Australia has an art history that is entirely unique to anywhere else in the world. With a deep indigenous history and a strong colonial past, the country’s inhabitants have had to embrace their isolation from the rest of the world and adopt their own identity. This journey of national self-discovery is reflected in Australia’s history of art.
30,000 Years Ago - Aboriginal Art
Australia’s art scene began well before the Europeans arrived on the continent’s shores in 1788. Australia’s indigenous peoples had been painting long before this time. In fact, the indigenous art scene dates as the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world.
Aboriginal rock art can be found today throughout the continent, from Uluru and Kakadu in Australia’s desert centre, to the Grampians and even near Sydney. This art dates back at least 30,000 years, outdating the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, by several thousand years.
Aboriginal art incorporates concentric circles, arches and dots to symbolize important aspects of indigenous life. The art was originally painted or etched onto rock, bark, sand, and stone.
Today, Aboriginal art has a strong influence on indigenous and non-indigenous artists alike. Well-known artists who have used elements of indigenous art include William Barak, Margaret Preston, Albert Namatjira, and Doris Gingingara.
Susan Betts is a leading contemporary indigenous artist who follows traditional forms of Aboriginal painting. Her designs have been used by Qantas and Coca Cola, and for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
1788 to 1850 – Early Colonial Art
Early colonial art in Australia was generally scientific in nature, designed to explain a strange distant land to Europeans. Most artwork around this time is of Australia’s distinctive flora and fauna. So foreign were many of the paintings that they were often regarded with skepticism; many thought that botanical illustrator Sydney Parkinson’s drawing of a platypus was a hoax.
More whimsical paintings were by foreigners trying to find meaning in the strange landscape. They especially liked to play with light, since Australia's natural light was significantly different to European lighting.
John Lewin and John Glover were both artists during this time. John Lewin’s 1808 painting Platypus is one of the most celebrated pictures of the early colonial period. John Glover, meanwhile, was among the first to capture broad Australian landscapes.
1850 to 1885 – Later Colonial Art
The Victorian gold rush was the catalyst for change in Australia’s art scene. Artwork focusing on landscapes began to be commissioned by wealthy landowners and merchants. Art during the late colonial period was about exploring the landscape; it represented how colonialists viewed and related to their surroundings.
Louis Buvelot was a key figure in landscape painting during this time. So important was his work, he has been dubbed the ‘Father of Landscape Painting in Australia’. He painted domesticated and settled views of the land, which contrasted significantly with the strangeness and the danger depicted in earlier paintings.
Early art exhibitions were a commercial flop, but by the 1850s, regular exhibitions had become popular. In 1854, Australia’s first art museum opened in Melbourne, becoming the National Gallery of Victoria in 1861. This was significant not just for its growing collection of European and Australian art, but because an art school attached to the museum nurtured future Australian artists.
1885 to 1910 – Heidelberg School
The Heidelberg School represents perhaps the most significant art shift in Australia, when Australian art came into its own. It is named after the art camp formed just outside Melbourne in the late 1800s by artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, and Charles Conder.
The artists aimed for ‘truth to nature’, painting in the open air with quick brushstrokes. Their first exhibition, 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition was held in Melbourne in August 1889. Many of the works exhibited there were painted on cedar cigar box lids.
Their paintings are recognizable for their pastoral and outback scenes, with pioneering themes that idealised work and the conquest of land. It was a popular, if sentimental, depiction of Australia at the time, given that most Australians lived in the city.
Early 20th Century – Modern Art
Between the great World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century, Australian artwork began to depict the fear and insecurity that was inherent in society at that time. Artists began to adopt techniques from European expressionism, surrealism and social realism. As a result of federation, artists began to turn to Australian myths, legends, and lifestyles to depict the changing national identity.
Arthur Boyd, for example, used inspiration from the Bible to create Australian myths that expressed the horror of war. Photographer Max Dupain captured some of Australia’s most iconic early photographs of locals at leisure on Sydney’s beaches.
Sidney Nolan seized Australian legends to represent unusual depictions of the country’s history. His Ned Kelly series, influenced by surrealism, is one of the most celebrated and recognisable works of art in the country today.
Australia’s art scene continues to flourish. Artists carry on exploring abstract art and popular culture, and depicting the Australian landscape and its history in an attempt to delve into what it means to be Australian.
Photographers in particular have thrived amid the diverse landscapes and cityscapes this country has to offer. Ken Duncan, Jack Atley, and Steve Parish have all contributed a vast library of images to help expand Australia’s representation in the art world.
There is no doubt that Australian artists will have plenty more to offer to the art world in the future. On this vast continent with its multiethnic society today, artists are overwhelmed with subject material. Their creation of art not only helps to explore Australia’s identity, but to define it themselves.
Richard Tarrant - Bio
Richard is founder and CEO of PictureStore and has worked since October 2000 to make wall art accessible to all Australians. Google+