Friday, April 1, 2016

Tom Roberts at the NGA

Deborah and I spent our Easter weekend in Canberra to see the Tom Roberts exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Roberts is an artist whom I've admired all my life, and it was a privilege to see a retrospective of his work. I expected to see a good exhibition, but the quality of his achievements literally shone from the walls in a way that my expectations were exceeded.

Most of the works were beautifully lit. I saw details that had alluded my eyes for years, and the paint texture and colour subtleties revealed themselves in all their richness. Every painting reflected what could only be called a love for his materials, subject matter, and the process of making images in paint. This is often mistaken for skill, but heart alone produces the richness that is present in a Tom Roberts painting.

Not many artists introduce a style of painting into their country, but Roberts did just that. He lived at a time when Impressionism swept the world, and it was his destiny to bring its influence to Australia. The group of artists he worked with has been called the Heidelberg School, and they emphasised the practice of making pictures out of doors - en plain air, although their colours were closer to nature  than French Impressionism. The brushwork of the French artists was generally broader than their Australian counterparts, but I like the way Roberts and Streeton used detail in distances, which has the effect of taking one into the far spaces of their landscapes. I've also admired the way the Heidelberg School artists captured not only the light of the sun, but its heat, perhaps more so than artists from other countries. Whenever I'm driving into regional areas, I always think of Roberts and Arthur Streeton and the truth of the outdoors they captured in paint.

The philosophy of Impressionism claimed that the important thing was to complete paintings directly from life in the open air, but this didn't always happen. Impressionists sometimes painted their outdoor works partly in the studio, nevertheless, many works were completed out of doors. Artists from previous centuries painted en plain air, but these works were never considered complete in themselves. The atmosphere of the outdoors was an impressionist's principal concern and they adopted a technique and colour sensibility that could best realise this. It's these aspects that separates them from previous artists, rather than en plein air painting itself.

Roberts' subject matter is broad, so I thought I would show a few images from different genres he explored.

This great Australian artist's work can be seen by googling Tom Roberts paintings.

A Breakaway, 1891, oil on canvas, 137.3 x 167.8cm

Holliday Sketch at Coggee, 1888, oil on canvas,  40.3 x 55.9 cm

Miss Isobel McDonald, 1895oil on canvas, 46.5 x 41.8 cm

Still life with Pomegranates, 1883, oil on canvas, 31.1 x 64.3 cm