Painting Australian colonial life


McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907-17McArt Gallery of Western AustraliaUntil March 29

British artists in early colonial Australia are notorious for painting what was in front of their eyes as a variation on English scenes.

It was the Heidelberg School of Australian impressionists that first captured the harshness and beauty of the fierce Australian sunlight and raised Australian realities as legitimate subjects.

The Heidelberg School was part of the broad movement of nationalism that accompanied the development of Australia from a colony to an independent British dominion. Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson were members of its literary counterpart.

Frederick McCubbin, born in Melbourne in 1855, was a leading member of the school. He painted some of Australia's best-loved paintings evoking battling pioneers, such as "Ðown on his Luck", effectively a forerunner of socialist realism.

McCubbin delighted in painting images of Australian development from agriculture towards industrialised, urban modernity.

His work changed radically in 1907, after he travelled to Europe and viewed the works of Turner, Constable and Monet. His subjects became more modern, covering landscapes, seascapes, views of docks and industry, city life, portraits and interiors.

He painted with brighter colours and his techniques became more experimental and adventurous — especially using a palette knife. It is these later paintings that make up the Gallery of Western Australia's exhibition.

His techniques became more adventurous, but these works show that any trace of radicalism was washed out of his palette.

Works include a garish, neo-Romanesque painting celebrating the entry of the British royals to Melbourne for the opening of the Australian Parliament at Federation.

There are also some interesting pieces painted on gum leafs that were produced to financially support the Australian World War I effort.

These pieces are alive with a sense of delight in, and above all a comfort within, the Australian landscape.