The recent ‘Australia’ exhibition at the RA was a blockbuster which lived up to the hype, unlike some other recent exhibitions. The context was Australia’s landscape and artists’, often overpowering, reaction to it. The work ranged from early settler art through to modern multimedia, with a parallel strand of indigenous art. The element which pulled it all together was an intense sense of the red earth of Australia. The aboriginal works on Eucalyptus bark were created with it and the ‘European’ art glowed, hotly, with representations of it.
Beyond the sense of red light reflected from the land, many works also conveyed the feel of huge skies and wide open space; the emptiness of the land.
Three artists particularly grabbed my attention. All were new to me, and their styles radically different. As a printmaker, I was immediately drawn to the work of Mike Parr. This was a group of six large drypoint prints, tiled to make one large work.
Even with the work divided into smaller sheets, these are enormous drypoints. They seem to have been created with a violent energy, quite unlike the delicate, mannered drypoints generally exhibited. They contain a self portrait and fragments of landscape, as if seen through, or reflected by, the window of a train or bus. The twenty four prints displayed together must really convey the immensity of the landscape.
The artist describes in an article for the National Gallery of Australia(1) how he uses a wide variety of type and scale of tool to scribe his drypoint, up to and including an angle grinder. The burr produced must be something to see. An edition of six was planned but the plates failed before the full edition. His performance and photographic work exhibited online by Art Gallery, NSW(2) often deals with violence and mutilation; one can see why the plates couldn’t take the strain.
The exhibition included a gallery of Australian Impressionist artists, of which the most striking was Arthur Streeton.
This work records a death at a mine. Streeton was sketching there when the event happened, and here we see the body being brought out on a stretcher, but the subject of the painting is really the red Australian geology. The miners are ants in the scale of the landscape, and the landscape can just crush them. You can taste the dust in the hot air under that clear sky. The earth is rendered in a terrific range of colours from ochre through to deepest, richest purple. The two darker shape masses of the mine opening bottom right and the trees top left create a strong diagonal element.
In this work, Streeton captured the sense of wide open space and isolation. The horizon is uncluttered and bisects the single, lonely figure astride a huge tree trunk. The isolation is underlined by the sparse, willowy tree and the tumbledown nature of the shack. The colour of the sky and the earth dominate and the L shape of the tree and log generate a very strong composition.
Here, Streeton used an unusual format to create the sense of scale and distance. The rocks are a wonderful rich mixture of yellows, reds and purples.
Another artist who captures the red space of the outback with drama is Fred Williams.
Here we see the outback, empty of everything but distant shapes almost shimmering in a heat haze and barely identifiable. The feeling of infinite distance is reinforced by the lack of any horizon. The composition is given some shape by a darker curve of perhaps a riverbed or some other geographical feature.
In 2011, the National Gallery of Australia presented an exhibition of his works and an interesting gallery of them can be viewed online at:
His paintings seem to have got more and more sparse and descriptive of the textures and colours of the Australian landscape with detail removed. I was delighted to find a collection of his etchings, available at the Tate online catalog, which explore these ideas in prints.
I had feared that this exhibition would be very heavily c19th weighted, but the breadth of the work selected was thrilling.
(1) Mike Parr, (1990). National Gallery of Australia [Online]. Available from
[Accessed December 2013]
(2) Art Gallery New South Wales [online]. Available from:
[Accessed December 2013]