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Australian art

Australia, despite the rich artistic traditions of its Indigenous peoples, was dominated by British art and cultural perceptions for most of the first century after colonisation in the late 1700s. Its artists, trained in Europe, were preoccupied with depicting the unfamiliar land, and landscape emerged as the chief subject of colonial Australian art.

The first distinctively Australian school of painting flowered in the decades immediately before Federation in 1901. It was based on naturalism, painting in the open air and representing themes from the national life. Australian sunlight became the emblem of a burgeoning nationalism and the new art of the Heidelberg School. In 1889, the first self-consciously avant-garde event in the colonies took place. It was The 9 × 5 impression exhibition held in Buxton’s Rooms, Melbourne. It featured impressions of bush and city life rapidly painted on cigar box lids by the heroes of the new movement, Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909) and Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917).

With the turn of the new century came fresh challenges for Australian art. The identification of shearers, swagmen, drovers, settlers and gum trees with an Australian style now had to contend with the wider ambitions of expatriate artists. The sculptor Bertram Mackennal (1863–1931) and painter Rupert Bunny (1864–1947), for example, moved to Europe to find a more cosmopolitan environment and subject matter. The influence on Australian art of international movements and trends, such as modernism, was intensified after each of the two world wars and it reflected the increasing impact of industrialisation on the Australian way of life.

Women artists such as Margaret Preston (1875–1963) played an important role in the 1920s when modernism represented a cultural revolution. The male art establishment continued for the next two decades to promote the national landscape school. They opposed the colourful, distorted forms and apparently trivial subject matter of the (mostly female) modernists. The Second World War brought fresh changes and waves of immigrants who helped redefine what it meant to be Australian. Refugee artists also provided fresh contact with international trends such as surrealism, social realism and expressionism, which helped to reinvigorate and modernise the work of Sidney Nolan (1917–1992), Arthur Boyd (1920–1999) and Albert Tucker (1914–1999) who were re-mythologising the landscape.

Since the Second World War, Australian art has shown the impact of numerous international trends – abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, conceptual art and postmodernism. Artists such as John Olsen (b1928), Ian Fairweather (1891–1974) and Fred Williams (1927–1982) painted abstract landscapes that combined Asian and European influences, yet remained distinctively Australian in their light and sense of place. Until the 1970s the distinguishing hallmark of Australian contemporary art was the move from figurative to abstract, or non-objective, forms of painting and sculpture.

Since the 1970s, artists have sought new means, whether in technology, performance, computer or text, to express their ideas. Revolutionary art forms have also emerged out of wider socio-political movements around the environment, gender, homosexuality and race. Over the last few decades in particular, a phenomenal outpouring of contemporary Aboriginal art has given a powerful new force to the question of Australian identity in the visual arts.

Adapted from Aspects of Australian art: an education kit for the Australian collection