South Australia Illustrated – Colonial Painting in the Land of Promise – AGSA – Til 5 August

S.T. Gill - Rundle Street, Adelaide 1845 - Art Gallery of SA

By Peter Maddern

Nearly 12 months on, and South Australia Illustrated – Colonial Painting in the Land of Promise could not be more different to that of last year’s Saatchi exhibition – visual art solely as painting in traditional European styles up against modern day global art freedoms such as the use of soiled condoms and wax models.

Indeed, walking into the exhibition halls for this and the related Bounty exhibition is, after the contemporary art extravaganzas of the new Mitzevich era, like experiencing a shock of the old.

For many also, these exhibitions will awaken new sensibilities about this State’s past, particularly the first sixty odd years of settlement til Federation, the period covered by the works and also the excellent companion book of the same name written by Jane Hylton, Curator Emeritus of Australian Art at the AGSA.

For the primary sensation one is hit with is a State bounding with adventure, social cohesion and entrepreneurial spirit. In so many works, but especially those of S.T Gill, Charles Hill and James Shaw, there is a palpable sense of pride and triumph through achievement in a new land that also inspired awe. And while it is acknowledged that many of their works were designed as promotional pieces for prospective immigrants back in England, nonetheless given the challenges involved of settlement in this new country the spirit imbued in the paintings goes beyond the search for propaganda.

While most of the paintings displayed are from the AGSA (kind of its greatest hits collection of the period), many notables also come from such diverse sources as the SA Museum, the National Gallery and even the Markisches Museum, Berlin. They cover a great variety of street and urban scenes, landscapes (with the Onkaparinga Valley and mouth never looking so grand), all many of portraits and botantical studies.

Alexander Schramm - Adelaide, a tribe of natives on the banks on the River Torrens - 1850 - National Gallery of Australia

In this modern era, it is staggering to reflect on the fact that simply nothing existed here before the first, non convict settlers came and for quite some time thereafter new arrivals were greeted for their first nights 12,000 miles from their former home with a tent and a few blankets. Just what made them leave their lives in England for this can only be imagined and not much empathised with these days – it is a remarkable story this exhibition makes plain that the new white stocks kept coming in sufficient numbers that progress could be sustained until, with some luck (mining finds and the like), the survival and maybe even the success of the new colony had been secured.

What follows are a few observations of note about some of the works for this reviewer, though no doubt visitors to the exhibition will develop their own themes. First, the issues of the indigenous people are worthy of comment. Many major works, such as those of J.M. Skipper (Corroboree c1864), Alexander Schramm (An Aboriginal encampment, near the Adelaide foothills 1854) and by G.F. Angas (Portraits of the Aboriginal inhabitants 1844 etc) are dedicated solely to the Kaurna people. Further, just about every work with more than a few souls figuring includes aborigines in them as joint members of the developing community.

This is interesting given it seems there were only about 700 indigenous people here when settlement commenced and despite many of these paintings going back to England for sale, it is clear (at least from this exhibition and the works collected by the AGSA over time) there was no attempt made to airbrush the indigenous population from the record or the promotional material.

Martha Berkeley - Georgina, Emily and Augusta Rose c1848 - Art Gallery of South Australia

(In case one jumps to a conclusion that such observations are an assault on the so-called black armband theory about this nation’s history, one hastens to also point out that the concept of benign goodwill is not universal in the exhibition or the book, the former depicting some unhappy and violent scenes between settlers and aboriginals and the latter noting frequently the dislocation of the Kaurna people as a result of white man’s settlement.)

It is also fairly clear that there was no uniquely South Australian artistic style that emerged during these first 60 years. Despite much being made of the effort put into art from the outset of the colony (especailly in comparison to the other States) newer immigrants don’t seem to have brought with them more than their own homeland training, whether from England or Germany, and then adapting it to local conditions and commercial opportunities. The State’s isolation from even the eastern states meant that cross pollination of styles from say either Europe’s impressionist movement or closer to home the Heidelberg school did not occur until HP Gill fostered interest in works from elsewhere in the country and the world around them at the time of Federation. It was only then that the State’s first unique stylist, in the form of Hans Heysen, emerged.

Finally, the role of William Light in the most formative years of the colony is brought strongly into context in South Australia Illustrated. Given he died just three years after arriving here, his work to both assess and basically get 100% right the correct place for the new city, then to survey it and finally to record so much of it as a painter does point to the brilliance and daring of the man, attributes this exhibition underscores and which then more than justify the reverence with which we treat his city designs today.

Those excited by the possibilities of contemporary art may ponder whether South Australian Illustrated – Colonial Painting in the Land of Promise is an exhibition for them. Well, the short answer for them is ‘yes, it is.’ As old as these images are, they depict a freshness and enthusiasm for life and its challenges that seem mostly forgotten in the modern milieu. They are also a textbook (albeit unfashionable) lesson in the ways of getting a message across in figures and symbols everyone can understand.

For lovers of this style of art, especially those with a deep passion for the history of this State, South Australia Illustrated is, in the bowels of the Art Gallery of South Australia, a couple of hundred square metres of paradise.

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