Streeton – an optimistic celebration of Australia’s golden boy of art

This assessment is not new. Lionel Lindsay called him “our national artist” in the Art of Arthur Streeton of 1921.

Lindsay wrote that Streeton’s Transparent Might of the Purple Noon, which was first shown in London in 1923, was inspired by Streeton.

Streeton’s portrayal of Australia is so beautiful and true that it will always be equal to the Constable in England.

Arthur Streeton’s The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might is an 1896 oil painting on canvas, 123×123 cm, National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, bought in 1896. Photo: National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne

Streeton claimed that six years later, James S. MacDonald was the director of AGNSW.

He has shown us our country as no other artist has and remains our best example of the art and mystery of landscape painting.

Nora Streeton and Arthur Streeton in Venice, 1908. Private collection

As a way to lift spirits during the Great Depression in 1931, the cash-strapped Gallery gave Streeton his first survey exhibition ever of work by an Australian living artist.

Streeton painted a series of paintings that typified Australia in the decades between World War I and II. The blue-tinged bush, the golden fields, and the clear skies all spoke of a land that had never experienced war. His work could be seen as a symbol of Australian insularity and smugness.

Some are landscapes, but others show soldiers attempting to tame a land by removing trees. Other images show cattle grazing on newly cleared land. In The Land of the Golden Fleece (1926), a flock of sheep confidently roams a valley protected by the Grampians.

Arthur Streeton Land of the Golden Fleece, 1926. Oil on canvas, 92.3 cm x 146cm. Private collection, Sydney. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

This painting is a perfect example of how conservatives feel. A label on the frame reveals that it was once the pride of an Australian gentleman’s club.

Conservatism and conservatism

Streeton’s artwork is a reminder of the conservatism that once existed. He was a strong advocate of the need to protect the Australian bush from the timber industry.

Silvan Dam (1939) is a celebration of the landscape of trees near his Dandenongs home. Silvan Dam, Donna Buang, AD2000, painted in the year following, turns the same subject into an apocalyptic view condemning the state government’s proposed logging. Tree trunks are stark, bleached, and contrasted with bare rock, a depleted mountain range, and bare rocks.

Arthur Streeton Cremorne pastoral 1895, oil and canvas, 91.5 cm x 137.2cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, bought 1895. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Streeton’s support for nature over industrialism was not a new idea. Streeton, who lived in Sydney at the time, painted Cremorne Pastoral as a response to a coal mine proposal. It was an elegant landscape with a grassy slope framed by graceful trees and Sydney Harbour.

This is just one of the many harbor scenes he painted during his Sydney years. The AGNSW is located directly opposite Sirius Cove, where Streeton lived during the 1890s. This is why the AGNSW has a bias for this subject. Brasch Brothers, who were patrons of art and built the camp where Streeton Roberts lived in the 1890s depression, are responsible for the bias towards this subject.

Arthur Streeton, From my Camp (Sirius Cove), 1896, oil and plywood, 28 cm x 21 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, bequest of Ms Elizabeth Finley, 1979. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Reuben Brasch provided the artists with cedar panels that were no longer needed by his department store. The dark colors and the elongated shapes of these panels encouraged Streeton’s composition to be more experimental.

The colors in his harbor paintings are almost dazzling with their intense blues and golds of Sydney sandstone. There are also flashes in gum tree green.

Another room displays his second Sydney phase, following his return to Australia after spending several years in England. These pieces are technically excellent, but they lack the experimental flare of his earlier works.

The paintings of Coogee Beach by Tom Roberts or Charles Conder are worth a closer look to remind us of the devastation of Sydney’s beautiful beaches.

Contextual ambiguity

The lack of context is my biggest problem with this exhibit and with any celebration of the life of an individual artist. Streeton’s talent was initially praised because he was born in Australia and had no formal training.

This is not true. The young artist was able to meet the highly educated Tom Roberts and the adventurous Charles Conder while attending evening classes at the National Gallery School of Melbourne.

Streeton’s work developed as a result of his association with these artists. He painted alongside these artists at Box Hill, Eaglemont, and other locations. The exhibition features his Settler’s Camp, a less-than-successful homage to Tom Roberts’ The Artists’ Camp. Streeton, however, was a quick learner and was able to compete with the 9 By 5 Impressions Exhibition.

Arthur Streeton Settler’s Camp 1888, oil on canvas. 86.5 x112.5 cm. Private collection, Jugiong (NSW). Brenton McGeachie, AGNSW

Streeton’s wall of paintings is one of the most exciting things about that exhibition. Conder’s influences can be seen in Streeton’s early paintings, particularly in his Symbolist work and The Railway Station, Redfern, a painting that successfully quotes Circular Quay, 1888.

Arthur Streeton The Railway Station in Redfern, 1893, oil on canvas. 40.8 x 61.6 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, a gift of Lady Denison, 1942. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

‘Smike’

Streeton was given the nickname “Smike” by Roberts, the dogmatic leader of this group of brothers. Streeton was nicknamed “Smike” in honor of Nicholas Nickleby, an amiable and feeble-minded acolyte.

The later career of Arthur Streeton is a rebuttal to that assessment. His perspective was broadened by travel. Egypt’s exoticism, with its magical architecture in place of gum trees, was a favorite. He was initially intimidated by England’s sophistication, class structure, and dim light. However, he eventually achieved modest success at the heart of the empire.

He returned to Australia at the end of World War I in search of fame and fortune. He was the only artist who painted in Heidelberg to receive a knighthood in 1937.

The last Arthur Streeton exhibit, curated by Geoffrey Smith in 1995 for the National Gallery of Victoria, was shown at other state galleries. This larger exhibition won’t be traveling.

The exhibition will be on display until February 14, 2021. The trip across state lines is worth it for those who have just been released from quarantine.

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