Australian Art

That Australia’s first national school of painters were ‘city bushmen’ is well documented. Tom Roberts began his career as a photographer in Collingwood, Frederick McCubbin in the family’s West Melbourne bakery and Arthur Streeton as an apprentice lithographer. Stories about their plein air painting excursions to Box Hill, Mentone, and Eaglemont are often told. The useful art historical label ‘The Heidelberg School’ first seems to have been used by a local journalist reviewing Streeton’s and Walter Withers’ work done chiefly in this attractive suburb where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting (The Australasian Critic,  l July 1891). Leigh Astbury, however, defines his use of the term Heidelberg School ‘in its current broader sense, that is, artists of a more ‘progressive tendency working in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1880s and 1890s’.

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Influence spotting is one of the major preoccupations of traditional art history. Important and necessary though the practice may be, I sometimes suspect that it is employed to keep art history the preserve of the specialist and to deny access to the general reader. How refreshing, then, to be confronted with a scholarly Australian art history book that explores the artists’ subject matter and its local context rather than the derivation of the artists’ styles.

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Macmillan’s Albert Tucker is a pioneering venture. It is not just another well-arranged, well-printed collection of paintings by a notable painter, it is an endeavour to present the whole conspectus of a painter’s work and mind.

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When invited by Morry Schwartz, Anna’s husband and proprietor of Schwartz Publishing, which owns Black Inc., to write an account of the Anna Schwartz Gallery (ASG), Doug Hall initially declined but changed his mind after realising that it would enable him to write with a fresh perspective, having returned to Melbourne after twenty years as director of Queensland Art Gallery. The result, Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and thirty-five years of contemporary Australian art – which takes its title from the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, curated by Robert Storr – is a periphrastic straddling of art history, social history, and biography, inclined to reminiscence over analysis.

Featuring eighty-nine chapters of varying length, the text mostly provides overviews of the artists represented by ASG, set within a chronicle of Anna Schwartz’s evolution as a gallerist. This broad narration is interspersed with chapters on a few key late-twentieth-century art dealers – sometimes to narrate artist defections to ASG – as well as state museum redesigns, biennales, and even a chapter on Anna’s wardrobe.

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This well-illustrated volume documents through its analysis of art exhibitions the massive rise of Australia’s art gallery attendances over a period of more than forty years. Before the late 1960s, only a few hundred thousand people visited Australian galleries each year ...

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