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‘Sydney 2000’ has sent that city’s curators back over 200 years of image-making to supply tourist attractions during the Games: ‘Australian Icons’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘Australian Colonial Art’ in the Dixson Gallery of the State Library, and ‘Sydney Harbour’ at the Museum of Sydney. Viewers will have to become their own curators, bringing together in their minds’ eyes images from the three locations. The audience also needs to do much of the curators’ work by extracting themes, such as water, fire, religion or urban life.

In his ‘Foreword’ to the Australian Collection Book, to be published in October, Art Gallery of New South Director, Edmund Capon, declares that his collection is ‘quite simply, the finest and most representative in existence’. The laurel still belongs the Art Gallery of South Australia. What ‘Icons’ demonstrates is how partial the New South Wales holdings remain, with little before the 1880s and little enough from outside the home State. Hence, the Gallery’s current assembly of the famous omits Glover, von Geurard and Buvelot, as well as McCubbin, Heysen and Tucker. In addition, for many iconic names it has second rate examples, for instance, Roberts’s ‘The Golden Fleece’, not his ‘Shearing the Rams’.

‘Australian Icons’ does not have a catalogue and does not deserve one. But neither does it deserve the picture book that will be out later this year. The standard was set by the Queensland Gallery’s Brought to Light (1998), which, by devoting 2500-word essays to each of sixty works, gave the gallery-goer a solid starting place. The New South Wales effort is a cross between a half-baked catalogue and glimpses at collecting policy. Head Curator Barry Pearce’s praise for the conservation and cleaning indicates that the NSW collection is the icon to be revered.

The display fails to deal with whether a work is to be acclaimed because it was made by a great painter, or whether the painter is to be considered great because he or she makes iconic work. Icons are images, not people. But in the commercialised art world, the maker’s brand name is what sells. So the icons are twenty creators. Of course, the Gallery is not a chain store where icons would include Pro Hart and Ken Done. Instead, the show is a connoisseur’s list. The best that can be said of its conception is that the devoting of bays to single artists is what Australian galleries should do all the time, paying special attention to those who worked close by. One consequence of collating these mini-retrospectives is that not only overseas viewers will be left with the feeling that even a genuine display of Australian Icons would carry significance only for the local audience, and that for reasons other than their qualities as artists.

With so few recognised icons to contemplate, the pleasure of viewing must be pursued in the quirks and corners, or in the opportunity to view old friends. Despite my familiarity with Roberts’s ‘An autumn morning, Milson’s Point’ (1888), I was taken by his placement of the coral building as a chromatic high point between the black smoke and the white tower. Seeing Streeton’s ‘Central Station’ (1893) side by side with his ‘Fireman’s Funeral’ (1894) let me contrast his use of an empty foreground with his handling of a jumble of figures. Hung at eye level, however, his ‘Fire’s on’ (1891) failed to deliver the clout that I had always got when it soared above me in the main court. Approaching George Lambert’s ‘Black Soil Plains’ (1899) face-to-face set me wondering if the red-headed figure running alongside the team is none other than the artist showing off as usual. The quip that Lambert portraits were all examples of still life is confirmed.

Capon and Pearce bought the accusations of ethnic and gender bias on their own heads by going in for big names. The actuality of racism and sexism means that the majority of icons will be dead while males. The two indigenous artists represented, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika, pay tribute to the collector-donor, Dr Stuart Scougall, who commissioned the barks in 1959-61. Neither Aboriginal is an iconic name among settler Australians, and probably not outside their relatives in Arnhem Land. Rather, their inclusion is another piece of the Gallery’s patting itself on its back for its collection policy.

Only two are women, but once you start from artists’ names as icons, only two settler women artists are possible: Preston and Cossington Smith. The quotation in the explanatory panel attached to Preston’s five Aboriginal legends of the 1950s is taken from the 1920s. Does history not matter? In the intervening thirty years, the Jindyworobaks had made Aboriginality into a literary movement. Moreover, her comment was about art whereas the later works were part of the verbal impulse to present Aboriginal myths as children’s stories. Preston’s modest sizes and muted tones in oils did nothing to re-ignite my interest, so that I came away more impressed by her works on paper. ‘Wheel-flower’ (1929) is now an icon thanks to the postcard business, reputations being secured in the Gallery shop. Cossington Smith’s shift to prismatic colouring is exposed as a cover-up for the gawkiness of her drafting before the mid-1930s, and advance brought at the expense of her earlier dynamism.

Dobell is one of the iconic names whose works hardly justify his reputation. The two most persuasive pieces are the portraits of Mary Gilmore and Margaret Olley, perhaps because of public standing. In the case of Russel Drysdale, apart from the ‘Walls of China’ (1945), the selection reminds us of the iconic pieces that are absent. That evocation of the missing is true also for Nolan’s Kelly series. What we see are the versions that Nolan made later to match the demands of his dealer. However, ‘Boy in a township’ (1943) demonstrates that Nolan derived his Kelly mask from buildings with windows. Lloyd Rees is another who fails to convince in the way that his ‘Looking east, mid afternoon’ (1978) at the Museum of Sydney does by balancing the architectural with the ephemeral. No one is worse served than Australia’s greatest all-rounder, Arthur Boyd, where the choice has neither the lyricism of his Wimmera series nor the menace of the artist in extremis. ‘Australian scapegoat’ (1987) is too cramped to make an impact other than for garishness. The Fairweathers, which include several key examples, look insipid, their figurative calligraphy having shed its mystery.    

By contrast, the Fred Williams bay is a run of master works. The untutored viewer could have been helped to connect their abstraction with landscape had Roberts’s ‘Sherbrooke forest’ (1924) been moved around to hang beside the Williams’s version. Well outside the domain of icon, either as a painter or for a single image, is John Passmore whose plastic strength and quotidian spirituality merit the attention laid on Fairweather. To suggest links between Fairweather, Williams and Passmore, on the one hand, and John Olsen on the other is to collide with the obvious difference of restraint versus exuberance in size, line and colour. The former trio of painters appeal because we can approach them via their quieter passages. Olsen sticks his brushes in our eyes. Yet behind that fury and flurry is a poetic which depends on tonal control, notably in ‘Golden Summer, Clarendon’ (1983). Whiteley’s bravura gets lost in the space of the entrance level thoroughfare, exposing the emptiness of more than his multi-paneled ‘Alchemy’. All his oeuvre could be called ‘Self portrait in the Studio’ (1976). Our apprehension of the beauty of his line and tonality requires the confinement from which his subjects escaped in spreads of harbour blues and Oberon oranges.

James Gleeson is remarkable for the revival of a talent after a nearly 40-year gap between masterworks. The recent massive canvases display the ocean as the unconscious - a fathomless sea of fantasy – and the landscape as organic. They also suggest a materialist view of life on earth clawing its way from the protoplasmic slime and the amoebic stew. At the Museum of Sydney, Gleeson’s tiny ‘Harbour’, from the late 1940s, is a precursor for these dredged morphs.

Sculptors always have a hard time of gaining recognition. Hence, the organisers should be praised for including Bertram Mackennal and Robert Klippel, even if not one in a hundred Australians has heard of them. If Klippel achieves iconic status it is likely to be for his 1978-79 photographic collage, ‘Philadelphia’, because it is mechanically reproducible in a way that three-dimensional pieces are not.

Sydney suffers from the institutional covetedness that Canberra overcame with the transfer of works from the National Library to the National Gallery. No matter how often the Dixson collection is rotated, the traffic of viewers upstairs through the State Library is never going to be more than a trickle compared with the flood on the other side of the Domain. The Dixson collection belong to the people and should be available where most Australians can see it – especially when the Art Gallery has no prospect of acquiring pre-1880 examples of comparable quality.

The twenty-one works of Colonial Art at the State Library carry no captions. Instead, a booklet, available for a donation, provides a wealth of information. Curator Elizabeth Ellis comments on a few of the frames but neglects to list the media or dimensions. The hang is an abomination. The upper tier of works are damn near impossible to see because reflections from the glass combine with the spotlights to dazzle the viewer with a second artificial sun. Worst of all is the skying of Joseph Lycett’s intricate ‘Corroboree at Newcastle’ (c.1820s) so that it appears to be a panel of tar.

Even this small selection raises questions about our art history. George Peacock’s ‘City and Harbour’ (1860) has a foreground of destruction which expressed his personal tragedy and the despoliation of the land and the terrorising of its original inhabitants. Here is a work with the technical quality and iconographic depth to embody the fatal shore and challenge Sydney 2000’s promotion of the harbour as playground: an icon waiting for its postcard or tablemat.

Around the Peacock are pieces of varying merit, but all of which can contribute their mite to the discussion of how and when European vision accustomed itself to Australian textures and forms. Joseph Blacker was massing the foliage of gums before Louis Buvelot landed in Melbourne. The weird fluidity of the human and arboreal limbs in John Glover’s ‘Aboriginals Dancing’ (1835) mimic each other to such an extent that the parallel becomes a comment on the contemporary as much as a homage to Claude.

In what will become an impossibly crowded room once the tourists arrive, the Museum of Sydney has an art gallery style display, with a few museum items as added décor. Some of the paintings are superior to those in the Gallery but aesthetics should not determine museum practice. Museums and Libraries should not follow Galleries in supposing that their intellectual task ends with the arrangement of pretty pictures in a pleasing pattern.

Several of the paintings at the Gallery and the Library would be more at home at the Museum of Sydney, which is holding the sole thematic show. ‘Harbour’ is so obvious a topic for that Museum that it has blinded its curators to the significance of the harbour as a work site, from before the convicts landed. The appearance of the place was shaped by human labour while the artists reacted to those interventions, covering them up or celebrating the subordination of nature to the accumulation of capital. A Museum should be capable of investigating how nature was wrought into culture through commerce and industry. Exploring those interactions would get past the Bridge and Opera House as icons and perceive the meaning of their construction and maintenance. David Moore’s 1950 shot of the repainting of the Himalaya is as close as the show comes to recognising that tourism is also work, wage-slavery for the cooks and the cleaners.

In the adjoining room, a suite of Lorrie Graham’s recent photographs of Sydneysiders confirms what the rest of Australia suspects – no one in Sydney works. Only one among her dozens of images is connected with earning a crust, that of a prawn fisherman. Graham’s imagery is subordinated to the culture of advertising where consumption proceeds without production. The State Library does have a segment on the changing face of work as one of the ‘Weird and wonderful’ aspects of the city photographed in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of its snaps of food and fashion are also of work.

Mary Gilmore’s verse ‘Old Botany Bay’ retains the first and last word: ‘Shame on the mouth/That would deny/The knotted hands/That set us high!’.