The purpose of a retrospective exhibition is to reconsider, to come to fresh insights. Streeton, now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is the largest exhibition of the painter’s works since his 1931 lifetime retrospective, which was also at AGNSW (the current offering is only twenty works shy of that show’s massive total of 170). It’s a feast, one that enables us to reassess the great man’s art. And like all good retrospectives, it questions older certainties.
Arthur Streeton (1867–1943) was, until the emergence of the great Aboriginal Desert painters after the 1970s, undoubtedly Australia’s most influential landscape painter. For more than a century, he was so celebrated for sweeping golden pastoral views that his high panoramic viewpoints have long been canonical, and emblematic, as the late Ian Burn argued, of Australia’s dominant view of itself as a prosperous settler success. It is the complication of that venerable but troubling certainty that makes this exhibition important.