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Curator insights - Australian galleries

Curator insights - Australian galleries

Explore works from our Australian collection. Click on the linked artwork to find out if it is currently on display in the Gallery.

Image: Sidney Nolan First-class marksman 1946 (detail). Art Gallery of New South Wales © The Trustees of the Sidney Nolan Trust/ Bridgeman Art Library

19 Tracks
01 Fire's on
Arthur Streeton's visions of the landscape have defined an image of Australia. 'Fire's on' in particular is considered his greatest evocation of the country's heat and sunlight. Painted a year after the artist left Melbourne for Sydney, it constitutes a radical new type of landscape in his oeuvre. Its vertical composition and the high horizon line bring focus to the steep terrain with precarious rocks and dead tree-trunks. The painting captures a critical moment during the construction of a railway line across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney: the death of a railway worker in an explosion. 'Fire's on' was the warning call before the blast, as the gang dynamited the Lapstone Tunnel through the hillside. The human drama of the painting, however, is overshadowed by the heroism of the landscape itself.
02 The Golden Fleece
Tom Roberts painted 'The Golden Fleece' while staying at Newstead Station in the New England tablelands of northern NSW. It is part of a series in which Roberts payed homage to rural life and pastoral industry, and captured vanishing traditions such as the use of manual shears. Originally called 'Shearing at Newstead', this painting was renamed to reference the Greek myth in which the Argonauts voyage to the end of the world in search of the Golden Fleece. The title reflects Roberts' creation of the rural worker as 'hero', and his evocation of Australia as an Arcadian land of pastoral plenty. The work's frame is attributed to John Thallon, the famous 19th-century Melbourne carver and gilder, and was restored in 2010.
03 On the wallaby track
With an evident empathy for rural labouring life, and a nationalist message, this much-admired painting by a principal member of the Heidelberg group was painted close to the artist's Melbourne home, using his family as models. Key influences for Frederick McCubbin at this time included the academic naturalism of Bastien-Lepage and the new focus on everyday subjects by leading French Barbizon school artists Corot and Millet. The title of the painting - 'On the wallaby track' - was a term used for itinerant workers roaming the bush on the fringes of properties looking for work.
04 Spring frost
Awarded the Wynne Prize in 1919 and painted the same year as Roland Wakelin's and Roy de Maistre's experiments in colour harmony, 'Spring frost' is one of Elioth Gruner's most critically acclaimed achievements. With its impeccable sense of light and tone, and its vigorous foreground brushwork, 'Spring frost' is a tour de force, and perhaps the most loved Australian landscape painting in the Gallery. Elioth Gruner painted 'Spring frost' according to 19th-century plein-air conventions, but the work also demonstrates a contemporary succinctness of form. To complete the painting - one of his largest compositions - en plein air, Gruner built a structure to protect the canvas from the weather, and wrapped his legs with chaff bags to avoid frostbite. Although painted largely outdoors at Emu Plains, its large size and somewhat theatrical quality make it likely that Gruner completed parts of it later, in his city studio. This work was acquired by the Gallery in 1939.
05 The dancer
Bertram Mackennal was one of the most successful Australian artists working internationally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His profile and performance in Britain, where he lived as an expatriate, substantially outshone that of his Australian peers such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. ‘The dancer’, acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW in 1910, was the first work by Mackennal to be purchased by an Australian public gallery (the National Gallery of Victoria bought his ‘Circe’ later the same year). Mackennal was born in 1863 at Fitzroy, Melbourne. His first training was with his father, John Simpson Mackennal, a locally prominent architectural modeller and sculptor. This was followed by formal instruction at the National Gallery School of Design under OR Campbell from 1878. Mackennal left Australia for London in 1882, and was admitted to the Royal Academy schools as a sculpture student in late 1883. After a short period, Mackennal moved to Paris, dissatisfied with his sculptural training in London. He took a studio and worked independently, while also meeting various sculptors, including Auguste Rodin, and learning from their methods. In Paris, Mackennal married Agnes Spooner, and they returned to England for the birth of their child in 1885. Influenced in the 1880s by the avant-garde aspirations of British ‘New Sculptors’, Mackennal had become a prominent civic sculptor and a master of Edwardian style by the early 1900s. He acutely understood sculpture as an art of patronage, and demonstrated his ability to work quickly and completely within the dictates of convention by undertaking various commissions for public monuments. Mackennal was the first Australian artist to have his work purchased for the Tate gallery. He was also the first Australian artist to be knighted and to become a full member of London’s Royal Academy. ‘The dancer’ is a life-size bronze nude, characteristic of Mackennal’s sculpture in its expressive modelling and direct sense of life. It reveals his skill in dealing with complex movement. The work presents a figure arrested in action: the dancer arches and turns her body with twin spiral movements from legs to spine and shoulders. Her pose is relaxed as she steps forward, flourishing Spanish castanets, her outstretched foot lightly touching the ground. Through the carefully balanced pose, the work expresses a sense of graceful movement and a relaxed sensuality. The influence of Symbolism and Art Nouveau can be seen in the simple planes of the work.
06 Summer time
07 Drought sheep
During his lifetime Hans Heysen was one of the most accomplished and publicly acclaimed painters of the Australian landscape. He was equally a master of oil paint and watercolour, as well as a formidable draughtsman in pencil and charcoal. The landscape around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills and especially its old gums were his preferred subject matter. He was also attracted to the rugged isolation of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. ‘Drought sheep’ underwent gradual development, indicated by the date Heysen put on the work (1916-21) and a preliminary drawing ‘Travelling sheep’ c1916, now also in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. The preliminary drawing is half the size of ‘Drought sheep’ and has an additional sheep in the bottom left foreground. Heysen removed it in the watercolour, strengthening the overall compositional movement to the right. In both drawing and watercolour, muscle, bone and sinew are suggested in the movements of each sheep. This evocative watercolour was produced around the time of the First World War when Heysen’s loyalty to Australia, like many others of German birth or background, was unfairly questioned. As well as capturing the conditions that accompany severe drought, it may reveal something of the artist, suggesting his anxiety at the time. A flock of parched sheep moves across a hot and dusty track under an overarching sky with clouds in magnificent ferment but without the promise of rain. Featureless and treeless, it is an unusual work for an artist whose paintings of grand eucalypt forests came to epitomise heroic Australian landscape painting in the interwar decades. Heysen won the Wynne Prize for landscape an unprecedented nine times between 1904 and 1932, boosting his early reputation and the popularity of his work. He was knighted in 1959.
08 The hills behind Hermannsburg
09 Australian beach pattern
Charles Meere was one of a group of Sydney artists whose work modernised classical artistic traditions as a means of depicting national life during the inter-war period. The epitome of his vision is Australian beach pattern, a tableau of beach goers whose athletic perfection takes on monumental, heroic proportions. Meere created a crowded and complex composition through the pattern of figures, which appears as a still-life of suspended strength. This iconic painting encapsulates the myth of the healthy young nation symbolised by the tanned, god-like bodies of the sunbathers. This work was a finalist in the 1940 Sulman Prize and was acquired by the Gallery in 1965.
10 Five bells
Five bells was my first commission to paint in situ to cover a wall … I didn’t hesitate. I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life. Inside and around this core, I painted images drawn from metaphors and similes in [Kenneth] Slessor’s poem of our harbour city, and from my own emotional and physical involvement with the harbour, and with my young family in Watsons Bay … I wanted to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea ... The painting says directly what I wanted to say: ‘I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me’. John Olsen, 1999
11 First-class marksman
'First-class marksman' shows the isolated figure of Ned Kelly in the solid black armour that is Nolan's most inventive pictorial device, its flat abstracted shape incongruously placed against a landscape of lyrical delicacy. The title refers to an incident which took place in Victoria's Wombat Ranges, when Kelly and his gang were practising their marksmanship, firing hundreds of rounds at surrounding trees from a bullet-proof hide-out. Nolan made many paintings of the outlaw Kelly between 1946 and 1947 at Heide, home of patrons John and Sunday Reed. This was the only panel in the series not painted on the Heide dining table, but at the house of Russian expatriate artist Danila Vassilieff at Warrandyte, where Nolan was caretaker for two months. Its informal swift and transparent rendering is a precursor to subsequent series based on outback Queensland, such as 'Pretty Polly mine' 1948.
12 The expulsion
13 Last Supper
14 White lines (vertical) on ultramarine
If we consider the several components manifested in a work of art ... foremost is man himself, the artist ... but equally important is the use of his intuitive faculties - the influence of the unconscious. Tony Tuckson 1964 It is for his later paintings such as 'White lines (vertical) on ultramarine' that Tony Tuckson is admired as one of Australia's finest abstract expressionists. From the late 1950s, he used increasingly simplified forms and restricted colour to concentrate on the act of painting. While absorbing developments in European and American abstraction and admiring the work of fellow Australian artist Ian Fairweather, Tuckson's approach is perhaps most strongly allied to his lifelong interest in Aboriginal and Melanesian art.
15 No 329
With a career spanning six decades, Robert Klippel was one of Australia’s leading sculptors. His work investigates the relationship between the organic and the mechanical; a duality that he saw as central to life and culture in the 20th century. ‘No 329’ stems from this concept. It was described by artist James Gleeson as a brilliant and seemingly effortless sculpture, and is Klippel’s masterwork from the 1970s. In 1944, aged 24, Klippel began evening classes in sculpture at East Sydney Technical College while working at the Navy Gunnery making scale models for recognition training. Following his military discharge, he increased to full-time classes under the tuition of Lyndon Dadswell. In 1947 he left Australia for London to further his studies, living and working at The Abbey, where he met Gleeson and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art. He moved to Paris in 1948, where he held his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Nina Dausset in 1949. Here he encountered surrealist ideas, which had a liberating effect on his work, leading him to experiment with automatism and techniques of spontaneity. In 1950, Klippel’s finances forced his return to Sydney to paid work, reducing his sculptural output. During this time, however, he acquired new skills, taking night courses in arc-welding, silver soldering and panel-beating. Metals allowed him to sear into space in ways that earth-bound wooden structures could not sustain. In 1957 he moved to New York where he explored the unlimited ‘vocabulary of shapes’ available in junk metals. Using detritus - the chance fragments of modern disposable society - he created complex configurations with new life and meaning. By the late 1960s he had begun to shift his emphasis from using primarily machine parts to steel sections. ‘No 329’ is one of Klippel's most imaginatively gripping as well as formally successful works. It highlights his individualistic commitment to a ‘humanised’ concept of sculpture, which emphasises the trace of the artist’s hand and labour. Klippel aimed to synthesise sculpture and landscape, and bring nature and technology together. Created from found objects and extruded steel sections, ‘No 329’ presents a hybrid landscape-city, reminding viewers of man-made structures in urban, industrial environments as well as plant forms.
16 Counting: one, two, three
This painting is from 'The book of power' series of multi-canvas appropriation works which Imants Tillers began in 1981 and still continues. Tillers cites the work of other artists to question authorial originality, how images circulate and to investigate ideas about location and place. The numerals 1, 2, 3 are taken from 'Koru, 1, 2, 3' 1965 by New Zealand modernist painter Colin McCahon. Tillers has overlaid the McCahon work onto a landscape of Lake Wakitipu in New Zealand by colonial artist Eugene von Guérard. He has added a third appropriation, the signature of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico's reuse of his own early 20th-century imagery, in works he painted much later, is an example of the cultural recycling that fascinates Tillers.
17 Implement blue
She feels that this is a mechanical age - a scientific one - highly civilised and unaesthetic. She knows that the time has come to express her surroundings in her work. All around her in the simple domestic life is machinery - patent ice-chests that need no ice, machinery does it; irons heated by invisible heat; washing up machines; electric sweepers, and so on. They all surround her and influence her mind … Margaret Preston, 1927 'Implement blue' is one of Margaret Preston's most innovative works, embodying the values of progressive, modern living. Its restricted palette and strict analysis of form exemplify Preston's quest to isolate and resolve pictorial problems within the still-life genre. The domestic vessels have been renamed 'implements' and reduced to essential forms.
18 Bugatti Type 35
James Angus’s sculptures usually find their subject in things that already exist in the world. His works can be divided into two main spheres, natural creatures and man-made, often architectural structures or manufactured forms. Living things are realised in versions that emphasise their sculptural nature, and inanimate objects are shifted through a series of propositions about physics, gravity and geometry. In ‘Manta Ray’ 2002, the horizontal mass and undulating curves of the creature are eerily still and perfectly hydrodynamic. In ‘Seagram Building’ 2000, a slightly arching version of the modernist icon lies displaced on the floor. Its curving profile is a subtle distortion that is mathematically correct, but physically improbable and visually disorienting. For ‘Bugatti Type 35’ Angus has taken one of the most iconic racing cars of the 20th century, replicated it, but also distorted it through a gravitational shift 30 degrees to the right. While Angus’s art is not minimal, it shares minimalism’s interest in primary structures and physical presence, and suggests that their source may be found in much earlier developments in modernist architecture and design such as the use of serial repeated forms, manufactured units, structuring grids and highly finished surfaces. The physical and perceptual disorientation of the sculptures, achieved through a mathematically correct displacement of rational geometry, bends our experience of these familiar iconic objects. This immaculate car from the 1920s designed for speed, an ultimate symbol of the modern age and mechanical progress, can no longer support itself upright and tips over, strangely drawn out, its circular wheels becoming ellipses. It seems the real manifestation of the famous early 20th century image by French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue of a car speeding past, the limitations of photography’s technology seemingly making its wheels stretch. Bugatti’s car was exceptional because of the visionary solutions he devised for engineering problems. In part the originality of Bugatti’s vision can be attributed to his art school training and artistic talent before he entered into car design. Angus retrieves this immaculately engineered machine and returns it to being art, through both replication and intervention. Angus proposes alternate perceptual models that are inherent in geometry’s rigorous spatial logic and mathematical precision, suggesting other ways, at least in sculptural form, in which we may view the world.
19 brumby mound #6