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Golden summers, Heidelberg and beyond

av Jane Clark

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When you get a catalogue for an exhibition one doesn't necessarily expect a high quality reference work. But that is pretty much what we have here. The exhibition features a group of Australian artists who became known as the Heidelberg school. Mainly because they had access to a house on the outskirts of Melbourne at Heidelberg and spent a few summers painting and partying here. It was a time when Melbourne was in a land price-boom set off by the gold discoveries and I guess this established the kind of climate where a new art movement could flourish. As with all booms, however, this one collapsed from about April 1893 when the Commercial Bank of Australia went into bankruptcy. The party was almost over. But in that era of the 80's through to the early 90's when the Heidelberg school were making their mark, there was clearly a lot of wealth around to sponsor them and to stage their Gallery exhibits.This book doesn't mention any of this economic background but it must have had significant impact...and was one of the reasons that artists were packing their bags for Europe from about the mid 1890's.
I have the book alongside me now as I write and it is a wonderful source of nostalgia for me...evoking long hot summers, with the glare, and the bright blue skies and the dry air (I used to be able to hang my washing out at 8am in the Riverina and it would be dry by 10am ...with relative humidities of around 10%)....and the prickly brown grass..and the scent of eucalyptus in the air from the gum trees. These artists manage to evoke that with the paintings from their camp sites and from their painting days at Heidelberg.
Interestingly, the actual summers at Heidelberg only lasted a few years but it was enough to establish the reputation and the influence of this group of artists.
Though my take on their art is that most of them established their reputations with more formal, naturalistic works such as "Shearing the Rams" by Tom Roberts; "The purple noon's transparent might" by Arthur Streeton; "The Bush Burial" by Frederick McCubbin....and on the back of this work they were able to arouse interest in their more experimental Impressionistic works ..such as those exhibited in their 9x5 exhibition in 1889.
What happened to the women? There is a photo of Frederick McCubbin surrounded by his students in 1893 at the National Gallery of Victoria and over 40 of them are women and only 13 men. But it's mainly the work of the men that has become well known. Are there a lot of works hidden away in old farm sheds by these forgotten women...or were they just the children of wealthy parents, dabbling in the arts for recreation and entertainment. There are a couple of paintings towards the end by Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern and a few other painters ...but not many. I guess the answer is complicated...but male dominance of the art scene and of the boards of the galleries clearly played a part in diminishing the contribution of women.
The (Heidelberg) movement had its roots in Melbourne and was supported in Melbourne but some of the artists...notably Streeton, Roberts and Ashton also spent time in Sydney...camping by the harbour and produced some wonderful art works ...which are classics...of Sydney Harbour and beaches like Coogee.
There are a lot of great coloured pictures here. I think it must have been a great supplement to the actual exhibition ...which I never saw. But, in it's own way, this Heildeberg school kind of defined what Australia was really like for many Australians. And even though 90% of us live in big cities we have a vision of ourselves as being close to the wide brown land and the bush....and, I think, much of our picture of the bush can be traced back to this group of painters. They had a big impact for such a small group. Maybe the timing helped! ( )
  booktsunami | Apr 7, 2019 |
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