Discovernet: Australian Landscape Painting

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from the collection of Warrnambool Art Gallery, Hamilton Art Gallery, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Geelong Gallery, Benalla Art Gallery, Lismore Regional Art Gallery, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, Devonport Gallery and Arts Centre, Logan Art Gallery and University of South Australia Art Museum.

This small selection of Australian landscape painting, beginning with the period of European settlement, highlights different ways of depicting land and organising pictorial space. Of course for a long time before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people were interpreting aspects of their land through song, art, dance and ceremony.

It is interesting to note changes in regards to creating the illusion of depth in landscape painting. In the past a horizon line was used to create a sense of vast space. The resulting effect was that it positioned the viewer at a distance from the landscape. Later, as indigenous and contemporary art influenced artists and as we have come to know the landscape better, the use of a horizon has diminished or totally disappeared.

Eugene von Guerard and Thomas Clark both arrived in Australia in the early 1850s yet they depict land in quite different ways. Von Guerard (1811-1901) painted 'Tower Hill' as an idyllic landscape where the Aboriginal group, shown in the foreground, appear to live in a latter-day paradise. Between the contrast of the detailed foreground and the distant horizon one senses the artist's desire to explore this unknown land.

'Muntham' by Thomas Clark (1814-1883), painted approximately five years later than 'Tower Hill' shows measured paddocks, denuded hills, grazing animals and farm-workers - no sense of the unknown here! Our eyes tend to settle in the valleys where the homestead nestles. Unlike von Guerard, Clark is not interested in exploration or botanical correctness but rather in belonging and ownership.

In von Guerard's later painting of 1884, 'Old Ballarat as it was in the summer of 1853-54', the genesis of a city is captured. By showing cleared land and a horizon of disappearing wilderness, von Guerard may also be questioning the price of progress.

Fredrick McCubbin (1855-1917) painted 'A Bush Burial' in 1890 when the colony was experiencing the worst drought and depression in its history and this possibly influenced the choice of subject. McCubbin creates an engulfing, claustrophobic landscape by barely suggesting any horizon and compressing midground and background. In contrast, the bush folk are portrayed as heroic figures.

There is no sense of the heroic in Clarice Beckett's work. Instead, Beckett (1887-1935) pays homage to the everyday scenes and small events that we all experience. Misty suburban landscapes are painted with a transient beauty that suggests the impermanence of existence. Beckett often painted plein air - completing her work outside rather than in the studio. Between the heroics of McCubbin and the cherished everyday events seen in Beckett's work, we could speculate on how World War 1 may have had an effect on the choice of subject matter deemed worthy enough to paint.

Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) grew up on the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission near Alice Springs and knew the Central Australian desert intimately. A characteristic common to most of Namatjira's landscapes is the sense of energy within the land. Though his paintings conform to European traditions of landscape painting in that they contain foreground, midground, background and distant horizon, the forms pulsate through the patterning of shadows across the painting, making the land itself appear to breathe.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), like McCubbin, was interested in depicting narratives in the landscape. In 'Kelly at the Mines' the horizon appears disjointed and forms are not anchored in space. Instead they seem to float and the landscape becomes the locale for surreal dramas: a dreamed place. The Ned Kelly series was painted during World War 11 when Nolan was himself hiding out from army authorities after deserting.

In 'Yellow Landscape', Fred Williams (1927-82) also disturbs the organisation of pictorial space by evaporating the horizon line in what appears to be searing heat, allowing the tree forms to float in heat and space. Through thoughtful distillation of forms accompanied by gestural brush strokes, Williams transforms half-cleared, unremarkable scrub into a kind of calligraphic meditation on observation.

In 'Eagle Landscape' by William Robinson (b. 1936) the horizon line is totally abandoned and the viewer is made to feel that they are surrounded by the landscape as one simultaneously sees above, below, through and over. As the title suggests, this painting may well be an imagined bird's view as it swoops over hilltops. Robinson often depicts the land close to his home and this gives his paintings a sense of familiarity and sensitivity to the connections between land and living things.

'Leaving a Mountain' by Bea Maddock (b. 1934) has very little sense of depth as one mountain dominates the horizon. Instead we are made aware of how the landscape was observed: slowly, bit by bit. The artist might be suggesting that intimate knowledge of the land can only be gained through slow observation. Her work often has a feeling of being wrought from earth as she uses ochres from her native Tasmania mixed with encaustic (pigment mixed with molten wax).

Kathleen Petyarre (b. circa 1940) was born on Utopia Station, north-east of Alice Springs. Common themes in Petyarre's paintings are the Dreaming stories she inherited from her mother and father. There is a feeling of immense space in Petyarre's paintings though there is no hint of a horizon line and the subject matter may be as minute as the trail a lizard leaves across sand. The viewer is made to feel that they are surrounded by and submerged in the landscape.

Deborah Vaughan



 'Tower Hill' by Eugene von Guerard, 1855
'Tower Hill' by Eugene von Guerard, 1855.


'Muntham' by Thomas Clark, c1860
'Muntham' by Thomas Clark, c1860.


 'Old Ballarat as it was in the Summer of 1853-54' by Eugene von Guerard
'Old Ballarat as it was in the Summer of 1853-54' by Eugene von Guerard, 1884.


'A Bush Burial' by Frederick McCubbin, 1890
'A Bush Burial' by Frederick McCubbin, 1890.


'Attic House, Beaumaris' by Clarice Beckett
'Attic House, Beaumaris' by Clarice Beckett.


 'Motorbike and Sidecar' by Clarice Beckett, 1928
'Motorbike and Sidecar' by Clarice Beckett, 1928.


 'Landscape painted Woomera' by Albert Namatjira, 1942-43
'Landscape painted Woomera' by Albert Namatjira, 1942-43.


 'Kelly at the Mine' by Sidney Nolan, 1946-47
'Kelly at the Mine' by Sidney Nolan, 1946-47.


'Yellow Landscape' by Fred Williams, 1968
'Yellow Landscape' by Fred Williams, 1968.


 'Eagle Landscape' by William Robinson, 1987
'Eagle Landscape' by William Robinson, 1987.


 'Leaving a Mountain' by Bea Maddock, 1992
'Leaving a Mountain' by Bea Maddock, 1992.


Click on image for more information
'Thorny devil Lizard dreaming, Watercourses and Rockholes' by Kathleen Petyarre, 1997.


Click on image for information
'As you like it' - Logan's Run' by Scott C Hollingsworth, 1997.



National Gallery of Victoria on Russell
Use the gallery's search engine to find paintings and information on Eugene von Guerard, Thomas Clark, Frederick McCubbin, Clarice Beckett, Sidney Nolan and Fred Williams.

Terra Spiritus: Bea Maddock Panorama
The National Gallery of Australia features art work by Bea Maddock.

William Robinson: Queensland Visual Arts Online
This Queensland Art Gallery features the work of William Robinson.
robinson_home.asp?name= Robinson_Home

Seeing the Centre: the art of Albert Namatjira
The National Gallery of Australia's travelling exhibition online.

Kathleen Petyarre
This site has terrific images of the artist's work.

In the Artist's Footsteps
A fantastic site for images and information on the late 19th and early 20th century Heidelberg landscape artists.

Things to do:

Write a description
Look at the last painting above. Why do you think the artist used maps and red paint? Write down your thoughts.

Paint a landscape with encaustic.
Go to this site for more information about the encaustic medium.GO !

Try painting a plein air landscape
Include foreground, middle ground, back ground and horizon. For more information on the art terms in italics go to this site.

Try painting a dream landscape
Paint a landscape from memory - one that you have dreamed. Try to not use a horizon. See if you can make objects float!

Make a landscape collage.
Go on a walk. Collect objects and take photos along the way. Combine these items with old maps to make a collage. For examples of collage art go to this site.