Tom Roberts, National Gallery of Australia.
Closes March 28, 2016.
Although once a household name, Tom Roberts today is less well known than he has been for much of the previous century.
The chief aim of this exhibition is to take a fresh look at Roberts and to reintroduce him to new generations of Australians, especially those brought up long after reproductions of Shearing the rams, A break away! and Bailed up have faded from schoolroom walls. It has also been two decades since the last Roberts' retrospective, curated by Ron Radford at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1996, and the new curator, Dr Anne Gray, Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, has sought to redefine our thinking about Roberts. For the first time, she has managed to secure Roberts' "Big Picture", Opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 9 May 1901 (1903) for a Roberts' retrospective, she has also more comprehensively than before examined Roberts, the portraitist, and has developed an intelligent focus on Roberts' final stay in England between 1903 and 1919, which has been neglected in many earlier exhibitions.
Tom Roberts (1856-1931) is generally thought to be an Australian artist, although he was born in Dorset in England and spent about half of his life in England. He came out to Melbourne with his widowed mother and two siblings when he was 13, returned to England to complete his art training at the Royal Academy and after making a modest splash in the Australian art world, returned to England, but largely failed to find recognition in the 'home country' and spent his final years in Australia living modestly and largely neglected. His deification came posthumously, commencing especially with R.H. Croll's Tom Roberts: Father of Australian Landscape Painting (1935), a eulogising account commissioned by his widow.
How significant a painter was Roberts? The answer depends on the perspective adopted. In terms of the so-called Heidelberg School, he was the towering maverick and the organisational instigator. Streeton, in comparison, turned bad, really bad as a painter as he grew older, while McCubbin was fairly ordinary at the start and improved with age. Conder was brilliant, but hardly stayed long enough in Australia to be counted as an Australian artist. In contrast, Roberts was well trained and consistent and was pretty good at everything to which he turned his hand – landscapes, portraiture, rural mythologies and even the spot of printmaking and sculpture. He was an astute observer and open-minded and could absorb the academic tradition of painting, Whistlerian impressions, Gérôme's academic orientalism and contemporary European traditions of landscape painting.
The rural, nationalist mythologies, including Bailed up (1895/1927), Shearing the rams (1888-90), A break away! (1891) and The Golden Fleece (1894), so highly prized by the generation of Australian tastemakers who matured in the 1950s and 1960s, are beautifully painted, where you can feel the heat, smell the eucalypts and feel the safety of civilisation as you spot the well planted academic quotations. They are paintings rich in historical detail and anecdotal narrative. They are also paintings anchored in 19th-century mythmaking over which we grew nostalgic in the 20th-century, but which to the 21st-century eye appear to be describing a reality that none of us has ever experienced and one that we quietly suspect never really existed with these heroic white men taming nature for the benefit of humankind.
The "Big Picture" is a dud. A multi-figured, historical, group portrait, containing 250 recognisable portraits (some of which are identified for us by a convenient touch screen), was an impossible brief, a poison chalice that Roberts was only too eager to grasp. Velázquez, Rembrandt and Goya could pull it off, but Roberts was simply not in that league. There are flashes of brilliance, a coherent bold and dramatic composition, but the necessary detail in this more than three-by-five-metre painting witnesses a rigor mortis that creeps in and paralyses the work. The cluster of heads in the lower right appears as a bunch of grapes with faces painted on them, while those on stage on the left are only slightly better. Financially, it was a great commission that Roberts took to London to finish, but artistically it was a disastrous white elephant. Both Roberts' preparatory oil sketch and the engraving after the painting are more successful.
Like many artists of his day, for Roberts the bread and butter of his art practice was portraiture and it was here that the artist excelled. I always knew that he was a good portraitist, but never realised how good until this exhibition. The Portrait of Florence (c.1898) in Sydney is a well-known classic, but also outstanding are his Madame Hartl (1909-10), Blue eyes and brown (1887), An Australian native (1888), the wonderful "familiar faces and figures" series, the Adagio painting (c1899), Miss Minna Simpson (1886) as well as the great pastel portraits Carmen and Elizabeth Pinschof and A French hat, both drawn in 1900. In technique and psychological awareness his portraits compared well with British portraiture of the day and with such Australians as Lambert and Hugh Ramsay.
While paternity of the Australian landscape tradition may be shared with a number of other artists, Roberts for more than half a century struggled with the Australian and European landscapes. His 1880s inhabited, narrative landscapes, including the well-known classics, A summer morning tiff (1886), The artists' camp (1886) and The sunny South (1887), in contrast with much of the preceding colonial tradition, to the white colonial audience appeared as convincing renditions of the Australian bush. His late Dandenong and Tasmania landscapes all reveal a sensitivity to place. Roberts in his landscapes was not a formulaic painter, but sensitive to the scene in front of him and the European cultural traditions associated with the place as in his sensitive and moody Glover's country (c.1929).
This exhibition and the accompanying scholarly catalogue edited by Dr Anne Gray present a timely and brilliant reassessment of Roberts' place in the visual culture of this country. Many of his colonial predecessors were visitors and explorers, Roberts was a settler who stayed and armed with European techniques and modes of visualisation recorded the Australian reality. He built a foundation which assisted many 20th century artists, including Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd, and created a touchstone on the colonial experience that many contemporary artists use as their point of departure. The Roberts' retrospective exhibition is beautiful, engaging, visually exciting and a must-see experience for this summer.