“The Art of Australia” is a three-part series television documentary by ABC presented by Edmund Capon. Part one, “Strangers In A Strange Land”, was a disappointing start presenting the same old story of 19th Century Australian colonial art. The couple of references to some contemporary art in an attempt to freshen this stale history didn’t help or hinder. There was too much about landscape art emphasizing the traditional view of Australian art as all about the landscape. Capon’s narrative is full of too much hyperbole, clichéd metaphors (describing Australia as “coming of age” as if a country is a person with a body, heart and head) and contradictions.
Australia can’t be defined as Capon tries as “a unique and diverse culture” because one (unique) cannot be many (diverse). The assumption of the documentary is that Australia has an Australia art, when in the 19th Century the British and Australian art world was basically the same. Capon only examines the art of Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania as if the history of the SE corner of Australia is representative of the rest of Australia. How art and artists helped to shape Australia’s national identity is assumed rather than demonstrated; if art in anyway shaped Australia’s national identity it played a very minor role.
Capon avoids saying anything negative; he avoids the using the word ‘genocide’ to describe the attempted extermination of Tasmanian aboriginals and he avoids the mentioning the Australian banking crisis of 1893.
To describe the Heidelberg School as painting “Australia as it was” ignores the fact that Tom Roberts painted the romanticism of the manual shearing technology in 1890 when mechanical shearing had already been superseded in 1888 with the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine. Although Roberts rebelled against Eugene Von Guérard at the National Gallery Art School he apparently absorbed romanticism from his former teacher. Capon’s description of Robert’s Shearing the Rams as an “icon” is made apparently oblivious to the religious meaning of the word.
Edmund Capon was Director of the Art Gallery of NSW and his expertise is in Chinese art. Capon needs a spanking as an embarrassing punishment for his sloppy thinking in this glib and very ordinary history of art in Australia.
Two and a half stars.