Robert Hughes once said that the day would come when a computer (and a small one at that) could be programmed with blue and gold to produce Arthur Streeton paintings.
Of the artist’s failure to maintain the verve of his earlier work, Hughes said that “like a hibernating bear, he lived on the fat of his early discoveries”.
Today, our understanding of where later 19th century plein air naturalism sits within the Australian art story has been amplified by numerous exhibitions and publications that recognise the perspectives and talents of a wide spectrum of artists (including Streeton) associated with this movement. Assessment has generally been relocated to a broader cultural expression of an emerging sense of national identity.
Easy to identify when looking at the big guns such as A break away!, Shearing the rams, The pioneer and Fire’s on but less obvious when enjoying the more intimate offerings of a Streeton or Roberts low-key pastoral. Blue and Gold, currently at Carrick Hill, with a few exceptions, brings you Streeton the artist who just loved to paint. And draw — provided figures didn’t get in the way.
Arthur Streeton, The Blue Mountains
The exceptions are two larger works associated with the extended period spent in the UK, Victoria Tower, Westminster (1912) and Blue and Gold (c.1900–05) when Streeton worked hard with limited success to establish himself in the London art world. Blue and Gold holds particular interest because it is essentially a symphony in blue and gold chromatics, true in spirit of James McNeill Whistler.
Whistler’s approach of seeing the painted image as a resolution of tonal values was a ready-made fit for Streeton’s intuitive adoption of tonal impressionism as introduced to him by Roberts when they first met around Port Phillip Bay, and soon after, around Heidelberg and other sites on the outskirts of Melbourne in the late 1880s.
A vivid example of Streeton’s youthful talents (he was 22 at the time) can be seen in An Impression from the Deep (1889), a bravura expression of wet-in-wet observation using a loaded, square headed brush. It remains a terrific work that reminds of Streeton’s unerring self-belief and instinctive talent for making paint shake its tail feathers. Hughes has it nicely: “Streeton enjoyed paint, its tactility, its sensuous variations between a dry dragged scumble and a flat glistening slab.”
That’s the thing to look for in this exhibition and the best of Streeton’s works, this enjoyment in working the materiality of the generously applied paint medium, enlivened by mosaics of brush imprints and trademark gestural dashes.
Arthur Streeton, Dunkeld
The exhibition, curated by Anna Jug, consists of oil paintings drawn from Carrick Hill, the Art Gallery of South Australia and other public and private collections, complemented by drawings and a lithograph of Venetian subjects from the Art Gallery’s collection. This is a rare opportunity to see works from private collections: Dunkeld, Yea Pastures, Goulburn Valley and Kiewa Valley from Toowong Gap.
Kiewa is an I-love-Turner capture of a moment when a valley is held in balance between sunlit calm and threatening storm. The branches of the framing foreground tree jump around like bolts of lightning. There is an exhilarating freshness of touch to the articulation of details like sheep, buildings and distant trees, as well as confident risk-taking in dealing with the atmospherics of roiling clouds and descending rain. In Dunkeld, look closely and you’ll be rewarded by some emus, strutting across the hillside like Syd Long brolgas. But don’t overlook the Conder-like filigree of trees and decorously arranged log admiring its reflection in a dam.
Streeton first visited Venice while on his honeymoon in 1908 and returned later in the same year. His output over this three-week period was prodigious — 80 paintings, with many painted in situ, in the blazing heat, surrounded by large crowds.
Carrick Hill’s Venice, Bride of the Sea, is the centrepiece of a room devoted to Venetian works. It has been observed that the bravura of Streeton’s technique, evident in Bride, owes some debt to the American artist, John Singer Sargent, regarded as one of the most technically brilliant artists of his time.
Arthur Streeton, Venice, Bride of the sea
This painting with its characteristic interplay of gestural moods and opalescent colours will reward the long stare. So too the more intimate sketches of moored gondolas, bridges and the like which leave no doubt that Streeton had the draughting skills and eye for poetic sentiment to match Venice’s seductive charms.
The historian Mary Eagle has noted that Streeton “learnt very early to identify what was publicly memorable, and to rehearse it often”. That’s Streeton’s secret for success — his ability to translate any subject into a moment in time when the thing seen and the thing remembered become one. Streeton sometimes failed to clear this high bar in later works but the manner in which from the Deep (1889) and as View from Barrett’s Point, Portsea (1921) bookend this exhibition with what the artist called the “big wonder” of the sea is a reminder that he never lost the knack of surfing the romantic canvas.
Blue and Gold
Until Sunday, February 25