Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation – British Museum

I visited the exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation at the British Museum, an interesting look at the history of Indigenous Australia, the first major exhibition in the UK to do so through objects. I thought the exhibition struck a good balance between representing the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, and the outrages heaped upon them by European invaders. It emphasised the different cultures of the peoples of the continent, with a fascinating array of objects on display including baskets, masks, statues and artwork.

Australia – Royal Academy of Arts

Not knowing anything about the art of Australia, I headed to the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts after work one Friday night with something approaching apprehension. I had no idea what to expect, but I was impressed. The exhibition showcases more than 200 years of Australian art from 1800 to the present, mostly concerned with land and landscape and displayed in broadly chronological order. Both indigenous and non-indigenous art is explored, giving rise to a varied and thought-provoking exhibition.

Indigenous Painting

Before Australia was ‘discovered’ by Dutch explorers in 1606, indigenous peoples had lived there for over 50,000 years. Aboriginal art is closely related to the land, in both substance and subject matter. It is graven on rock, painted on the body and carved into the ground, but as these works would be rather difficult to transport overseas, the art displayed in this exhibition is limited to that created on sheets of canvas or bark. I was surprised at how much these works appealed to me: they were very abstract and in some ways reminded me of modern art, but they were also heavily rooted in Aboriginal mythology (which differs from place to place and from group to group), including the concept of the ‘Dreaming’, a philosophy relating this world to the spiritual one.

Early Colonial Art (1800-50)

The first British settlers arrived in Australia in 1788. Initially they found life very difficult, as the land around Botany Bay and Sydney Harbour, where they lived, could not support crops. Over time they grew more accustomed to the landscape and begun to capture it in paint, often using watercolour. Artists of the period included John Lewin, the country’s first free-settler professional artist, and John Glover, who arrived in Australia in later life but quickly grew to appreciate this new land.

Late Colonial Art (1850-80)

Fuelled by the gold rush of 1851, Australia, particularly Victoria and its capital Melbourne, grew in population. Among those who arrived in the country were a number of artists from all over the world, many of whom were influenced by the German Romantic tradition as opposed to the British watercolour tradition. These included Eugene von Guérard, whose 1859 painting ‘Bushfire’ was one of the highlights of the exhibition for me.  In fact, the art of this period was my favourite of the whole exhibition: the colours, and the way the artists captured the unique quality of Australian light and landscape, were absolutely stunning.

Australian Impressionism

Like the rest of the world, Impressionism took hold in Australia. During the late 1880s, several artists, including Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin, worked at outdoor painting camps and sought to capture a sense of harmony between man and nature in their work. A more pessimistic view took hold, however, when the market collapsed at the beginning of the 1890s.

Federation Landscapes (1900-20)

Landscapes continued to be popular during this period, though owing to the growth in urban areas, many artists began to reflect this in their work.

Early Modernism (1918-40)

This era doesn’t appeal to me as much as some of the others, so I spent less time in this section. Strong colours and new forms were the order of the day. I did like the varied images of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which encompassed different angles and styles.

Late Modernism (1940-50)

I found this more interesting than the early modernism section. I particularly liked Sidney Nolan’s iconic images of Ned Kelly, showing the famous outlaw against a backdrop of Australian landscape.

Bark Painting

Painting on eucalyptus bark is the core art form of Arnhem Land and the surrounding areas. Inspired by the rock art traditions of the area, these beautiful paintings express a strong relationship with the Australian landscape and evoke Aboriginal myth and legend. As an aside, several of the pictures here reminded me of the terrifying Bunyip from Dot And the Kangaroo.


Desert Painting

In 1971 in Papunya, in the Western Desert, a non-Aboriginal art teacher invited members of the Aboriginal community to paint murals on the school walls. Subsequently, they continued to paint on board and canvas, expressing aspects of their Dreamings and of their history and culture.

Early Contemporary Art (1960-80)

The broad-ranging art of this period was inspired both by internationalism, as art exhibitions moved between countries, and a growing sense of Australian nationalism, during which artists explored connections to their environment.

Series and Politics (1970s-present)

Irreverent and political art characterised this period. I was strangely absorbed by the motorbike video, showing the artist with arms outstretched moving along in a vast Australian landscape. Other works examined race and violence.

Contemporary (1990s-2000s)

Many of these works, such as Bill Henson’s photographs, look at the unique quality of Australian light – something I thought was apparent as far back as the 1800s, as several of the earlier works emphasise it.

The Past, Present and Future (1989-2013)

Some of the works in this final section were the most unusual of the entire exhibition. I particularly liked Rosemary Laing’s upside-down house, emphasising that Australia is ‘down under’. An Elysian City by Danie Mellor evokes classical buildings with a Romantic sense of decay.

I really was impressed with this exhibition, it was vast in scope and ambition and contained a huge range of massively varied works. It runs until 8 December at the Royal Academy and I wholeheartedly recommend it.