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Daniel Thomas

The tempting cover leads to a feast of 164 colour pictures, which you will fall upon with delight. Despite the title, almost all are of Melbourne and Sydney, places most Australians know well enough to enjoy pleased shocks of recognition. There are two highly specific Perth roofscapes, but a futurist speeding tram in Adelaide could be anywhere, and so could the industry at Yallourn, or sexual and racial tension at Townsville in 1942. Even if you come from the bush, you will know the city markets, cathedrals, law courts, showgrounds, Circular Quay and Harbour Bridge, Flinders Street Station and Collins Street trams, Town Hall concerts, Tivoli showgirls, Manly, St Kilda, racy Kings Cross lats, a frisson of ‘slums’. The author says he chose the works of art solely for their subject matter, yet he certainly appreciates aesthetic force. It’s a lively anthology of transport and other social nodes, parklands, beaches, building construction, shopping, entertainment. It makes the familiar look unexpectedly interesting.

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The art collections are the main thing in an art museum, not the special exhibitions or other programs necessary for present-day credibility and fundraising. Special exhibitions can be easy fast-food showbiz, or else they can be too authoritarian, over-theorised, and bullying. Collections, the bigger the better, are where you can drop in, any day of the year, for a bit of reinvention. It’s good to choose your own pace when you want to get out of yourself .

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Australian Painting 1788–2000 by Bernard Smith, with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote

April 2002, no. 240

Bernard Smith gave us Australian art. Before him, the subject was not part of our cultural discourse. We knew and could place the work of Michelangelo and Monet but not that of Eugene von Guérard, Tom Roberts or Grace Cossington Smith.

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This is now the best book on one of Australia’s best – and best-loved – artists: Arthur Streeton, who worked in Melbourne, Sydney, Cairo, Canada, and London, and exhibited from 1884 to 1943. The National Gallery owns forty-six oil paintings, from 1884 to 1934, some being his best and most characteristic, others interesting oddities or minor pot-boilers. Of course, many of his most famous works are not here, but we see him whole.

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