log


Australian Impressionists

I went to see the Australian Impressionists Exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre on the weekend. It has been a while since I have done any gallery visits so this was a bit of impromptu fun with a handful of friends.

I enjoyed the display and its mix of subject matter from urban to rural and from landscapes to life figure work. Melbourne during the 1890s was a vibrant and bustling city (much as it is now) and a sense of this was conveyed by the works displayed by artists such as McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton, Condon and Sutherland. But are they truly impressionists? My understanding of that art movement is that its purpose is to show things as they look rather than as they are. This statement got me into a difficult position with a friend who responded by wondering whether that made impressionist artwork 'realist' (arguing that a photograph shows things as they look). I was hard-pressed to describe the difference and had to resort to saying things like "impressionist artwork is all fuzzy rather than crisp" and "it shows things as they look if one looks at things - um - passingly rather than closely".

At any rate the emphasis on light of Continental impressionists seems a small part of what those Australian artists did and (with the exception of Condon and Sutherland) they seem much more realist than anything. Many of the paintings stand as a full-colour record of places and persons from over a century ago. I was charmed by overhearing a conversation between a father and his very young (fourish) daughter on the topic of one painting from the 1880s depicting a paddock and farmhouse in (now) inner urban Hawthorn...

Daughter: So that is Hawthorn?

Father: Yep.

Daughter: Hawthorn where we live?

Father: Yep.

Daughter: That was Hawthorn a hundred and twenty years ago.

...How exciting this kind of realisation must be in a young life.

At the end of the wander I had decided that McCubbin is still my favourite. Many of his works seemed to have a sense of warmth and depth greater than the others. I suppose that may come in part from an 'impressionist' appreciation of light. My favourite McCubbin was never part of the exhibition however: The Pioneers (the storytelling triptych) is part of the general collection there and can be seen for free at anytime.

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  • I love the Pioneers. I did a reverse of that story, using only the last panel, as an entry in a Landcare category in an art show once.

    I think your description of impressionism v photography is quite right - the images are to resemble the visual impression left by a fleeting look at the subject. A photograph offers more detail purely because it is not a fleeting impression, but (if the camera is used in the usual way) an accurate picture of the subject, recorded with all the mechanical precision available to the photographer. A photograph allows us to re-check details and correct our flawed perception after the fact. Impressionistic paintings convey less detail because we remember less detail. They are, however, a more accurate portrayal of the experience of seeing.

    The Australian school of impressionism was quite radical in it's time, being a departure from the tradition of using paintings to record subjects much the way we use cameras now. Only in the traditional method, the artist was inclined to 'improve' things, in order to more fully describe their form.

    Impressionism in Australia departed radically from that in that it did not add detail and modify light to provide images that would reveal more detail on close examination. The old test of quality - how close the viewer could get to the canvas before they no longer gained more detail - was cast aside.

    Instead many artists revelled in the hard quality of the light, not only in the selection of colours, but, I believe, they played on the fact that people viewing Australian landscapes in full sunlight are forced to squint. And where there is shadow, their eyes are adjusting to the dimness. An impressionistic rendering of a scene is a far more accurate representation of what people see here in the Antipodes.

    Perhaps I can go further and use an audio analogy: A photograph is a studio-recording of a band, with full production magics applied. Realism is the official album recording of them 'live' in concert. Impressionism is the bootleg recording made half way back in the crowd, with screaming fans joining in on the chorus.

    By Blogger Jac, At 18 June, 2007  

  • Thanks for that Jac. It descibes things better than I could. I should direct that friend to it. I suppose the difference between harsh Australian light and wishy-washy European light may be the answer to why I think that Australian impressionists are more realist than their Continental counterparts.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 23 June, 2007  

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