Australian Art History Essay Topics

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Sasha Grishin, Australian National University

Despite rhetoric positioning Australia as the clever country and the creative country, Australian artists, particularly in the visual arts, are doing it tough, and things are progressing from bad to worse.

Australian barrister and author Julian Burnside recently observed that:

Most Australian artists […] occupy the lowest income group in Australia. All but the very established and most successful artists in Australia earn in the order of $15,000-$20,000 per year. The poverty line is about $30,000. Artists survive by teaching, or washing dishes, or on the help of friends or relatives.

I will restrict my comments to the primary art market, that deals with new art coming out of artists’ studios and going onto the art market, rather than discuss the secondary market, that is reselling art at art auctions, through consultancies and other mechanisms.

The traditional structure for selling art in Australia is through a commercial art gallery that picks up fresh talent, and then through the auspices of a newspaper art critic who promotes it to an art buying audience.

In London, Ernest Gambart set up shop in 1849 in Pall Mall, then at St James, where he showed some of the best artists of his day and cultivated critics, notably John Ruskin and FG Stephens, and in this manner helped to establish in Britain the system of dealers, critics and patrons on which the modern art trade is based.

His artists included Turner, Landseer, Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt. His gallery morphed under his nephew into the legendary Lefevre Gallery that brought to London artists including Degas, Modigliani, Seurat and Dalí. It closed its doors in 2002, and its veteran director, Martin Summers, declared:

We feel that a big commercial gallery such as this with its high overheads is now a thing of the past.

Spink, Colnaghi and Anthony d’Offay in London also closed or were sold at about the same time, while Agnew’s in 2013, after almost two centuries, sold the gallery to the former head of Christie’s Old Master paintings in New York.

In Paris, in the 1860s, Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit opened rival galleries which were to champion the Impressionists. Neither of these galleries has survived into the present.

One needs to recall that in Paris and London in the second half of the 19th century there were literally hundreds of daily and weekly newspapers, with most of them having art critics on their staff.

Once an art exhibition opened, it was not uncommon for 20 or 30 art reviews to be published simultaneously. Art for sale was hot news and the art consuming public would digest these critiques, which would inform them in their purchases.

A breakdown

In the 21st century, this 19th-century system of marketing and promoting contemporary art is seriously breaking down and the number of commercial art galleries in Australia has roughly halved over the past couple of decades. Obviously galleries whose owners have very deep pockets and who do not depend on sales for survival are not under threat. Sadly, the rest are.

Successive Australian federal governments, through the introduction of the GST, resale royalties and, in 2011, dismantling the art for superannuation scheme, have delivered a series of body blows to the commercial art gallery sector. Very few exhibitions are reviewed by art critics in the shrinking pool of print media, while internet blogs have not yet gained a widespread acceptance.

Even in major commercial art galleries, patron visitation rates are poor and, outside exhibition openings many galleries report, in strictest confidence, of having five or six visitors a day. People complain that they are time-poor and are more likely to visit a gallery online, than participate in the dying ritual of the weekly art gallery crawl.

Yet the appetite for art exists, with high visitation numbers to public art galleries and major exhibitions, heightened popularity of street art, art events and art films. The sad conclusion is that the commercial art galleries are not delivering a product that the art consuming public wants.

Art fairs have become global phenomena and the Frieze London Art Fair, since it was established in 2003, has developed into the major player in the London commercial art market.

Last year, when I discussed the art trade with two very prominent and established art galleries in London, it was with a degree of reluctance that they confessed that 60% of their trade went through the art fairs, 25% through online sales and only 15% through the gallery door.

The results for Art Basel Hong Kong Art Fair show an even greater domination of the local art market. Art fairs are an event, a happening, not only a shop open for trade.

What is also important for art fairs is their international nature, that they are multifaceted with many outlets in many countries.

Going global

The global art market has risen to highs never previously experienced and in 2014 it was worth about A$80.65 billion with about 48% of the sales from the work of post-war and contemporary artists on the primary market. The top 180 major art fairs that year generated 40% of all dealer sales and about 20% of the total global art market.

For Australian galleries, participation in the international art fairs is very costly and relatively few galleries can afford the fees, freight and related costs. There are a few that do regularly participate, including Sullivan and Strumpf from Sydney and Paul Greenaway from Adelaide, but most do not.

It is difficult to rate the success of the Melbourne Art Fair and Sydney Contemporary, both owned by Tim Etchells’ company Art Fairs Australia Pty Ltd, and now managed by Barry Keldoulis. It is unclear to what extent the mini-art fairs, such as Spring 1883, that piggyback on the events in Melbourne and Sydney, dent or enhance the main game with their lower budget and more democratic productions.

They must have some impact as, at the Sydney Contemporary this year, the commercial galleries were instructed to participate in one or the other, but not in both, as they had done in Melbourne in 2014. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are lower gallery participation rates, although the announced sales of A$14 million from Sydney in September 2015 exceeded estimates.

One general problem with the Sydney and Melbourne art fairs in particular, and with most art fairs in general, is that they tend to cater for the higher ticketed items and not for the less expensive art that may attract the art lover as opposed to the art collector or art investor or art speculator.

A provincial exercise

In some ways the problem with the marketing of Australian art, or the marketing of art in Australia, is that it largely remains a provincial exercise within a global art environment. It is a matter of distance and scale.

The big art houses, including David Zwirner and Larry Gagosian, run huge multi-venue, international operations and each have a turnover several times the size of the whole Australian art market. The total Australian art market in 2012 was worth about A$136 million, or 0.6% of the global art market.

Should one of these two global operators, or any number of others, including some from Asia such as Pearl Lam, set up shop in Australia, the whole momentum of the art trade could change instantly, given Australian art would have to face international competition at home.

A drawing by Damien Hirst or David Hockney costs about the same as a drawing by Brett Whiteley, but a drawing by Whiteley can be sold only in Australia, whereas a drawing by Hirst or Hockney can be sold anywhere in the world.

This may be more appealing to an art investor or art speculator. There is some anecdotal evidence that in Australia we have an emerging generation of art collectors who collect globally, rather than locally, and who wish to collect art that is a global commodity.

Current existing mechanisms for marketing Australian art on the primary market are under severe strain as the traditional commercial art gallery model has broken down. Online sales have not been seriously explored and I can only assume major virtual commercial art galleries will appear, which may have no physical presence, but through which art, mainly in the under-A$10,000 range, can be quickly and safely delivered to customers for approval in their own homes.

We do not need art warehouses if the clients are telling us that they have a strong interest in art, but have no time or inclination to go window shopping for art and prefer to choose and buy their art, as they buy most other things, online.

Pooling resources

Where physical art galleries will continue, they will need to pool resources. I envisage a dozen art spaces all centrally staffed, with hours reflecting the convenience of customer visitation, such as late night trading, and with events planned to add to the eye candy.

This is not the Sydney Danks Street model, but more of an emporium that is staffed centrally, under strict CCTV vision, and with instant Skype/phone access to interested parties when there is a serious sales enquiry.

The proliferation of subsidised and artist-run art spaces will continue as more and more “non-real estate” names in art, emerging artists and passionate hobbyists seek venues through which to exhibit and market their art.

I strongly believe that Australian art, at its best, stands up well to international competition, but its marketing has traditionally been quite poor. In the second decade of the 21st century, it is a global market place and we need to trade globally, rather than act with a provincial mentality.

If there are to be philanthropic or government subsidies, they need to be directed at getting Australian art into the international circuit of art fairs and the international art market.

At the moment there are a few individual mavericks trading Australian art internationally. By 2020 this will have to become the norm.

Do you have a topic for a Friday essay? Contact the Arts + Culture editor.

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian art is any art made in Australia or about Australia, from prehistoric times to the present. This includes Aboriginal, Colonial, Landscape, Atelier, early twentieth century painters, print makers, photographers, and sculptors influenced by European modernism, Contemporary art. The visual arts have a long history in Australia, with evidence of Aboriginal art dating back at least 30,000 years. Australia has produced many notable artists of both Western and Indigenous Australian schools, including the late-19th-century Heidelberg School plein air painters, the Antipodeans, the Central Australian Hermannsburg School watercolourists, the Western Desert Art Movement and coeval examples of well-known High modernism and Postmodern art.


Indigenous Australia[edit]

Main article: Indigenous Australian art

The first ancestors of Aboriginal Australians are believed to have arrived in Australia as early as 60,000 years ago, and evidence of Aboriginal art in Australia can be traced back at least 30,000 years.[1] Examples of ancient Aboriginal rock artworks can be found throughout the continent. Notable examples can be found in national parks, such as those of the UNESCO listed sites at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, and the Bradshaw rock paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Rock art can also be found within protected parks in urban areas such as Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney.[2][3][4] The Sydney rock engravings are approximately 5000 to 200 years old. Murujuga in Western Australia has the Friends of Australian Rock Art advocating its preservation, and the numerous engravings there were heritage listed in 2007.[5][6]

In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe,[7] and Aboriginal art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world.[8] There are three major regional styles: the geometric style found in Central Australia, Tasmania, the Kimberley and Victoria known for its concentric circles, arcs and dots; the simple figurative style found in Queensland; the complex figurative style found in Arnhem Land which includes X-Ray art.[9] These designs generally carry significance linked to the spirituality of the Dreamtime.[10]

William Barak (c.1824-1903) was one of the last traditionally educated of the Wurundjeri-willam, people who come from the district now incorporating the city of Melbourne. He remains notable for his artworks which recorded traditional Aboriginal ways for the education of Westerners (which remain on permanent exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria and at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery). Margaret Preston (1875–1963) was among the early non-indigenous painters to incorporate Aboriginal influences in her works. Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) is a famous Australian artist and an Arrernte man. His landscapes inspired the Hermannsburg School of art.[11] The works of Elizabeth Durack are notable for their fusion of Western and indigenous influences. Since the 1970s, indigenous artists have employed the use of acrylic paints - with styles such as the Western Desert Art Movement becoming globally renowned 20th-century art movements.

The National Gallery of Australia exhibits a great many indigenous art works, including those of the Torres Strait Islands who are known for their traditional sculpture and headgear.[12] The Art Gallery of New South Wales has an extensive collection of indigenous Australian art. [4] In May 2011, the Director of the Place, Evolution, and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU) at Griffith University, Paul Taçon, called for the creation of a national database for rock art.[13]Paul Taçon launched the "Protect Australia’s Spirit" campaign in May 2011 with the highly regarded Australian actor Jack Thompson.[14] This campaign aims to create the very first fully resourced national archive to bring together information about rock art sites, as well as planning for future rock art management and conservation. The National Rock Art Institute would bring together existing rock art expertise from Griffith University, Australian National University, and the University of Western Australia if they were funded by philanthropists, big business and government. Rock Art Research is published twice a year and also covers international scholarship of rock art.

Colonial era[edit]

Early Western art in Australia, from 1788 onwards, is often narrated as the gradual shift from a European sense of light to an Australian one. The lighting in Australia is notably different from that of Europe, and early attempts at landscapes attempted to reflect this. It has also been one of transformation, where artistic ideas originating from beyond (primarily Europe) gained new meaning and purpose when transplanted into the new continent and the emerging society.[15]

British exploration and settlement (1770–1850)[edit]

The first artistic representations of the Australia scene by European artists were mainly natural history illustrations, depicting the distinctive flora and fauna of the land for scientific purposes, and the topography of the coast. Sydney Parkinson, the Botanical illustrator on James Cook's 1770 voyage that first charted the eastern coastline of Australia, made a large number of such drawings under the direction of naturalist Joseph Banks. Many of these drawings were met with skepticism when taken back to Europe, for example claims that the platypus was a hoax. In the form of copies and reproductions, George Stubbs' 1772 paintings Portrait of a Large Dog and The Kongouro from New Holland—depicting a dingo and kangaroo respectively—were the first images of Australian fauna to be widely disseminated in Britain.

Despite Banks' suggestions, no professional natural-history artist sailed on the First Fleet in 1788. Until the turn of the century all drawings made in the colony were crafted by soldiers, including British naval officers George Raper and John Hunter, and convict artists, including Thomas Watling.[16] However, many of these drawings are by unknown artists, most notably the Port Jackson Painter. Most are in the style of naval draughtsmanship, and cover natural history topics, specifically birds, and a few depict the infant colony itself.

Several professional natural-history illustrators accompanied expeditions in the early 19th century, including Ferdinand Bauer, who travelled with Matthew Flinders, and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, who travelled with a French expedition led by Nicolas Baudin. The first resident professional artist was John Lewin,[16] who arrived in 1800 and published two volumes of natural history art. Ornithologist John Gould was renowned for his illustration's of the country's birds.[16] In the late 19th Century Harriet and Helena Scott were highly respected natural history illustrators[17] Lewin's Platypus (1808) represents the fine detail and scientific observation displayed by many of these early painters.

As well as inspiration in natural history, there were some ethnographic portraiture of Aboriginal Australians, particularly in the 1830s. Artists included Augustus Earle in New South Wales[16] and Benjamin Duterrau, Robert Dowling and the sculptor Benjamin Law, recording images of Tasmanian Aborigines.

The most significant landscape artist of this era[15] was John Glover. Heavily influenced by 18th Century European landscape painters, such as Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, his works captured the distinctive Australian features of open country, fallen logs, and blue hills.[18]

Conrad Martens (1801–1878) worked from 1835 to 1878 as a professional artist, painting many landscapes and was commercially successful. His work has been regarded as softening the landscape to fit European sensibilities.[16] His watercolour studies of Sydney Harbour are well regarded, and seen as introducing Romantic ideals to his paintings.[18] Martens is also remembered for accompanying scientist Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle (as had Augustus Earle).

  • Thomas Watling, A Direct North General View of Sydney Cove, 1794

  • William Westall, View of Sir Edward Pellews Group, Gulph of Carpentaria, 1802

  • Alexander Schramm, A Tribe of Natives on the Banks of the River Torrens, 1850

  • Conrad Martens, Campbell's Wharf, c. 1857

Gold rushes and expansion (1851–1885)[edit]

From 1851, the Victorian Gold Rush resulted in a huge influx of settlers and new wealth. S. T. Gill (1818–1880) documented life on the Australian gold fields,[16] however the colonial art market primarily desired landscape paintings, which were commissioned by wealthy landowners or merchants wanting to record their material success.[19]

William Piguenit's (1836–1914) "Flood in the Darling" was acquired by the National Gallery of New South Wales in 1895.[20]

Some of the artists of note included Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier, William Strutt, John Skinner Prout and Knut Bull.

Louis Buvelot was a key figure in landscape painting in the later period. He was influenced by the Barbizon school painters, and so using a plein air technique, and a more domesticated and settled view of the land, in contrast to the emphasis on strangeness or danger prevalent in earlier painters. This approach, together with his extensive teaching influence, have led his to dubbed the "Father of Landscape Painting in Australia".[18]

A few attempts at art exhibitions were made in the 1840s, which attracted a number of artists but were commercial failures. By the 1850s, however, regular exhibitions became popular, with a variety of art types represented. The first of these exhibitions was in 1854 in Melbourne. An art museum, which eventually became the National Gallery of Victoria, was founded in 1861, and it began to collect Australian works as well as gathering a collection of European masters. Crucially, it also opened an Art School, important for the following generations of Australian-born and raised artists.

H. J. Johnstone, a professional photographer and student of Buvelot, painted the large-scale bush scene Evening Shadows (1880), the first acquisition of the Art Gallery of South Australia and possibly Australia's most reproduced painting.[21]

  • Robert Dowling, Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1860

  • Nicholas Chevalier, Mount Arapiles and the Mitre Rock, 1863

  • Louis Buvelot, Summer Afternoon, Templestowe, 1866

Australian Impressionism (1885–1900)[edit]

Main article: Heidelberg School

The origins of a distinctly Australian painting tradition is often associated with the Heidelberg School of the late 19th century. Named after a camp Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton established in Heidelberg (then a rural suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne), these painters, together with Frederick McCubbin, Charles Conder[22] and others, began an impressionistic plein air approach to the Australian landscape that remains embedded in Australia's popular consciousness, both in and outside the art world.

Many of their most famous works depict scenes of pastoral and outback Australia. Central themes of their art include manual labour, conquering the land,[15] and an idealisation of the rural pioneer.[18] By the 1890s most Australians were city-dwellers, as were the artists themselves, and a romantic view of pioneer life gave great power and popularity to images such as Shearing the Rams.[18] In this work Roberts uses formal composition and strong realism to dignify the shearers[18] whilst the relative anonymity of the men and their subdued expressions, elevate their work as the real subject, rather that the specific individuals portrayed.[15]

In their portrayal of the nobility of rural life, the Heidelberg artists reveal their debt to Millet, Bastien-Lepage and Courbet, but the techniques and aims of the French Impressionists provide more direct inspiration and influenced their actual practise. In their early and extremely influential Exhibition of 9 by 5 Impressions of small sketches, their impressionistic programme was clear, as evidenced from their catalogue: "An effect is only momentary: so an impressionist tries to find his place... it has been the object of artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character."[18]

Other significant painters associated with the Heidelberg painters were Walter Withers, who won the inaugural Wynne Prize in 1896,[22] and Jane Sutherland, a student of McCubbin.


    Federation era (1901–1914)[edit]

    In 1901, the six self-governing Australian colonies federated to form a unified nation. Artists such as Hans Heysen and Elioth Gruner built on the Australian landscape tradition of the Heidelberg painters, creating grand, nationalist pastoral landscapes. Others moved on to successful careers in London and Paris, such as Rupert Bunny and Hugh Ramsay.

    List of artists[edit]

    Main articles: List of Australian artists, Category:Australian sculptors, and Category:Australian photographers

    Art museums and galleries in Australia[edit]

    Main articles: List of Art museums and galleries in Australia and Category:Art museums and galleries in Australia


    Australia has major art museums and galleries subsidized by the national and state governments, as well as private art museums and small university and municipal galleries. The National Gallery of Australia, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales have major strengths in collecting the art of the Asia Pacific Region. Others include the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which has the best Australian collection of Western art. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the privately owned Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania and White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney are widely regarded as autonomously discerning collections of international contemporary art.

    Other institutions include the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, Newcastle Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. A significant amount of colonial artwork is held by the National and State libraries.

    Art market[edit]

    The boom and bust cycle in contemporary art is evident in the 1980s colonial art boom ending at the time of the 1987 stock market crash and the exit of many artists and dealers, followed by the 2000s boom in Aboriginal dot painting and Australian late modernist painting, which ended at the time of the global financial crisis and growing collector and public interest in the international contemporary art circuit.

    A 5% resale royalty scheme commenced in 2010 under which artists receive 5% of the sale price when eligible artworks are resold commercially for $1000 or more. Between 10 June 2010 and 15 May 2013, the scheme generated over $1.5 million in royalties for 610 artists.[23] Some buyers object to paying any resale royalty while others do not mind a royalty going directly to the artists. However, they worry about further red tape and bureaucratic interference.

    In 2014/15 there was a rediscovery of colonial art at auction. Affordable 20th century rural scene painting is buoyant. While the inflated northern hemisphere art markets had anticipating a massive correction in the Australian art market which transitioned to the middle market.

    Socially oriented art events such as art fairs and biennials have continued to grow in size and popularity in the contemporary art scene. The smaller commercial galleries have struggled to remain in business in the 2010s in spite of a functioning economy, although there is little consensus on the reasons for this.

    Australian visual arts in other countries[edit]

    The museum for Australian Aboriginal art "La grange"[24] (Neuchâtel, Switzerland) is one of the few museums in Europe that dedicates itself entirely to Aboriginal art.

    See also[edit]


    1. ^"Indigenous art". Australian Culture and Recreation Portal. Australia Government. Archived from the original on 16 April 2010. Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
    2. ^Kakadu National Park - Home
    3. ^Uluru-Kata Tjuta National ParkArchived 17 January 2010 at WebCite
    4. ^Ku Ring Gai Chase National Park, Sydney, Australia. Information and MapArchived 29 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
    5. ^* ABC Online 10.02.09 Pilbara Rock Art not Affected by Mining Emissions: Study
    6. ^Phillips, Yasmine: World protection urged for Burrup art. 13.01.09 [1][dead link]
    7. ^The spread of people to Australia - Australian Museum
    8. ^"The Indigenous Collection". The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. National Gallery of Victoria. Archived from the original on 6 December 2010. Retrieved 6 December 2010. 
    9. ^[2] Arnhem Land Rock Art on Archaeology TV
    10. ^Australian Indigenous art - 16 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
    11. ^
    12. ^
    13. ^"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 17 January 2012. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
    14. ^[3] Protect Australia's Spirit Interview with Prof. Paul Tacon and Jack Thompson
    15. ^ abcdArt in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism. Christopher Allen (1997). Thames and Hudson, World of Art series.
    16. ^ abcdefJames Gleeson, Australian Painting. Edited by John Henshaw. 1971.
    17. ^
    18. ^ abcdefgAustralian Painting: 1788-2000. Bernard Smith with Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote (2001). Oxford University Press.
    19. ^
    20. ^McCulloch, Alan McCulloch, Susan McCulloch & Emily McCulloch Childs: McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art Melbourne University Press, 2006
    21. ^'Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia', Art Gallery of South Australia. Retrieved 27 February 2017.
    22. ^ abAlan McCulloch, Golden Age of Australian Painting: Impressionism and the Heidelberg School
    23. ^Resale Royalty Scheme
    24. ^

    External links[edit]

    William Barak, Corroboree, 1895
    John Glover, A View of the Artist's House and Garden, 1835
    Eugene von Guérard, North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko, 1863


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