1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Images of the Suburbs

Suburban images abound in the work of Melbourne's artists but have frequently been disguised or displaced, reflecting an ambivalence towards suburban experience. Melbourne's urbanising fringe, parks and backyards have been remade as landscapes; its bayside beaches as seascapes; its liveliest public spaces as dreamscapes; its backstreets and laneways as urban vignettes. Suburban subjects appeared in artists' sketchbooks and at amateur exhibitions, but less often in more ambitious or public works. In less self-conscious visual art, or in popular and commercial imagery, the suburbs often appeared in forms closer to everyday experience.

Australia's earliest celebrated national style took its name from a suburb: the Heidelberg School of Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. These 'city bushmen' painted at sketching grounds that were an easy daytrip from the city, a short walk from suburban train lines. Their bush settings fused the picnicker's pastoral recreation with the nationalist's outback mythology. Ironically, the canonical status of these images rests on an apparent denial of their suburban sources, which included Box Hill, Eaglemont, Heidelberg and Sandringham. In his Near Heidelberg (1890), Streeton turned his back on suburban houses and city views, looking instead towards the distant Dandenong Ranges.

Nineteenth-century commentators noted the vitality of suburban development, and a still familiar pattern of social mobility, speculative building and conspicuous consumption. Suburban life was seen to offer the amenities of a modern metropolis but incorporated its inhabitants into a culture of consumption and domesticity. Pessimistic visions of this Faustian bargain underpinned increasingly negative images of the suburbs in Australian art in the 20th century.

The lyricism of Clarice Beckett's suburban visions of the 1920s and 1930s - which made modernist motifs from street lights and power lines - confused her contemporaries. The 1940s works of the Angry Penguins group were more in keeping with increasingly derisory attitudes towards the suburbs: Albert Tucker's inner city was dark, sensual and evil; Sidney Nolan's surreal St Kilda was a lost childhood paradise; Arthur Boyd's and John Perceval's fringe suburbs were alternately mysterious and bucolic.

By mid-century, Melbourne's love-hate affair with the suburbs was entwined with its art. Artists built bohemian enclaves in the very suburbia that they maligned; John and Sunday Reed's salon Heide at Bulleen, the Boyd clan's headquarters at Murrumbeena, Clifton Pugh's Dunroamin and Vassilieff's Stonygrad at Eltham, Lina Bryan's renovated hotel at Darebin. Artists such as John Brack and Charles Blackman were drawn to suburban motifs, even if still uncertain of the merits of the suburbs themselves. Brack's dry, beige-tinted paintings depicted a Menzian landscape of petit-bourgeois prosperity, populated by stiff automata trapped in repetitive suburban rituals. Significantly, Brack later expressed regret at this patronising attitude to the suburbs. Alternative images of the city's postwar growth were produced in photography, including the celebratory modernism of Wolfgang Sievers and the cool ironies of Mark Strizic; in their images, the built environment overshadowed the lives lived within it.

From the late 1960s avant-garde artists acknowledged suburbia as the majority experience and chose to filter international currents in conceptual and abstract art through suburban imagery: Robert Rooney and Dale Hickey produced an art of Holdens and paling fences as the foundation of Australian abstract art. The activities of the suburbs - shopping, driving, commuting - became as central to its imagery as its architecture.

Jenny Watson in the 1970s and Howard Arkley in the 1980s took the suburban bungalow - that staple of Melbourne streetscapes and estate-agent windows - as their subject. Their relativism valued suburban experience on its own terms. Watson made elusively autobiographical meditations from the fa├žades of her childhood homes and the domestic interiors of family and friends, revealing feminist concerns. Arkley explicitly rejected the bush legend and argued that his flywire screens, freeways and suburban villas revealed Melbourne's distinctive character.

With urban, mass-cultural experience accepted, perhaps grudgingly, as the foundation of 21st-century experience, Melbourne's suburbs now appear in art in all their diversity, presented as a kaleidoscope of experiences deriving from class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. While the melancholic vision of the suburbs persists in the work of photographers such as Bill Henson, images of suburban experience now propel feminist critiques of the domestic realm (Kate Daw), explorations of youth culture (Jon Campbell), and visions of erotic mystery (Stewart MacFarlane).

Stephanie Holt And Chris Mcauliffe