Impressions: Painting Light & Life

February 4, 2012
Julian Ashton, 'Study of Alice Muskett', oil on wood, 1893
Julian Ashton, 'Study of Alice Muskett', oil on wood, 1893

A survey of portraiture by Australian artists of the late nineteenth century would seem to be long overdue. Despite the institutional obsession with all things contemporary, the works of the so-called Australian Impressionists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Fred McCubbin and Charles Conder – remain the most popular drawcards in our public collections.

The problem is that each of these artists – and several minor ones – has been the subject of a retrospective over the past decade and a half. Besides, the best portraits are usually on permanent display in the public galleries, so they are hardly likely to provide any revelations for seasoned viewers.

This makes it all the more important that any overview is a thorough piece of scholarship that tracks down neglected pieces; makes astute choices among the well-known works; draws out the connections between artists, and between artists and their subjects. Such a show is an opportunity to investigate the nature of portraiture in the years leading up to Federation and beyond. Among dozens of prospective topics one might look at the economics of portraiture as opposed to other genres; at how portraitists conformed to a fixed set of conventions or pushed the boundaries. Works might be related to international trends and movements of the time, comparing Australian art to that made in France, England or the United States.

The list of possible themes could be extended a long way, but as you have probably guessed by now, few avenues are explored in Impressions: Painting Light & Life at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. The show is not a total failure but appears to have been put together in haste. The choice of portraits by leading artists such as Roberts, Phillips Fox, Bunny and Lambert, feels too arbitrary for comfort. And where is John Longstaff – probably the most celebrated portraitist of this time?

There is a mere scattering of works on paper – although it was a golden age for the arts of caricature and black-and-white illustration. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future exhibition.

The trouble begins with the catalogue, which is hardly more than a picture book. Instead of the essays the subject requires we have a rather breathless introduction by curator, Sarah Engledow, which reads like an exercise in trying to put the history of Australian impressionism on the back of a postage stamp. The information is roughly accurate but delivered in condensed, misleading bundles.

A typical sentence reads: “In 1896, Roberts married Lillie Williiamson and Arthur Streeton headed for the Hawkesbury district.” The only thing that yokes these actions together is the fact they were undertaken in the same year. On a first reading anyone might think that Roberts’s marriage was a signal for Streeton to disappear! At this stage we haven’t even been introduced to Lillie.

As if this essay wasn’t unsatisfactory enough, the designer – can we blame the designer? – has chosen to print it on red pages. Perhaps this is supposed to be a reference to the red pages in The Bulletin. Very witty, but stupid.

The exhibition is a step up from the catalogue, but only because of the quality of a few familiar works, notably Hugh Ramsay’s The Sisters (1904); Tom Roberts’s delicate pastels, such as the portrait of Miss Florence Greaves (1898), and his vigorous portraits of Streeton and Professor Marshall-Hall. Other highlights include John Peter Russell’s Dr. Will Maloney (1887), and a sheet of drawings of Vincent Van Gogh.

One of the more inspired inclusions is Bertram Mackennal’s profile bas-relief of the ‘divine’ Sarah Bernhardt (c.1892-93), from Trevor Kennedy’s extraordinary collection. This is a rare Australian venture into Symbolism, with the actress facing a tiny nude figure that holds aloft the masks of tragedy and comedy. Mackennal has made an excellent job of capturing Bernhardt’s tousled hair, and the flounces of her blouse and scarf. This is a radical departure from the staid, classical repose of most sculptural relief portraits, which look like they were made to decorate tombs. In this work, the subject is alive, projecting an impressive force of personality.

Mackennal himself is well caught in a small portrait sketch by Aby Altson; as is Lionel Lindsay, who has drawn himself as a serious young man in an overcoat, glowering at us with a look of determination. The Lindsay is a marvellous contrast with the Altson in which the sculptor wears a slightly gormless expression. Keep looking and one finds the same determined personality behind the smile. The difference is that the Lindsay self-portrait is essentially one-dimensional – a caricature of sorts – presenting a calculated front to the world. Altson’s drawing is a subtle piece that brings out the complexities of his friend’s character.

The same subtlety is present in Julian Ashton’s oil sketch, Study of Alice Muskett (1893). The subject is the archetypal bluestocking: a young woman with glasses, high collar and hair pulled back from her face in business-like fashion. Ashton shows how this attractive girl would like to be judged for her achievements rather than her feminine charms. There are plenty of other portraits in which women are more obviously prettified, such as Roberts’s pastel study of the Pinschof sisters, who gaze out at us with big-eyed passivity.

The only works in Impressions that I would count as real discoveries are the two portraits by George Walton (1855-1890), a British artist who spent less than two years in Australia. Walton was an established portraitist in London before he came to Melbourne in 1888, chiefly for health reasons. He left in 1890, on the same ship that took Charles Conder back to England, and died a few months later.

It may be only my imagination, but the portraits by poor, sickly Walton, are tinged with sadness. Priscilla, a picture of a teenage girl, and The red rose, a likeness of a mature woman in a rose-coloured blouse, are both painted with exceptional feeling. The gallery recognises the quality of the latter work by reproducing it on the cover of the catalogue. But if Walton arrived in Melbourne in 1888 and both pictures are dated 1886, they are British rather than Australian.

Even though these are among the outstanding works in this exhibition, surely we should be looking at the portraits that Walton completed in Australia. Those works are inferior to his earlier efforts but they would have given a better indication of the state of the art in this country in the late 1880s.

The inclusion of these two British pictures may be aesthetically justified, but it makes a mockery of the historical nature of the show. There is more justification for including works by artists such as Bunny and Lambert, who lived and worked in Paris and London, but were raised and educated in Australia. Walton was a fly-by-night, albeit a talented one.

The quality of Walton’s imported pictures acts as an indictment of so much local product, but I’m not convinced the field has been adequately represented. Arthur Streeton may have been the outstanding landscapist of the age, but he was a dud portraitist. His colleague, Fred McCubbin, was a more capable performer in this genre but there is little indication of this in Impressions. Charles Conder is even more poorly represented, with his few small inclusions being mostly figure-in-a-landscape or interiors.

Tom Roberts, arguably the most important Australian portraitist of all time, is represented by too many minor pieces, and the same could be said of Emanuel Philips Fox, Rupert Bunny and George Lambert. One tends to think of artists such as Lambert and Ramsay as Edwardians, a generation on from the Heidelberg School, so it could be argued that the boundaries of Impressions extend too far into the twentieth century.

If there are good portraits omitted from this show, it includes far too many examples of what Engledow calls “incidental portraits”. Roberts’s A summer morning’s tiff (1886) might be described as a bush landscape masquerading as a Victorian genre painting. It is not credible to characterise this depiction of a small, faceless figure in a white dress, standing among the saplings, as a portrait. The same might be said for A.H.Fullwood’s Reflections (1898), which shows a woman walking along a rain-drenched footpath at night. Even if we believe the woman was Fullwood’s wife, this is slender grounds for calling the picture a portrait.

A Henry Fullwood, 'Reflections', pastel on brown laid paper, 1898

A Henry Fullwood,

 

The idea seems to be that a portrait is an “impression” when it is essentially a study of light or landscape, with no sense of an individual subject. In that case, everything is a portrait and the term becomes meaningless. If a National Portrait Gallery has a core function it must be to make us look at Australian portraiture with greater clarity and understanding. Instead, in a show ostensibly about light, we meet with some very foggy thinking.

Impressions: Painting Light & Life, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, until 4 March.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 2012