BOOK REVIEW: Art of Australia

John McDonald will be known to NSW based ArtsHub readers as art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. Prior to this McDonald was editor of Australian Art Review and served as chief curator of Australian Art and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra for a period.
BOOK REVIEW: Art of Australia
John McDonald will be known to NSW based ArtsHub readers as art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. Prior to this McDonald was editor of Australian Art Review and served as chief curator of Australian Art and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra for a period. While he is not known for academic research, he comes well credentialed to the present work, a large scale survey of Australian art, mostly painting, from the first exploration of the continent to the present. This is the first of a planned two volume set. Volume 1 spans the period from first European encounter with Australia to the Federation in 1901. And it’s a handsome first volume - beautifully presented with hundreds of iconic and lesser known works, all reproduced to a very high technical standard, usually in large format, and in full colour. McDonald notes in his introduction that the project had its inception over 10 years ago, emerging, after a long intervening period of inactivity, guided along by the able editors at McMillan. The publishing house should be congratulated for bring the project to its conclusion without compromising quality because this work is a visual pleasure and has a very affordable price. Here, McDonald has succeeded to create a new and engaging narrative of Australian art and it can fairly claim to be the first substantial survey of the field in the decades since Bernard Smith’s landmark works Australian Painting 1788-1970 (1962 and subsequently reissued with updated chapters) and Place Taste and Tradition – a study of Australian art since 1788 (1945) and Robert Hughes’ youthful, dated, and much less useful, The Art of Australia(1966). McDonald writes in his Preface that he wanted, like Bernard Smith and Robert Hughes, to tackle intangibly difficult problems around of the nature of Australian art and vision “to disprove the myth of the Heidelberg School as the first painters to actually “see” the Australian landscape…” but this should no put the casual reader off the book. This is not a complex work. Instead, the resulting work, which extends of over 656 pages, has a simple, accessible structure- a linear time-narrative of noted and notable artists, mostly painters. The writing is direct, neither academic nor esoteric, and is interspersed with some historical context and anecdote (like the naive painter James Shaw who often glued daguerreotype faces to his paintings “when his skills or patience proved inadequate”). Following earlier antecedent, the time narrative is divided into temporally arranged themed chapters (10 and an epilogue). There is a good, wide bibliography, mostly to books not research papers or essays, and a useful index. McDonald freely acknowledges his debts to other (art) historians, particularly Smith, Ann Galbally and to Manning Clark and the resonances are clear. Where McDonald extends past form is the inclusion of numerous engravings from the illustrated newspapers of the time and early photography, reproducing several daguerreotypes of George Goodman and Douglas Kilburn and George Bayliss. And in taking this approach McDonald comes closer to achieving his other stated aims of “seeking to construct a cultural framework by which to better understand the place of the visual arts….” and “to alert and wider audience to the significance of Australian art” There are some shortcomings. All the quotes are referenced but there are no scholarly footnotes to the primary literature which diminishes the academic utility of the undertaking. The prose is straightforward, very clear and easy to read throughout but there are occasional passages that jar (‘Worshiper at the Temple of Art’ feels a little dated) or where the author’s meaning is unclear ( a painter’s “pantheistic” ambitions ). The opening section on Indigenous art is cursory and, with the exception of good coverage of Bertram Mackennal, there is little on sculpture. These quibbles aside the scholars in our readership will still want their own copy as a visual resource to read alongside Smith and the less academically inclined amongst us will find this an enduringly useful and beautiful survey of Australian painting. John McDonald Art of Australia Vol 1. Exploration to Federation Published by McMillan List price $125 (Hardback) 656 pages

Gary Anderson

Tuesday 24 February, 2009

About the author

Gary Anderson is a leading medical researcher based at the University of Melbourne and is currently completing a Masters in Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts.