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Australian art


Australian art

Australian art is any art made in Australia or about Australia, from prehistoric times to the present. This includes Aboriginal, Colonial, Landscape, Atelier, early twentieth century painters, print makers, photographers, and sculptors influenced by European modernism, Contemporary art. The visual arts have a long history in Australia, with evidence of Aboriginal art dating back at least 30,000 years. Australia has produced many notable artists of both Western and Indigenous Australian schools, including the late-19th-century Heidelberg School plein air painters, the Central Australian Hermannsburg School watercolourists, the Western Desert Art Movement and coeval examples of well-known High modernism and Postmodern art.


  • Indigenous Australian art 1
  • Colonial art (1770–1900) 2
    • Early Colonial Art (1770–1850) 2.1
    • Later Colonial Art (1850–1885) 2.2
    • Heidelberg School (1885-1910) 2.3
  • List of artists 3
  • Notable collectors 4
  • Art museums and galleries in Australia 5
  • Institutions 6
  • Art market 7
  • Australian visual arts in other countries 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Indigenous Australian art

The first ancestors of Aboriginal Australians are believed to have arrived in Australia as early as 60,000 years ago, and evidence of Aboriginal art in Australia can be traced back at least 30,000 years.[1] Examples of ancient Aboriginal rock artworks can be found throughout the continent. Notable examples can be found in national parks, such as those of the UNESCO listed sites at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, and the Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Rock art can also be found within protected parks in urban areas such as Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney.[2][3][4] The Sydney rock engravings are approximately 5000 to 200 years old. Murujuga in Western Australia has the Friends of Australian Rock Art advocating its preservation, and the numerous engravings there were heritage listed in 2007.[5][6]

In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe,[7] and Aboriginal art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world.[8] There are three major regional styles: the geometric style found in Central Australia, Tasmania, the Kimberley and Victoria known for its concentric circles, arcs and dots; the simple figurative style found in Queensland; the complex figurative style found in Arnhem Land which includes X-Ray art.[9] These designs generally carry significance linked to the spirituality of the Dreamtime.[10]

William Barak (c.1824-1903) was one of the last traditionally educated of the Wurundjeri-willam, people who come from the district now incorporating the city of Melbourne. He remains notable for his artworks which recorded traditional Aboriginal ways for the education of Westerners (which remain on permanent exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria and at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery). Margaret Preston (1875–1963) was among the early non-indigenous painters to incorporate Aboriginal influences in her works. Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) is a famous Australian artist and an Arrernte man. His landscapes inspired the Hermannsburg School of art.[11] The works of Elizabeth Durack are notable for their fusion of Western and indigenous influences. Since the 1970s, indigenous artists have employed the use of acrylic paints - with styles such as the Western Desert Art Movement becoming globally renowned 20th-century art movements.

The National Gallery of Australia exhibits a great many indigenous art works, including those of the Torres Strait Islands who are known for their traditional sculpture and headgear.[12] The Art Gallery of New South Wales has an extensive collection of indigenous Australian art. [1] In May 2011, the Director of the Place, Evolution, and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU) at Griffith University, Paul Taçon, called for the creation of a national database for rock art.[13] Paul Taçon launched the "Protect Australia’s Spirit" campaign in May 2011 with the highly regarded Australian actor Jack Thompson.[14] This campaign aims to create the very first fully resourced national archive to bring together information about rock art sites, as well as planning for future rock art management and conservation. The National Rock Art Institute would bring together existing rock art expertise from Griffith University, Australian National University, and the University of Western Australia if they were funded by philanthropists, big business and government. Rock Art Research is published twice a year and also covers international scholarship of rock art.

Colonial art (1770–1900)

Early Western art in Australia, from 1788 onwards, is often narrated as the gradual shift from a European sense of light to an Australian one. The lighting in Australia is notably different from that of Europe, and early attempts at landscapes attempted to reflect this. It has also been one of transformation, where artistic ideas originating from beyond (primarily Europe) gained new meaning and purpose when transplanted into the new continent and the emerging society.[15]

Early Colonial Art (1770–1850)

Sydney Parkinson, Two of the Natives of New Holland Advancing, To Combat, 1770

The first artistic representations of the Australia scene by European artists were mainly natural history illustrations, depicting the distinctive flora and fauna of the land for scientific purposes, and the topography of the coast. Sydney Parkinson, the Botanical illustrator on James Cook's 1770 voyage that first charted the eastern coastline of Australia, made a large number of such drawings under the direction of naturalist Joseph Banks. Many of these drawings were met with skepticism when taken back to Europe, for example claims that the platypus was a hoax.

Despite Banks' suggestions, no professional natural-history artist sailed on the John Hunter, and convict artists, including Thomas Watling.[16] However, many of these drawings are by unknown artists, most notably the Port Jackson Painter. Most are in the style of naval draughtsmanship, and cover natural history topics, specifically birds, and a few depict the infant colony itself.

John Lewin, Platypus, 1808, State Library of New South Wales

Several professional natural-history illustrators accompanied expeditions in the early 19th century, including Harriet and Helena Scott were highly respected natural history illustrators[17] Lewin's Platypus (1808) represents the fine detail and scientific observation displayed by many of these early painters.

As well as inspiration in natural history, there were some ethnographic portraiture of Aboriginal Australians, particularly in the 1830s. Artists included Augustus Earle in New South Wales[16] and Benjamin Duterrau, Robert Dowling and the sculptor Benjamin Law, recording the last Tasmanian Aborigines.

John Glover, My Harvest Home, 1835

The most significant landscape artist of this era[15] was John Glover. Heavily influenced by 18th Century European landscape painters, such as Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, his works captured the distinctive Australian features of open country, fallen logs, and blue hills.[18]

Conrad Martens (1801–1878) worked from 1835 to 1878 as a professional artist, painting many landscapes and was commercially successful. His work, has been regarded as softening the landscape to fit European sensibilities.[16] His watercolour studies of Sydney Harbour are well regarded, and seen as introducing Romantic ideals to his paintings.[18] Martens is also remembered for accompanying scientist Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle (as had Augustus Earle).

Later Colonial Art (1850–1885)

From 1851, the Victorian Gold Rush resulted in a huge influx of settlers and new wealth. S. T. Gill (1818–1880) documented life on the Australian gold fields,[16] however the colonial art market primarily desired landscape paintings, which were commissioned by wealthy landowners or merchants wanting to record their material success.[19]

John Skinner Prout, Fairlight Glen on the Warragambra (sic), c.1843

William Piguenit's (1836–1914) "Flood in the Darling" was acquired by the National Gallery of New South Wales in 1895.[20]

Eugene von Guerard, North-east View from the Northern Top of Mount Kosciuszko, 1863, National Gallery of Australia

Some of the artists of note included Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier, William Strutt, John Skinner Prout and Knut Bull.

Louis Buvelot was a key figure in landscape painting in the later period. He was influenced by the Barbizon school painters, and so using a plein air technique, and a more domesticated and settled view of the land, in contrast to the emphasis on strangeness or danger prevalent in earlier painters. This approach, together with his extensive teaching influence, have led his to dubbed the "Father of Landscape Painting in Australia".[18]

A few attempts at art exhibitions were made in the 1840s, which attracted a number of artists but were commercial failures. By the 1850s, however, regular exhibitions became popular, with a variety of art types represented. The first of these exhibitions was in 1854 in Melbourne. An art museum, which eventually became the National Gallery of Victoria, was founded in 1861, and it began to collect Australian works as well as gathering a collection of European masters. Crucially, it also opened an Art School, important for the following generations of Australian-born and raised artists.

Heidelberg School (1885-1910)

Shearing the Rams (1890, National Gallery of Victoria) by Tom Roberts, leading figure of the Heidelberg School

The origins of a distinctly Australian painting tradition is often associated with the Heidelberg School of the 1880s-1890s. Named after a camp Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton had set up at a property near Heidelberg (then on the rural outskirts of Melbourne), these painters, together with Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder[21] and others, began an impressionistic plein air approach to the Australian landscape that remains embedded in Australia's popular consciousness, both in and outside the art world.

Arthur Streeton ‘The Purple Noon's Transparent Might’ (1896, National Gallery of Victoria)

Their most recognised paintings involve scenes of pastoral and outback Australia. Central themes of their art are considered those of work, conquering the land,[15] and an idealisation of the rural pioneer.[18] By 1890's most Australian's were city-dwellers, as were the artists themselves, and a romantic view of pioneer life gave great power and popularity to images such as Shearing the Rams.[18] In this work Roberts uses formal composition and strong realism to dignify the rural workers[18] whilst the relative anonymity of the men and their subdued expressions, elevate their manual labour as the real subject, rather that the specific individuals portrayed.[15]

In their portrayal of the nobility of rural life, the Heidelberg artists reveal their debt to Millet, Bastien-Lepage and Courbet, but the techniques and aims of the French Impressionists provide more direct inspiration and influenced their actual practise. In their early and extremely influential Exhibition of 9 by 5 Impressions of small sketches, their impressionistic programme was clear, as evidenced from their catalogue: "An effect is only momentary: so an impressionist tries to find his place... it has been the object of artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character."[18]

Other significant painters associated with the Heidelberg painters were Walter Withers (1854–1914), who won the inaugural Wynne Prize in 1896.,[21] and Jane Sutherland (1853–1928), a student of McCubbin.

List of artists

Notable collectors

Joseph Brown

Collector and art dealer Dr Joseph Brown developed what is "regarded as the country's finest private collection of 19th and early to mid-20th century Australian art"[22] over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. His collection included the work of artists including Wes Walters, Eugene von Guerard, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, E. M. Boyd, E. Phillips Fox, Roger Kemp, John Olsen, Margaret Preston, John Perceval, John Brack, Peter Booth, Grace Cossington Smith, Peter Purves Smith, Arthur Boyd, John Peter Russell, Brett Whiteley, and Fred Williams.

Having created a collection of over 300 works spanning over 200 years of Australian art, in 2004 Dr Brown donated 154 works to the National Gallery of Victoria, in what the gallery calls "the most generous single gift of works of art ever made to a public gallery in Australia."[23]

Patrick White

Novelist Patrick White was a prolific collector of Australian artists, often only fleetingly interested in an artist and other times interested over the long term. Collecting work by only a few high profile artists like Sidney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, John Brack and Charles Blackman, his habit of collecting lesser-known artists led to some prescient choices, as the most flattered artists of White's lifetime (1912-1990) are brought into question. White bought work by tonalist Clarice Beckett, abstract painters Roy De Maistre, Ralph Balson and John Peart, abstract influenced painters with environmental concerns Erica McGilchrist and John Olsen and arte povera sculptor John Davis, formalist sculptor Clement Meadmore, surrealist and junk sculptor Robert Klippel, pop artist and pontillist Richard Larter and spiritual modernist painters Ian Fairweather, Lawrence Daws and James Clifford, painter of dreamings Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Antipodean scene painters Chris O'Doherty and Max Watters.

Ann Lewis

Ann Lewis had a voracious appetite for stylish dot paintings by painters such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, Elizabeth Nyumi, Gloria Petyarre, painters Rover Thomas, Paddy Bedford, Sally Gabori, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Judy Watson Napangardi and bark painter John Mawurndjul. She also collected abstract painters Ralph Balson and Jan Riske, Robert Klippel, the conceptual artist Ian Burn, the environmentally themed painter John Olsen, sensualist abstract paintings by Janet Dawson and the textual assemblages of Rosalie Gascoigne, also works by sculptors Ricky Swallow and Bronwyn Oliver.

Roderick Meagher

Justice Roderick Meagher collected early Australian moderns like Margaret Preston, Russell Drysdale and Clarice Beckett, the mid century abstraction of Ian Fairweather, Clement Meadmore and John Coburn and contemporary artists like woodblock printer Cressida Campbell, portraitist Steve Cox and dot painters Eunice Napanangka and Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

David Walsh

David Walsh opened the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in 2011 with a collection of international contemporary art, sparking unprecedented public interest in post-1950s art.

Art museums and galleries in Australia

Picture of Albert Namatjira at the Albert Namatjira Gallery, Alice Springs Cultural Precinct, in 2007.


Australia has major art museums and galleries subsidized by the national and state governments, as well as private art museums and small university and municipal galleries. The National Gallery of Australia, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales have major strengths in collecting the art of the Asia Pacific Region. Others include the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which has the best Australian collection of Western art. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the privately owned Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania and White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney are widely regarded as autonomously discerning collections of international contemporary art.

Other institutions include the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, Newcastle Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. A significant amount of colonial artwork is held by the National and State libraries.

Art market

The culture of the Australian art market is a primary market where a few artists at various career stages become "hot", meaning their work is in in high demand. Usually this lasts no more than a few years, as art becomes stale, and in rare cases contemporary artists find market longevity if there is lasting interest in their work in the secondary market. The Australian art market has evolved from the 1960s tiny world of speculative investment to today's much wider luxury goods market where investment appeal is not important. The boom and bust cycle in contemporary art is evident in the 1980s colonial art boom ending at the time of the 1987 stock market crash and the exit of many artists and dealers, followed by the 2000s boom in Aboriginal dot painting and Australian late modernist painting, which ended at the time of the global financial crisis and growing collector and public interest in the international contemporary art circuit. The art market can include buyers of art in primary and secondary markets as well as products and services such as education, arty brands and industry information marketed to creative individuals. Public perceptions of art marketing range from the shonky to the sophisticated, much of this has to do with the credibility of advertising and fashion. Some within the Australian tourism industry hope to attract wealthy tourists to Australia using the quality end of the art market.

The introduction of a 5% resale royalty may have affected buyers in various ways. Some object to paying any resale royalty while others do not mind a royalty going directly to the artists, however they worry about further red tape and bureaucratic interference.

Information can be found through:

  • Social Media
  • Websites
  • Print media
  • Broadcast media
  • Trade fairs

In the secondary market during 2012 and 2013 there were consistently very high clearance rates in the affordable and middle market auction houses. Buyers have stuck with mediocre traditionalist art and retro modernist artists born in the 1920s to 1930s, displaying general timidity about artistic competitors from the recent past.

Australian visual arts in other countries

The museum for Australian Aboriginal art "La grange"[24] (Neuchâtel, Switzerland) is one of the few museums in Europe that dedicates itself entirely to Aboriginal art.

See also


  1. ^ "Indigenous art". Australian Culture and Recreation Portal. Australia Government. Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  2. ^ Kakadu National Park - Home
  3. ^ Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Archived 17 January 2010 at WebCite
  4. ^ Ku Ring Gai Chase National Park, Sydney, Australia. Information and Map
  5. ^ * ABC Online 10.02.09 Pilbara Rock Art not Affected by Mining Emissions: Study
  6. ^ Phillips, Yasmine: World protection urged for Burrup art. 13.01.09 [2]
  7. ^ The spread of people to Australia - Australian Museum
  8. ^ "The Indigenous Collection". The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. National Gallery of Victoria. Archived from the original on 2010-12-05. Retrieved 6 December 2010. 
  9. ^ [3] Arnhem Land Rock Art on Archaeology TV
  10. ^ Australian Indigenous art -
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ [4] Protect Australia's Spirit Interview with Prof. Paul Tacon and Jack Thompson
  15. ^ a b c d Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism. Christopher Allen (1997). Thames and Hudson, World of Art series.
  16. ^ a b c d e f James Gleeson, Australian Painting. Edited by John Henshaw. 1971.
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Australian Painting: 1788-2000. Bernard Smith with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote (2001). Oxford University Press.
  19. ^
  20. ^ McCulloch, Alan McCulloch, Susan McCulloch & Emily McCulloch Childs: McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art Melbourne University Press, 2006
  21. ^ a b Alan McCulloch, Golden Age of Australian Painting: Impressionism and the Heidelberg School
  22. ^ The Australian - Joseph Brown: Mentor and collector who made a difference
  23. ^ The Joseph Brown Collection, National Gallery of Victoria
  24. ^

External links

  • National Association for the Visual Arts
  • Australian Commercial Galleries Association
  • Craft Australia's website
  • Australian Video Art Archive
  • Design and Art Australia Online
  • Art Collector Magazine's Indigenous Art Centres Guide
  • The Australian Arts Community - A free community website for the arts in Australia
  • Art Prizes Australia, a free listing of Australian Art Prizes
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