Australia at Royal Academy: 200 years of art in six must-sees

Published 20 September 2013

We bring you a boiled-down history of the last 200 years of Australian art with six must-see paintings from Royal Academy's exhibition.

1. Eugene von Guérard , Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite, 1857

After emigrating to Australia in 1852 to try his luck in the goldfields, Austrian-born Eugene von Guérard soon realised his talent was in painting the landscape, rather than working on it. This piece – originally titled An Australian Sunset – is one of his earliest successes.

The sun setting on an aboriginal tribe is a metaphor for the decline of the indigenous people; at the time there were only 16 survivors of the local Colac tribe, including one child seen in the centre of this picture.

2. Arthur Streeton, Golden Summer Eaglemont, 1889

Part of a group of Australian impressionists who worked at outdoor painting camps in the Melbourne suburbs during the 1880s, Arthur Streeton spent two summers in Eaglemont 'surrounded by the loveliness of the new landscape, with heat, drought and flies'.

This hazy afternoon landscape is considered a quintessential piece from the years leading up to the federation and in 1891 it became the first work by one of the nation's artists to hang in the Royal Academy. At each of its sales in 1924, 1985 and 1995, it has established a record price for an Australian painting.

3. Ethel Carrick, Manly Beach – Summer is Here, 1913

Born and trained in England, Ethel Carrick travelled the world with her Australian artist husband Emanuel Phillips Fox, painting modern life as they saw it.

During their trips to Sydney, Carrick was able to capture this image of crowds enjoying the new beach culture that had begun to develop following the ban on bathing during daylight hours being lifted in 1906. It is an early recognition of a leisurely pursuit now characteristic of the modern Australian lifestyle.

4. Grace Cossington Smith, The Bridge in Building, 1929

At the height of the Great Depression in 1929, almost a third of Australians were out of work, many more paid below the minimum wage. In these bleak times, the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge was seen as a symbol of hope among the country's citizens.

A number of artists depicted its construction from 1924-32, one being the early modern painter Grace Cossington Smith, who celebrated the bridge as a work-in-progress and documented the first glimpses of this important national structure.

5. Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Larry Jungarrayi Spencer, Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming), 1985

Elders in Yuendumu, a remote town in central Australia with a thriving artistic aboriginal community, were concerned that the Papunya artists were trivialising their culture by painting major ancestral sites and stories. Marking a key shift in attitude in the 1980s, a number of senior Yuendumu artists painted the doors of the local school with ancestral images as an act of cultural affirmation.

Painted by three senior Warlpiri artists, Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming) relates to a fire ceremony that is associated with the creation of the constellations and is a ritual of their people.

6. Shaun Gladwell, Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007

Exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Shaun Gladwell’s video captures a leather-clad motorbike rider travelling with arms outstretched along the white lines of a highway that descends into a barren Australian desert.

A contemporary digital artist and accomplished freestyle skateboarder, Gladwell describes his work as 'performance landscapes', the addition of risk reflecting a new trend of introducing art into sport.

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