Life's a beach, unless you're aboriginal in Australia show at the Royal Academy

By Mark Sheerin | 23 September 2013

Exhibition review: Australia, Royal Academy, London, until December 8 2013

Painting of a crowded beach with beach ball, surf board, bucket and spade
Charles Meere, Australian Beach Pattern, 1940© Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1965 © DACS 2013. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia
Speaking in the 1960s, artist Russell Drysdale said of his home turf that in Australia there is a “quality of strangeness you do not find anywhere else”. So in an act of QED, Drysdale has painted a warped and burnt out sheep station which has attracted a small audience of emus.

Australia at the RA is a vast and also quite strange undertaking, as the largest exhibition of Australian art ever seen outside Australia. A press release carries a quote from patron HRH Prince Charles. And as the emus surely know, visitors discover at least two traditions of Australian art. One is indigenous and hard to read. One is imported, and were it not for emus, wallabies and Jurassic ferns, might be quite familiar.

But what can contemporary eyes say about a depiction of Amateur Whaling by Oswald Brierley? The sea is as turbulent as a Turner, but the cetacean is of vivid blubber and bone. Dolphins scythe past as the tiny crew sit atop a 15ft wave. If this is life in Australia, it is indeed a land of rugged challenge.

Even the artists come to pit themselves against the elements. Not content with a mere day out, in which to paint the natural environment, Tom Roberts pitches a tent and immerses himself in the landscape he so wants to paint. His Artist’s Camp is a realist slice of Australian life, where even the painters are backwoodsmen.

If you have any doubt about how seriously Europeans took the settlement of this continent, just consider monumental work The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin. This is an altarpiece, no less, a triptych, but in place of saints we find a pensive pair of fin de siecle Bush rangers. By the third panel, the wife has sadly died, but a gleaming new city shines in the distance.

Colour photo of a topographic aboriginal art work
Dorothy Napangardi, Sandhills of Mina Mina 2000© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 2001 © Dorothy Napangardi. Licensed by Viscopy / DACS
And so the sun shone on our colonial activities and with its many coastal cities, Oz has a few of the most interesting beach artworks ever made. On show here is an iconic photo called Sunbaker by Max Dupain, which offers a close up modernist crop on a well-tanned and dripping wet young male sunbather.

Three years later in 1940, Charles Meere composes beach users in a detailed and playful pattern, managing to include all the gear we now associate with a beach holiday: blow up ball, bucket, spade and surf board. But the style could surely be called social realist; it is as if play were as important to this new land as work was to the former Soviet Union.

Four short years later the notable beach painting is that of Albert Tucker. His Sunbathers lie on putrid yellow sands like two reddening cuts of meat. They lack extremities or faces. The sky and sea are dark. It is not the image of Australian life we have come to expect.

So far this is a one-sided story of settlement and conquest. But what of those who lived in Australia for millennia before Captain Cook arrived in 1770. As anyone might expect, they are included. But the aboriginal artwork, while stunning, also feels like a completely separate show within a show.

Upon your entry to the gallery there is no getting away from a contemporary, untitled piece by Doreen Reid Nakamarra. Laid out on the floor, as it would have been painted, this is an extensive, meticulous and cosmic pattern which looks to undulate and vibrate before your very eyes. Is it Op art? Is it Abstract Expressionism? With their textual and cartographic features, this unreadable aboriginal art makes other tribal art look familiar and neighbourly.

But it would be wrong to say the RA glosses over the Western landgrab and its effect on indigenous peoples. And the aboriginal art here does go beyond bark paintings and wall hangings. It also includes film Bliss by indigenous artist Fiona Foley. Set amidst an elegiac landscape of white poppies, the show recounts the ways in which, along with alcohol and tobacco, opium was used to subjugate the Aboriginal people.

Another indigenous artist, Danie Mellor, creates a landscape both haunting and haunted. An Elysian City (of Picturesque Landscapes and Memory) features tribespeople camping in a grandiose European cemetery. Against a dark blue wash, striking use of colour picks out species of Australian fauna, while embroidered flowers surround the scene and are themselves set into a gilt wooden frame.

It is the last painting in the show and the aboriginal people are centre stage. But these are not the circumstances you would want to find them in, alone in an inhospitable graveyard. Australia is a fantastical, utopian and ultimately saddening place, at least that is what this show seems to convey.
  • Admission £15.50 (£6). Open 10am-6pm Saturday to Thursday (until 10pm Friday)
Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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