Curator Christopher Riopelle discusses the National Gallery’s new exhibition, which focuses on the dazzling, light-drenched works of John Russell, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder
This winter the National Gallery in London is providing sunshine indoors, albeit through the medium of glowing pigment rather than rays of light. Australia's Impressionists, the first British show on the subject, highlights a group of four pioneering 19th-century artists — John Russell (1858-1930), Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton(1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909) — who took inspiration from Europe's avant-garde, adopting Impressionism’s revolutionary practice to describe their own homeland’s singular landscapes. We caught up with curator Christopher Riopelle to discuss the show.
These names will be unfamiliar to many people. What makes them worthy of interest?
Christopher Riopelle: They are very talented and interesting in themselves, but for us it is exciting to see these artists — although they came from far away, they picked up very quickly what this new, looser, more improvisational kind of painting could do for them.
Why focus on these four painters?
CR: This was a small group, but they were very closely allied. For Roberts, who was the mentor, and Conder and Streeton, it was very much about friendship and a shared sense that they were doing something interesting and original. They painted together, lived together and went on camps together. They shared their progress on an almost daily basis.
Also, in exhibitions that introduce new schools, groups of artists or national movements, it's the kiss of death to introduce too many artists. People get lost if all of a sudden they have 75 names to learn.
There have been disputes in the past about calling these artists Impressionists. Why have you chosen this title for the exhibition?
CR: Impressionism is a free-floating concept; these works don’t look like Monet’s so if that’s your definition, then they aren’t Impressionists. But that’s beside the point. These artists observed what was going on in France, and also in England in the circles around Whistler.
Freeing themselves from the academies allowed them to describe their own landscape without that traditional structure, seeing it up close and direct. And it’s a word they themselves used. The first exhibition they organised in Melbourne in 1889 was called the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, the word having a meaning not necessarily the same as today — they were painting ‘impressions’ of outdoor scenes.
What links did these artists have with Impressionism in Europe?
CR: Conder and Roberts were born in England, with the latter spending time here and in France, while Russell spent almost his entire artistic career in Europe. He isn’t normally associated with this particular group, but through his correspondence [especially with Roberts] he provided a direct link with the French avant-garde, sending back word about what was going on.
How were they linked stylistically? The exhibition catalogue refers to them capturing the ‘glare’ of the Australian sky.
CR: The light of Australia is something very specific — it’s very direct, very immediate and doesn’t look like European light in any way. For Conder, Streeton and Roberts, what they were doing was for the first time finding a way of getting that down on canvas. There were wonderful earlier artists — Eugene Von Guérard and John Glover, for example — who painted the right kind of trees, but it still looked like Germany or Switzerland, rather than a unique landscape.
That developing national self-consciousness is very much tied in here. Federation would come to Australia in 1901, but in the 1880s Australians were already understanding that they weren’t just a group of separate colonies dotted around this enormous island, but shared certain characteristics and interests. Nationhood was inevitable, and very much to be desired.
Some works in this show have been painted on cigar boxes. What is their significance?
CR: These were first shown in the 9 by 5 exhibition, which was devised exactly on the model of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874, in that it was the artists themselves who banded together to show their own work. It was still unready hours before it was meant to open, but it is clear from the Australian press that even beforehand there was a sense that this was going to be important — that it represented a big change.
Australia's Impressionists is on show at the National Gallery, London, from 7 December 2016 to 26 March 2017