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Visual Arts

Since its foundation, Melbourne has vied with Sydney as Australia's leading art city. Topographical artists were never as numerous as those in Sydney or Hobart, but views of early settlement were preserved in painting and the illustrated press.

William Strutt was the first significant history painter, recording the dramas of the early colony: the bushfire of Black Thursday in 1851, the opening of the first parliament in 1856, bushrangers in St Kilda Road in 1887, and the departure of the Burke and Wills expedition in 1860. The work of S.T. Gill is usually associated with the goldfields, but he produced drawings for the Melbourne Herald and recorded events in the life of Melbourne from his Collins Street studio.

The grid plan of the central city has had the effect of concentrating activity in the golden mile with the National Gallery of Victoria and its art school, retail outlets and art galleries, watering holes and cafés and, importantly, artists' studios. Lacking the physical attributes of a harbour, Melbourne nevertheless offered a highly coherent centre which fostered interchange between artists and writers.

Artists accompanied explorers beyond the city (Ludwig Becker, with Burke and Wills), and found congenial scenery nearby (in the Dandenongs, or Mount Macedon), or further afield. Eugène von Guérard came first to the goldfields, later travelling widely throughout Australia. He established himself in Melbourne where he settled in 1854, producing a panorama of the city in 1855. Nicholas Chevalier, first employed by Melbourne Punch, was an acknowledged landscapist. Arriving in Melbourne in 1865, Swiss-born Louis Buvelot, at first a photographer with a studio in Bourke Street, was acclaimed for the authenticity of his landscapes, which included the nearby countryside at Heidelberg and Templestowe.

The Art Museum and Picture Gallery, founded early in the life of the Colony in 1861, became the National Gallery of Victoria. The Gallery school, a focal point for art training, commenced in 1870 with von Guérard as the first Master of Painting and Curator.

The number of art societies and clubs testified to Melbourne's professionalism in the arts and its cultural ambition. A Victorian Academy of Art commenced in 1870. The Victorian Society of Fine Arts became the Victorian Artists' Society in 1888, and is still in existence in its premises in East Melbourne. In 1902, women students from the National Gallery School formed the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors.

The formation of the so-called Heidelberg School in the 1880s - a group of young artists dedicated to painting en plein air - was significant in the development of a national form of painting, informed by European Realism and Impressionism. Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton, Fred McCubbin and others were to make the near bush, the bayside beaches, and some aspects of the city well known (Tom Roberts' Bourke Street). Their work was seen at the controversial 9 x 5 'Impression Exhibition' held at Buxton's Gallery in Swanston Street in 1889.

Artistic life was vitalised by the specifically designed Grosvenor Studies at 9 Collins Street where Roberts, Streeton and Conder all painted. The self-styled bohemians gathered at Fasoli's in Collins Street and frequented the Buonarotti Club, or the Order of Cannibals. Norman Lindsay's A Curate in Bohemia captures the vitality and larrikinism of his formative years in Melbourne in the 1890s.

A crepuscular view of the rural outskirts preoccupied painters of Symbolist inclination in the 1890s, among them David Davies, Walter Withers, E. Phillips Fox, Clara Southern and Jane Sutherland. Frederick McCubbin painted many quasi-rural views of Melbourne from his backyard in Kensington Road, South Yarra, as well as major history pictures such as The Pioneers.

Melbourne art from the turn of the century until the 1950s was marked by conservatism and resistance to Modernism. The dominant personality was Arthur Streeton, who returned to Australia in the early 1920s to settle in Toorak, and Olinda in the Dandenongs. He wrote art criticism for the Argus, and painted in a pastoralist mode until his death in 1943. Ernest Buckmaster and the watercolourist Harold Herbert persisted with picturesque views and high reputations. The pre-eminent portrait painter was Sir John Longstaff (who died in 1941), well known for his monumental painting of the Gippsland fires of 1898, and Burke and Wills at Cooper's Creek, completed in 1907.

A conservative form of tonally based painting was perpetrated by Max Meldrum, who opened a private school in 1916 and continued to influence Melbourne painting until the 1950s. The first exhibition of his student group was held at the Athenaeum Gallery, Collins Street, in 1919. Among his students was Clarice Beckett, whose paintings of Beaumaris and the city - including its trams - are a high point of lyricism in the 1920s and 1930s (she died in 1935).

Within the conservative climate, artists associated with the Victorian Artists' Society experimented tentatively with Post-Impressionism and Modernism - among them William Frater and Arnold Shore, who painted more expressionistic landscapes and portraits, Isabel Tweddle, Adrian Lawlor, Sam Atyeo and Lina Bryans.

Melbourne's many art schools have contributed to its professionalism and variety as an art centre. In the 1930s, an alternative to the National Gallery of Victoria, then under Bernard Hall, was run by George Bell (initially with Arnold Shore), who was more open to Modernism than was Max Meldrum. Among his pupils were Russell Drysdale and Fred Williams. Bell became president of the new Contemporary Art Society in 1938, a counter society to the Australian Academy of Art, which was supported by the then attorney-general, Robert Menzies.

The patronage of Keith Murdoch of the Herald, and the openness to Modernism of the critic Basil Burdett, resulted in the 1939 Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. Generating considerable controversy, it brought a range of international modern artists to Australia for the first time. Keith Murdoch endowed the Herald Chair of Fine Arts in 1946 for the teaching of art history at the University of Melbourne. The first professor, Joseph Burke, and lecturers Bernard Smith (from Sydney) and Franz Philipp (trained in Vienna) pioneered the discipline of art history in Australia.

The climate shifted during the depression and war years. Social realists such as Yosl Bergner and Noel Counihan painted the slum side of the city and its poor inhabitants. Inspired by European movements, particularly Surrealism and Expressionism, young artists Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Joy Hester broke with the dominant pastoral mode to paint wartime Melbourne. John and Sunday Reed, at home at Heide on the outskirts of Melbourne, encouraged artists. With Max Harris from Adelaide, John Reed edited the journal Angry Penguins (produced in Melbourne from 1943). Sidney Nolan's first Ned Kelly series was painted at the Reed home in 1944-45.

The impotence of the pastoral tradition, and the gradual acceptance of Modernist-influenced figurative and abstract painting, were evident in the expansion of commercial galleries (Australian Galleries, Argus Gallery, Realities, Gallery A) from the mid-1950s. In 1959, a group of painters around Bernard Smith supported the Antipodean Manifesto against Abstract and Dada art from overseas, seen to erode local content. Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Charles Blackman (who had come to Melbourne from Brisbane), and John Brack, Clifton Pugh and Robert Dickerson from Sydney were involved in discussion which appeared to pit Sydney and abstraction against Melbourne and figuration.

Emigrants to Melbourne enriched the art scene. Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack came from the Bauhaus. George and Mirka Mora, from Paris, were influential in reviving the Contemporary Art Society in the 1950s and running the Balzac Restaurant, a meeting place for artists. John Reed's much-needed Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia, commenced in 1958, did not find a sufficiently sustaining audience in Melbourne and closed in 1966.

Abstraction was practised against the mainstream of modern figuration by such artists as Roger Kemp (from the early 1940s), Len Crawford, and a younger generation, including Janet Dawson, the furniture designer and sculptor Clement Meadmore, and Peter Clarke (associated with Gallery A). A second generation of committed abstractionists was responsive to European tachisme and then American abstraction, seen significantly in Melbourne in Two Decades of American Painting in 1967. The Field, an exhibition held in 1968 at the National Gallery of Victoria, showed young artists committed to hard-edge abstraction. The support of the Age critic Patrick McCaughey (foundation professor of Visual Arts at Monash University, and director of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1981 to 1988) for American abstraction, and the critical position of Clement Greenberg, gave impetus to Melbourne-based work in the 1970s and 1980s. Bruce Pollard's gallery Pinacotheca was virtually a salon for artists of like persuasion.

A generation of Melbourne artists (with John Brack as the senior figure) has been recognised as 'Melbourne Cool', practising a form of suburban art - 'suburbanism'. Howard Arkley painted the typical bungalow in day-glo colours. But a counter form of Expressionism also surfaced in the 1980s, coherent in a group of young artists associated with the Roar Studios and in Peter Booth's apocalyptic paintings. A satirical strain of art persists in Melbourne from John Brack to Mike Brown and Juan Davila.

From his return to Australia in 1959, Fred Williams, predominantly a landscape painter, modernised the landscape, giving it new currency and renewed relevance. His reputation was at a high point in the 1970s and 1980s (he died in 1982). Williams painted in the Sherbrooke Forest area in outer Melbourne, although his painting sites ranged across the continent. A notable Melbourne-based suite of paintings was the Kew Billabong series (1975).

Print-making has a strong institutional basis in Melbourne, perhaps as a consequence of the excellence of the National Gallery collection and the curatorship of Ursula Hoff. 'Melbourne Prints' came together in 1951. The Print Council of Australia formed in 1966, establishing workshops in 1981. The printmaking studio at RMIT involved many artists, including Roger Kemp, John Brack, Fred Williams and George Baldessin. In the 1970s, Tate Adam's Crossley Gallery specialised in prints.

A widespread reaction against painting - in favour of conceptual art, performance art, and installation practices midway between painting and sculpture - marked the 1970s and 1980s. Performance art was seen from the late 1960s in avant-garde galleries such as Pinacotheca and Gallery A. From the early 1970s, the Women's Art Movement was focused at the George Paton and Ewing Galleries (University of Melbourne) under the directorship of Kiffy Rubbo. The Collective established the Women's Art Register and produced the magazine Lip from 1975 to 1983.

John Nixon's gallery, Art Projects, was a centre for conceptual artists from 1979 to 1985. Postmodernism was actively courted by artists associated with Paul Taylor and his journal Art + Text (first issued in 1981), which was receptive to French post-structuralist theory. Exhibitions curated by Paul Taylor did much to renew a sense of an avant-garde (Popism at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1982). Published art criticism and theory was prolific at this time.

The upgrading of art schools within technical colleges to degree-issuing status, and amalgamations with universities, increased the prestige of Melbourne's abundant art schools. The National Gallery of Victoria under director Eric Westbrook moved to expanded premises in St Kilda Road in 1968. The National Gallery School continued its educational role as the Victorian College of the Arts.

With the retraction of commercial sales in the 1980s, artist-run venues for young artists represented an important alternative to commercial galleries and restricted patronage: 200 Gertrude Street was founded in 1983 for emerging artists. Siting of the National Gallery of Victoria's Museum of Australian Art in Federation Square followed much lobbying to achieve a Museum of Contemporary Art for Melbourne. However, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art at Heide (as a result of the John and Sunday Reed legacy), the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, and the galleries of the universities at Melbourne, Monash and RMIT, attest to the professionalism and scholarship in these venues committed to current art. Four auction houses (Leonard Joel's, Christie's, Sotheby's, and since 1998, Deutscher/Menzies) attest to the importance of the Melbourne art market.

In common with other centres, the activity of artists is now as much nationally based (and internationally, in some cases) as it is locally. Melbourne's institutional richness, established from colonial days, still has its impact.

Margaret Plant

Downer, Christine, and Jennifer Phipps, Victorian vision: 1834 onwards, images and records from the National Gallery of Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985. Details

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Hosier Lane