Early Australian Art History - Building National Identity.

Australian art history up to the beginning of the 20th century includes Aboriginal, Colonial, Landscape, Modernist and Contemporary periods. You might say that the history of modern art in Australia began around 1770, with James Cook’s voyage and the drawings by the botanical illustrators Sydney Parkinson and Joseph Banks.

The Aboriginal period of Australian art history began some 50,000 or more years ago and continues to this day. It includes rock, body and bark painting, sand drawings, aerial type desert landscapes, rock engravings, cave paintings, stone arrangements, carvings, sculpture, weaving and string art. These are not merely artistic or decorative items but have a vital role in the traditions and culture of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia.

The Colonial period of Australian art history includes painting, sculpture, architecture and other visual arts. The artists were not native to Australia, but were primarily colonists of European descent. Yet, there is a familiar theme uniting The Western and indigenous traditions. That is the importance and sacredness of the land.

Colonised largely as a convenient place to dump convicts from the overflowing British penal hulks, the first settlement in New South Wales was followed by colonies in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Artists, who moved to the colonies (either as convicts or free settlers) or visited there, brought with them the styles that were prevalent in Europe at the time. Primarily, they were realists.

Technically, the history of modern art throughout the world began around 1860 and ran through the 1970s. Modernism and modern art are separate terms, but they are closely related. Distinct time lines are not drawn between contemporary and modernist. Contemporary is sometimes used to refer to anything that was produced after World War II.

It is the idea of experimentation that separates the Modernist from the Contemporary painter. That is what makes pinpointing the history of modern art most difficult. It has its roots in the 19th century and its birthplace in Paris with the exhibitions of Monet, Renoir and Cezanne.

Atelier period of Australian art history

The Atelier period of Australian art history began around 1860 after the establishment of museums in Melbourne and involved one artist teaching a small group of students, training them in a form of realism, based on careful observations of nature, with great attention to detail. It was really a European tradition but was embraced in Australia before the advent of private and government art training schools.

The Landscape period is unique to the history of modern art in Australia. Australia’s lighting is markedly different from that found in Europe. Early landscapes attempted to convey that difference. Conrad Martens (1801-1878) was a commercially successful landscape painter, but he is sometimes criticized for “softening” the landscape to fit European sensibilities.

A force in the history of Australian art was the development of the Heidelberg School art movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century, centred around Heidelberg, where artists such as Arthur Streeton, Frederick Mc Cubbin, Charles Conder and Tom Roberts painted “en plein air” in the style of the European Impressionists.

The resulting artworks helped to shape the Australian psyche and sense of identity rooted in the love of landscape and the bush.

Fred Williams is one of my favourite Australian landscape artists. Here's an article about his early years as a painter.

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