Eugene von Guérard

July 23, 2011
Eugene Von Guerard NGV

In the entire history of Australian art, no painter has ever been through greater extremes of adulation and neglect than Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901). In the 1860s he was recognised as the finest landscapist in the colony, but by the 1870s his reputation was in decline. In the following century he was all but forgotten. The revival began in 1980 with the show Candice Bruce put together for the National Gallery of Australia. Today, with a new retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, von Guérard’s stocks have never been higher.

Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed, will travel to Brisbane and Canberra when it finishes in Melbourne. It is to be regretted that Sydney is missing out, but that is something we can expect with ever-greater frequency as the Art Gallery of NSW has foreshadowed a new, short-sighted emphasis on contemporary art at the expense of historical shows.

By contrast, the NGV has chosen to celebrate its 150th birthday with an exhibition devoted to the work of its first director. In 1870 von Guérard was appointed Master of the NGV School of Art and inaugural curator of the collection, making him de facto director of the gallery that would come to have the biggest and best collections in Australia.

He would toil so diligently at this poorly paid job that his output as a painter virtually dried up, a factor that contributed to his fall from grace. In the same year, James Smith, the influential critic who had always been an enthusiastic supporter, dismissed von Guérard’s work, for its “microscopism.”

Despite his dedication, students found von Guérard’s teaching methods to be tiresome and old-fashioned. Figures such as Tom Roberts rebelled against the regimen of drawing from the plaster cast, and championed the looser, more expressive Barbizon-style art of the Swiss émigré, Abram-Louis Buvelot (1814-88), whose stocks rose as von Guérard’s declined.

By 1882, when von Guérard and his family left Australia, the mania for Buvelot’s work was well underway – although this now seems like an historical aberration. Buvelot’s pictures were rapidly acquired for the NGV, and he was the subject of a large posthumous retrospective in 1888. In 1894 rooms in the gallery were renamed in his honour. When Vance Palmer was looking for an artist to include in his book, National Portraits (1940) he turned to Buvelot, but the more he looked he harder it became to see what all the fuss was about.

Nowadays it is obvious that Buvelot did not hold a candle to von Guérard. With this admission comes a reassessment of the abiding cliché of Australian art history: the idea that Heidelberg artists such as Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Conder, were the first to actually “see” the Australian landscape as it truly was, not through the lens of an imported European idiom.

This retrospective makes it abundantly clear that no artist ever looked harder at the Australian landscape than von Guérard, nor painted it with more exacting accuracy. By now this is not a revelation, but guest curator, Ruth Pullin, and a large team of assistants, have underlined von Guérard’s credentials as never before.

After spending so many columns lamenting the shortcomings of curatorship, this exhibition came as a shock. If anything, it is too fastidious and pedantic in the way it traces von Guérard’s early training, his scientific and geological interests, and the historical context from which he emerges. The display is not helped by the Federation Square venue, which is patently unsuited for showing anything that predates the modern era.

A large part of this exhibition and about half the catalogue is devoted to von Guérard’s early years in Italy, with his artist father, Bernhard; and his education at the Düsseldorf Academy under Wilhelm von Schadow. From a scholarly angle this is valuable, but the material is often repetitious.

When we to come to von Guérard’s arrival in Australia in 1852, at the age of 41, his year at the gold diggings is skipped over with indecent haste, perhaps assuming that this material has been adequately covered by the late Marjorie Tipping in her 1982 book, An Artist on the Goldfields. One misses such paintings as I have got it (1854), a study of a lucky miner showing the gold dust in his pan; and more conspicuously, the panoramic oil, Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54 (1884).

One tends to think of von Guérard as belonging to the German Romantic School that took its lead from Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), but in this exhibition the spiritual themes of Friedrich’s work are given less prominence than the scientific preoccupations that followed from the work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Celebrated as the greatest scientist of his day, Humboldt exerted a seminal influence on Charles Darwin’s generation, and on countless artists who responded to his call for accurate representations of the natural world. Pullin quotes a memorable line from Humboldt’s book, Cosmos: “What an inexhaustible treasure remained still unopened by the landscape painter… beyond the narrow limits of the Mediterranean.”

Von Guérard was but one of many aspiring Reisekünstler, (AKA. ‘travel artists’), who responded to this challenge. With the possible exception of Ludwig Becker, who perished on the Burke and Wills expedition, he was the only artist compelled to explore the wild and remote areas of the Australian continent.

If we have ever been in danger of forgetting or underestimating von Guérard’s scientific interests, let alone his abilities as an explorer, this show brings these qualities back into the foreground. He was attracted to the Grampians, for instance, because they provided such an intriguing record of ancient geological activity. He painted rainforests, as in Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges (1857); coastal rock formations such as Castle Rock, Cape Schanck (1865); and numerous waterfalls – none better than the Strath Creek Falls (1862), which zig-zags its way down the cover of the catalogue.

Von Guérard had a special fascination for volcanic lakes, including his masterful picture of Tower Hill (1855), which has been used to help restore the area after a century of degradation. I’d always believed that when von Guérard visited Tower Hill it was already a shambles that he put right with a little poetic license, but the catalogue says the destruction only began afterwards.

The painting now generally thought of as von Guérard’s masterpiece, North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko (1863), was the fruit of one of his most extreme and dangerous expeditions. It also proved, in Tim Bonyhady’s words, to be the ‘tipping point’ in the artist’s fortunes in Australia. Not only did the work prove unsellable, it was poorly received by critics and public who disliked its raw, dramatic approach to nature. It seems the closer von Guérard ventured to the Sublime – that frisson of awe and terror cultivated by Romantic artists and theorists – the further he strayed from the bosom of colonial taste.

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

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

In this vein, another notable absentee from this show is Govett’s Leap and Grose River Valley, Blue Mountains, NSW (1873). This is also an invocation of the Sublime, showing deep crevasses rather than towering mountains, although it is a tamed landscape, already known as a tourist attraction.

For the most part, the curators have made extraordinary efforts to secure small, previously unknown works from overseas collections, and representative pictures by German and Italian landscapists who acted as peers or mentors. Von Guérard’s sketchbooks and prints are also represented in a thorough manner, with many drawings matched with the paintings that followed. Even a sample of his coin collection is included!

Not least among von Guérard’s many qualities, was his sympathetic appreciation of Aboriginal culture. This was expressed in works such as Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite (1857), which is an elegy for a vanishing way of life. This work is very familiar, but I was not prepared for one of the great eye-openers of the show, Mr. John King’s Station (1861).

The painting is one of a series of landscapes that von Guérard painted as records of the big landholdings of rural Victoria. These station pictures were his main source of income at the time, but he did not treat them as pot-boilers. In this small, startling picture, borrowed from an overseas collection, an Aboriginal family is placed squarely in the middle of a grassy field, while the tiny figures of King and his son stand with their backs to us over by a distant fence. One can hardly imagine a colonial painting making a more direct acknowledgement of the original owners of the land. It suggests an enlightened attitude on behalf of both artist and patron, who understood the primacy of indigenous occupation, while never disputing the legitimacy of King’s title.

An artist of exceptional skills, broad-ranging intellectual interests, and acute moral sensitivity, von Guérard committed himself wholeheartedly to every task he undertook, whether it was a drawing or the running of an art school. Before this show I felt that von Guérard’s rehabilitation was already complete, but the curators’ painstaking work has uncovered a far more impressive artist than the one we thought we knew. Von Guérard is a unique figure in Australian history, ultimately betrayed by the society he served so well. On the 200th anniversary of his birth we are finally making amends.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2011

Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed,
Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 7 August.