The Art Gallery of New South Wales kicked off its summer season with a broad and optimistic reconsideration of one of the most beloved sons of Australian art.
Curator Wayne Tunnicliffe indicated that his decision to title the exhibition simply Streeton, without subtitles, was part of his strategy to emphasize the importance of Streeton to Australian art and culture.
This assessment is not new at all. Lionel Lindsay, in The Art of Arthur Streeton of 1919 called him “our national painter.”
In 1923, when Streeton’s The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might was first shown in London, Lindsay wrote:
Six years later, in 1929, James S. MacDonald, the then director of AGNSW, claimed that Streeton
In 1931, as a way to lift spirits during the Great Depression, the cash-strapped gallery gave Streeton the first exhibition of the work of a living Australian artist.
In the interwar years, Streeton’s iconic paintings of blue-tinged bushes, golden fields and clear Australian skies spoke of a country that had never seen war. His work was easily seen as a feature of cocky Australian insularity.
Most are pure landscapes, but some show robust soldier colonists trying to tame the land by cutting down trees. Others show cattle grazing on recently cleared land. In The Land of the Golden Fleece (1926), a flock of sheep confidently grazes in a valley protected by the Grampian Mountains.
Unsurprisingly, this painting so effectively encapsulates the sentiment of the conservative establishment – a label on the frame indicates that it is the proud possession of one of Australia’s gentlemen’s clubs.
Conservatories and conservation
Streeton’s art is also a reminder that conservatives once cared about conservation. He was a passionate advocate for the need to preserve the Australian savannah from the logging industry.
The 1939 Silvan Dam is a celebration of the tree-covered landscape near his home in Dandenong. But in Silvan Dam and Donna Buang, 2000 AD, painted the following year, the same theme turns into an apocalyptic vision condemning the deforestation of the forest proposed by the then state government. Stiff, whitewashed tree trunks tower against bare rock and bare mountains.
Streeton’s defense of nature over industry was not new. In 1895, when he was living in Sydney, he painted Pastoral Cremorne, a beautiful landscape of a grassy hill framed by beautiful trees and Sydney Harbor as a political response to a proposed coal mine.
It is one of the many port subjects he painted in his Sydney years. Given that the AGNSW is located directly across from Sirius Cove, where Streeton lived in the 1890s, the bias towards this issue is understandable. The camp where Streeton, Roberts and others lived during the recession of 1890 was built by the Brasch brothers, who were active patrons of the arts.