Federation-era paintings showcase spirit of the new century

From patriotic visions of the Australian bush to the bohemian enclaves of London and Paris where sumptuous portraits were produced, Capital and country: the Federation years 1900–1914 from the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) presents a rich and beautiful collection of paintings reflecting an important period in Australia’s nation building.

The 46 paintings by 25 Australian artists include Australian pastoral and bush landscapes, and art produced by Australians who lived in Europe, taking in Edwardian England and the last years of the Belle Époque in France before the outbreak of the World War I in 1914. This month we spoke with the NGA’s Assistant Curator of Australian Art Lara Nicholls about the exhibition.

George W. Lambert The sonnet c. 1907 oil on canvas 113.3 x 177.4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, bequest of John B. Pye 1963

George W. Lambert
The sonnet c. 1907
oil on canvas
113.3 x 177.4 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, bequest of John B. Pye 1963

Q: Why was the Australian landscape so important in creating a national character?
A: Queensland artist Godfrey Rivers summed up the debate about creating a school of Australian landscape painting in 1898 when he advocated for the necessity of ‘a close and intelligent observation of nature…to express our natural surroundings’ rather than be ‘hampered by traditions which have grown up under other skies’. Hans Heysen, through his passion for the Australian bush and his beloved gums around his home in Hahndorf, South Australia, also believed that we should paint the extraordinary natural beauty of our landscape and to appreciate it for what it is and not filter it through European eyes. The Federation landscape, with its emphasis on the sweeping vista, sun-drenched skies and the resolute, never-bending Eucalypt did much to reinforce this new-found reverence and love of our landscape.

Q: Just how much of an influence was travelling abroad on these artists?
A: Conversely, as much as a new-found appreciation of our landscape at home informed painting during the Federation years, the lure of Paris and London as centres of artistic supremacy was a great force at the turn of the century. Artists such as Max Meldrum travelled abroad on travelling scholarships and those who missed out, such as Hugh Ramsay, funded their own passage to Europe to study under the great masters. Many artists had great ambitions to be hung ‘on the line’ at the Paris Salon or at the Royal Academy. In fact, so great was Hugh Ramsay’s achievement that in 1902 he had four paintings selected to hang in the Paris Salon, a feat unheard of for even the most salon-hardy artist. George Lambert, who received the New South Wales Travelling Scholarship, met Ramsay on board the Persic travelling to London and the pair became life-long friends. Both took studios close by in Montparnasse in Paris and Lambert enrolled in the Académie Colarossi, and thus we begin to observe in his work this blend of Academic rigour with his characteristic loose contemporary brushwork. Often his composition was academic in style but his painterly technique had a vigour and freshness. The influence of the European schools opened up not only new techniques and styles, but also gave the émigré artists a rich seam of subjects and, more importantly, commissions. Many artists such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton remained in Europe and, with the outbreak of World War I, they were appointed as official war artists and did not return to Australia until the 1920s.

Q: Do you have a favourite work in the exhibition?
A: I do have a favourite and at times my favouritism oscillates, but I always seem to return to George Lambert’s luminous and enigmatic The sonnet of circa 1907. Formally the painting shows Lambert’s technical prowess and his eye for contrast – we have this superbly painted white crumpled fabric upon which the nude delicately sits contrasted against the inky blackness of the dress of the fashionably dressed lady in the foreground. The work tugs the eye across its surface from the central motif of the book and back to the lady’s gloved hand subtly pointing towards it, and all set theatrically in this beautiful English countryside. Then we ask what is going on in this scene and what does it all mean? In fact Lambert has created an allegorical work along the lines of Titian’s Le concert champêtre of 1509 in the Louvre, which is broadly seen as an allegory of poetry, and Titian’s later work, Sacred and profane love. In Lambert’s vision we see the perfect natural beauty in the nude mirrored by the sophisticated and ‘civilised’ lady in ruffled cuffs and rose-coloured hat. Lambert composed the work when he saw his friends, fellow Australian artists Arthur Streeton and Thea Proctor, and his life model Kitty Powell together in his London studio and had a vision of a modernised Fete champêtre. The work seems to epitomise the émigré artist experience in London and Paris, and I love how it transports me back to that preciously brief period in Australian art when there was so much optimism abounding for the new century before it was abruptly cut short by the outbreak of World War I.

Q: What advice do you have for young people looking at the work?
A: I think it is really worth trying to transport yourself back to the period in which the works were produced and to think how it might be to be living in Australia when settlement was but one hundred years old and when most people in the generation prior had been born in Europe and had emigrated here. It is worth asking how would it feel if I lived in a colony which was on the cusp of becoming part of an entirely new nation, when transportation was complicated and slow, free press was the only media available to transport ideas and news, when one feels a mixed connection to both an ‘old country’, which many never visit again, and this new nation being of Australia. I would also encourage everyone just to immerse themselves in the sumptuous brushwork and the palette of the artists represented in this exhibition. Some of the works are highly stylised formal studio paintings and others are simple but beautiful ‘on-the-spot’ oil sketches that appear like a moment in time.

Capital and country: the Federation years 1900–1914 continues at UQ Art Museum until 1 November 2015.

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