Royal Academy, London W1
“They call her a young country, but they lie,” wrote the poet A D Hope. You’ve probably never heard of Hope, or worried away at the problems in his vicious, fabulous poem “Australia”. Is Australia young? If you check the history books, or rock up at the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, you’d have to say so: a mere 225-year-old whippersnapper. Ask any of the Aboriginal people whose ancestors were dispossessed after 1788 and you start to understand why Hope writes of liars. But it must be said that they aren’t the only sidelined Australians: why, given his fierce, beautiful writing and status as one of Australia’s foremost 20th-century poets, does Hope remain unknown to you?
This is the Australian narrative, a chain of misunderstanding and wilful blindness, from the original inhabitants failing to comprehend doom dropping anchor to the sailors who saw nothing in their destination save its emptiness and potential as a prison. Then there are the English, far away, who may or may not have called it a young country, because the fact is, they didn’t call her much at all, and still don’t. Australia’s ambiguous status, as both Europe’s last cultural outpost and a place with hardly anything at all in common with Europe, has made her maturation slow and difficult.
The RA is celebrating this process and the peculiar difficulties Australia is still trying to overcome. It is hard to be a great nation, artistically speaking, when your cities aren’t quite Rome or Paris. And Australia is both the most urban of countries – city-dwellers make up 85 per cent of its population, one of the highest proportions of urbanites of any country anywhere – and the least so, because, let’s face it, her cities are burrs on the beast.
Yet aggravation and ambiguity can be inspirational. Even William Westall, the artist on Matthew Flinders’s 1801 exploratory expedition, was nourished by his hatred of this new country. Light pours on to his canvases like a visitation. Westall left but plenty stayed, and their problems simply grew more complex. The attraction that mid-20th-century modernists such as Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan felt to Europe, and their struggle with that influence, are part of what is Australian about their art. It is indifference that makes for mediocrity and Australia is not an easy place to be indifferent to.
It can, however, be a hard place to translate. The scale is different and so are the preoccupations. The cattle-killing droughts in Judith Wright’s poem “South of My Days”, or the swagman in Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda”, are utterly Australian; so are the dreamings in Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s and Uta Uta Tjangala’s paintings, or the “vast astonishment” of which Rickety Kate wrote, referring to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Australia has done herself no favours by refusing to acknowledge her differences. In Melbourne in 1889, the legendary (in Australia only) “9 by 5 Impression Exhibition” featured nearly 200 tiny paintings, many on cigar-box lids; the avowed aim of their creators was to capture light, as Whistler had done half a world away with his Nocturnes. Some of those works, by Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, are on display at the RA. Trying to fit this hulking continent on top of a cigar box is insane: angels and pinheads spring to mind. Yet Aussies continued to measure their work by European standards and, generally, find it wanting. “Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon culture,” wrote the critic A A Phillips glumly in 1950, christening the problem “the Cultural Cringe”. The Royal Academy has certainly underestimated Australia, similarly trying to fit the continent into too small a space. The gallery has form on this kind of sweeping treatment – its 1995 “Africa” show triggered outrage – but the curators are also responding to Australian self-deprecation, not to mention the internal incoherence of a nation founded on theft by people who were there mostly as punishment for stealing.
Theft is the theme I would have chosen for this show. From Nolan’s terrific images of the outlaw Ned Kelly to Tracey Moffatt’s photography and Robert Campbell Jr’s cartoonish 1988 painting Abo history (facts), there’s plenty great material that fits.
It is no revelation to suggest that Australia needs to come to terms with its past if it wants a prouder future, but it seems possible that one day, the kind of Englishman who prides himself on knowing something about German expressionism or French surrealism would feel a touch sheepish (pun intended) never to have heard of Australian modernism. Hope was writing in 1939: this talk of white and black, young and old, north and south won’t do any more. Terra Australis is closer than we thought. Europe must screw up its ageing eyes against that bright sunlight and take a better look.
“Australia” runs until 8 December. Details: royalacademy.org.uk