With more than 150 works drawn from 42 collections, ‘Streeton’ ventures further than any previous Arthur Streeton retrospective. Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with curator Wayne Tunnicliffe.
‘Streeton’ is a landmark retrospective. It traces Australian impressionist Arthur Streeton’s ‘development as an artist from c.1885 to 1940 and includes seldom or never seen paintings, watercolours and drawings’, its curator and the gallery’s head of Australian art, Wayne Tunnicliffe, tells me. ‘Streeton’ is being promoted as the most significant retrospective of the artist ever held. ‘A bold claim’, Tunnicliffe accepts, but one that he believes is ‘backed up’ when the show is compared with previous retrospectives.
The 1995/96 National Gallery of Victoria retrospective, for example, ‘had only 82 works and was therefore much more of an overview rather than delving deeply into each area of Streeton’s practice’, Tunnicliffe explains; while with regard to the 1931 Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) exhibition, which was larger than the present one (with 171 works), Tunnicliffe observes that the works chosen were ‘drawn from fewer collections and included large clusters of works from a small number of private collections.’
With more than 150 works drawn from 42 collections, ‘Streeton’ offers a more expansive view than any previous retrospective of the artist, taking audiences beyond what is available within collection displays in public galleries around Australia – which focus on the artist’s Australian impressionist works from the 1880s and 1890s. A book accompanies the exhibition, with essays from key scholars, new research and numerous supplementary images. At 388 pages, it is twice the size of the 1995 Streeton retrospective book. ‘Not that size matters,’ Tunnicliffe says, ‘but we have quality as well.’
Expansive, but balanced, too; ‘Streeton’ is true to the artist’s entire oeuvre. It was drawn together over the course of close to two years – with care and a depth of knowledge. ‘In curating an exhibition like this, I always begin by looking at as many works as possible in parallel with in-depth research,’ Tunnicliffe says. ‘I look for what are the key works/developments in his art in his lifetime and what speaks to us now.’ An aspect of art archaeology is required of a curator for a retrospective of this size and ambition. And for visitors, immersion comes with an invitation: to rediscover love for an iconic Australian painter, in situ with other facets of his practice.
‘I intentionally wanted to convey Streeton’s cosmopolitan ambitions and that he is not just an icon of Australian impressionism,’ Tunnicliffe says. ‘His international works and what he learnt painting over many years in the UK feed back into his art when he returns to Australia in the 1920s. From 1906 onwards he often exhibited international and Australian subjects together, making clear that he considers these works to be differing subjects within his same practice.’
Egypt, England, Italy and World War I France are among the international subjects on display, while what is captured is inclusive of non-natural and non-landscape sights as well, such as the portrait of a Middle Eastern street merchant – in Egyptian drink vendor (1897) – or a scene showing soldiers dwarfed by the machinery of a new era in warfare – in French siege gun (1918), now part of the Australian War Memorial collection. Picturesque castle ruins and foggy European cityscapes are other treats of this exhibition; but it is in the natural settings that Streeton performs best – and is best remembered as: ‘always’, in Tunnicliffe’s words, having ‘a great sensitivity to our natural world, which he translates from observation into his art works.’
‘As a plein air painter, Streeton is standing in front of the land and city scapes that he paints. He has exceptional abilities to translate his experience of place into paint in specific conditions of light, weather, atmosphere,’ Tunnicliffe says. ‘The lively immediacy in his 1880s and 1890s paintings capture moments in time which echo into our current moment; his later works have a mature vision which still speaks to us in portraying our many distinctive landscapes.’
Of those distinctive landscapes, Sydney and regional NSW feature prominently. ‘Sydney was important to Streeton from when he first visited in 1890,’ Tunnicliffe says, ‘and the AGNSW supported him from when he was 22 until near the end of his life through collecting and exhibiting his work. You cannot tell the story of Streeton’s art without a very significant focus on Sydney. His paintings of Sydney’s distinctive light, harbour and beaches are as recognisable today as when first painted.’
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
7 November 2020 to 14 February 2021