In a review entitled ‘A desert of new ideas’, The Sunday Times critic Waldemar Januszczak canned the first survey exhibition of Australian art in the UK for 50 years as a ‘beaut idea’ that had failed to deliver, employing a series of human waste metaphors to illustrate his opinion.The exhibition of 200 key Australian works opened last week at the Royal Academy in London to mixed reviews. The Times gave the exhibition four out of five stars and The Telegraph praised it as ‘detailed, comprehensive, omniscient, in places beautiful’.Most of the works come from the National Gallery of Australia, which sent them off with a rousing farewell and an expectation from artists John Olsen that Australia would‘knock their socks off’.
But it seems more to have knocked off the jocks of Januszczak. Free with scatology, the critic described work by abstract landscape artist Fred Williams as ‘thick cowpats of minimalism’ and wrote of Olsen’s Sydney Sun (pictured) that it ‘successfully evokes the sensation of standing under a cascade of diarrhea.’ He dismissed Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Pioneer, below, as ‘poverty porn’.
Januszczak argued the exhibition was too European but he described the Indigenous art selected as ‘tourist tat’, saying he would have preferred ancient rock art instead of the ‘dull canvas approximations knocked out in reduced dimensions by a host of repetitive Aborigine artists making a buck’.
‘Every now and then something interesting comes along, but as an overall national achievement, the contents of this display feel lightweight and provincial … I ended up musing (in Australia) the wrong people became artists.’
Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard was also scathing. ‘What on earth does the National Gallery of Australia — provider of half the exhibits and almost all the catalogue text — hope to achieve with this inadequate exhibition? The English have no romantic engagement with Australia that justifies our having to inspect such consistently provincial trivia, and though we may be amused to see the Australian Cultural Cringe so compellingly demonstrated, the demonstration (as with Australian humour) wears thin with repetition. I can see the point of an exhibition of pre-colonial Aboriginal artefacts, for it might be as provocative and illuminating as the recent investigation of the Ice Age at the British Museum (how about a show comparing them with the survivals from the earliest sites of civilisation in the Americas, Africa and Asia?). I willingly argue that we need to be reminded of the few Australian painters who achieved international fame in the mid-20th century — Boyd, Tucker, Drysdale, Perceval and Nolan among them (though Nolan was as much English in later life and, in death, posthumously became an Irishman) — yet these are almost entirely neglected here. The Royal Academy’s exhibition, in the end, amounts to nothing but sad Reader’s Digest stuff.’
On the other hand, Rachel Campbell-Johnson in The Times applauded the show, citing ‘Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern, 1940, is part of a powerfully atmospheric evocation of the country and its cultures.’
Australia opened last week at the Royal Academy in London and will be on display until 8 December.