The Age | An unfinished landscape: She-Oak show sheds new light on classics

She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism

Among plenty of paintings of the Australian landscape there are unexpected, flooring moments: one is a young toddler, dressed in her pink Sunday best, wobbling along, puffy arms floating for balance, a facial expression of soft surprise. This painting, by female Australian impressionist Iso Rae, is one of many emotive instances in She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism.

Showing great beauty and the fleeting nature of time, this exhibition is poetically expansive – but it’s not as expansive as it desires to be.

Grouping more than 270 works under the banner of Australian impressionism, She-oak and Sunlight contains pieces ranging from minute to iconic, including well-known paintings like Tom Roberts’ Shearing the rams, 1890, and Arthur Streeton’s The purple noon’s transparent might, 1896, and Fire’s on, 1891.

Yet celebrity works aren’t quite the point: this exhibition attempts to be revisionist by including female and lesser-known painters often left out of Australia’s impressionism narrative, including Jane Sutherland, Clara Southern, May Vale, Jane Price and Ina Gregory. Painting in the late 1800s, these women would have been seen as hobbyists, not artists.

While adequate room is made for female impressionists, She-oak and Sunlight is still largely male-dominated, focusing on four big names: Roberts, Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder. With an idyllic gaze, these painters put forth visions of the Australian landscape filled with hard-working early settlers and leisurely middle classes. While the paintings can be formally stunning, there is no complication of this nationalist imagination that’s still with us today.

This story begins in Europe, and the exhibition opens by showing how Australian painters were regularly travelling and painting abroad during this time. It highlights the friendships between Australian and international impressionists. Works by famous impressionists like Edouard Manet and Claude Monet place Australian impressionism within an international zeitgeist.

Very quickly the show becomes local. Historically Australian impressionism has been known as the Heidelberg School, and this exhibition eschews the latter banner by taking a wide approach to Australian impressionism, displaying diverse works between 1883 to 1895. Now considered classical, these painters were once revolutionary for their lack of refined technique – something the exhibition hints towards but could make excitingly explicit (especially considering that women impressionists were particularly prone to criticisms of being unrefined).

She-Oak and Sunlight is led by place: there are sections on the Melbourne areas of Darebin, Box Hill, Eaglemont and Charterisville, alongside Sydney. It’s a reminder that many Australian impressionists painted en plein air (like the French impressionists), and is evocative of not just landscapes but the social energies of the time: gentlefolk on beaches, various classes of women wandering the solitary bush, refined portraits of the upper-classes, sheep shearers, early settlers, charcoal burners and men turning soil. Many of these feel typical of Australian impressionism, but many do not: there are lonely looks from women, worried children, and haunting, mystical twilights.

The centre of She-Oak and Sunlight is a recreation of the groundbreaking 9 by 5 impressionism exhibition of 1889, shown at Buxton’s Art Gallery in Melbourne. On display are 55 of the original 182 works, many painted on nine by five inch cedar cigar box lids. In a salon-style hang, the paintings evidence how Australian impressionism could hold subjects from sketchy landscapes to emotive and psychologically loaded portraits. Here we find the exhibition’s title, the painting She-oak and Sunlight, 1889, by Roberts. It’s a golden, surreal-feeling landscape, encapsulating the exhibition’s attention to place, time and light.

Having so many works from nationwide galleries and collections (not an easy mission) allows moments of greatly nuanced curation. For instance, the exhibition chronicles a summer meeting between Monet and Australian impressionist John Russell, with paintings by both artists of a similar rocky seaside positioned next to one another, showing the colliding and differing styles. Throughout She-Oak and Sunlight relationships between artists are fundamental, revealing influence, underlining the significance of place.

There is also a spiritual side to the show. Plays on the word “momentary” appear in multiple wall texts: the landscape paintings capture fleeting instances, which accumulate to capturing time itself. Beauty appears; Roberts shows the quiet rise of the moon, Clara Southern a woman working alone on an old bee farm, Conder paints a man and woman in beautifully diametric positions within a sublime, daytime landscape.

Yet this whimsical understanding of time is belied by a narrow view of history. Only later in the exhibition is an Indigenous presence foregrounded. But the incredible serpent paintings of William Barak feel a tokenistic gesture among the hundreds of paintings that glorify early colonisation, without complication or question. For all the exhibition’s moments of revisionism and poeticism, a truly radical Australian impressionism show would consider the vast historical context of painting during this time. It would unpack how these images have become rooted in our national psyche, and the gendered, colonial and environmental implications of this way of seeing.

NGV has held large impressionism shows in 1985 and 2007, and She-Oak and Sunlight builds upon these but it ultimately errs on the conservative side. It lightly expands the impressionist narrative to include women and poetic nuance – but it could have travelled to more exciting historical and aesthetic possibilities. Not every exhibition must be revisionist, but this exhibition does claim to be, and it could meet this claim harder.

Originally published in The Age, 11 April 2021. Read here.

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