'Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming)' (1995) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye
'Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming)' (1995) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye © National Gallery of Australia

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher living among Aboriginal people in Papunya in Australia’s Western Desert, invited senior men from the community to create murals on his school walls in the style of their own traditions. Accustomed to painting their bodies and ceremonial objects, the men went on to use acrylics and ochre on sections of board, adapting with flair to the new materials, and producing works that were fresh, visually arresting and captured the moment.

These paintings, which open the Royal Academy’s Australia exhibition, form the continent’s only original art movement. To western eyes, the overlapping concentric red circles of Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra’s “Kalipinypa Water Dreaming”, the patterns of coloured dots and feathery white cross-hatching in Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s “A Bush Tucker Story”, and the shimmering pink/purple ridges of Timmy Payungka Tjapangati’s “Sacred Sandhills” look like bold abstract compositions. Painted in 1972, all show extraordinary affinities with contemporary 1970s western art – the elegant austerity of minimalism, innovations of land and body art, influences of identity politics, anthropo­logy, environmentalism.

None of this was in the minds of the Aboriginal painters, displaced from their homelands and encountering white people for the first time. Their images belong to Dreaming stories – creation narratives indissolubly connected to land and place, passed down through patrilineal lines. In this icon­ography, Tjakamarra’s circles represent rain or water dreamings; beneath the dots and dashes of “A Bush Tucker Story” lie graphic symbols denoting sacred sites and pathways.

Such symbols go back 40,000 years. The fingertip dotting replicates the ancient processes of placing clusters of ochre on the ground; animated stippled surfaces, like those of “Sacred Sand­hills”, express the presence of ancestral forces in the land. Thus a new genre developed in unbroken tradition from the world’s oldest art movement.

The early examples here have an innocence, a thrill at new-found virtuosity that could not last. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s “Warlugulong” (1977) is already more sophisticated, depicting nine dreamings, beginning with the bushfire created by Lungkata, the Blue-tongued Lizard Man, to engulf his ungrateful sons.

'Roads Meeting' (1987) by Rover Thomas
'Roads Meeting' (1987) by Rover Thomas © National Gallery of Australia

Executed on canvas, “Warlugulong” integrates the sacred diagrams of ground painting with European mapping conventions to suggest an aerial view of a rich, dense landscape.

As the Desert painting movement spread, Aboriginal communities grew wary about making sacred dreamings public. In 1974 elders in Kimberley interpreted Cyclone Tracy as a sign from an ancestral Rainbow Serpent warning that European interest was destabilising traditional culture. Employing a radically simplified dotted style in natural earth pigments, Rover Thomas in “Cyclone Tracy” and “Roads Meeting” – where an ancestral red dirt track crosses a modern bitumen road – traces landscape as violent history, scarred by those who traverse it.

The largest Aboriginal work here is an eight-metre canvas of livid tangled white skeins of paint, “Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming)”, by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. How authentic is it? A ceremonial leader who began painting on canvas in her seventies, Kngwarreye was promoted as an overnight sensation and became the first Aboriginal artist to sell for more than $1m. Her vigorous all-over compositions recall Jackson Pollock – perhaps too closely. One example is not definitive but, according to Philip Batty, senior curator at Melbourne’s Victoria Museum, Kngwarreye’s later work is simply “a mirror image of European desires”.

This is where Aboriginal art meets non-indigenous Australian painting. Like many nations groping towards cultural identity in the 19th century, Australia prioritised landscape painting but, always, the European viewpoint hovers like a shadow.

Production still from 'Mundi Mundi' (2007) by Shaun Gladwell
Production still from 'Mundi Mundi' (2007) by Shaun Gladwell © Josh Raymond

Early topographical paintings recorded Australia’s strangeness to foreign eyes. “View of Sir Edward Pellew’s Group, Gulf of Carpentaria” by William Westall, who accompanied Matthew Flinders’ 1801-03 expedition circumnavigating the continent, depicts brilliant sun bleaching sea and shore, where a totemic ritual object in a bark shelter emphasises cultural unfamiliarity. By the 1850s, following the discovery of gold in Victoria, German and Swiss artists had joined British pioneers, and the aftermath of the European sublime dominated: fine examples are Eugene von Guerard’s theatrical “Bushfire”, with its sense of nature beyond man’s control, and “Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite”, where sunset symbolises the decline of the Aboriginal people, depicted as fleeting figures in a rocky, inhospitable terrain.

Impressionism came to Australia, as to America and Russia, late and in diluted form, with subject always more important than formal innovation, and often sentimentalised. Highlights here are Charles Condor’s delicate tonal paintings of harbour and beach, such as “Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay”, recalling Whistler, and Tom Roberts’ “Allegro con Brio: Bourke Street West”: prosperous, vibrant Melbourne in the harsh midday light, an Australian version of Pissarro’s Paris.

In “A Break Away!”, Roberts managed to portray “a life different from any other country in the world” in the image of the robust, resourceful Australian stockman struggling to control a stampede of thirsty sheep on arid land. And Arthur Streeton’s blue/gold palette delineating “the loveliness of the new landscape with heat and drought and flies” is lyrically employed in “Golden Summer, Eaglemont” and, more interestingly, in “Fire’s On”, where a narrative of a miner’s death during the blasting of the Lapstone Tunnel in the Blue Mountains is overwhelmed by the artist’s delight at conveying hot air, glaring light, blistering rock.

Is Australian art incapable of tragedy? Among modernists, Russell Drysdale, in metaphoric landscapes reminiscent of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, comes closest in “Emus in a Landscape”: twisted iron wreckage represents bushfire heat fierce enough to make the real look surreal.

The more famous Sidney Nolan, also indebted to European surrealism, went for tragicomedy, verging on farce, in the 1940s series celebrating bushranger rebel Ned Kelly. The panache of these stubborn, enamel-on- hardboard paintings rests on fusing legend and landscape – long flat horizons, parched ground – with an art-historical twist: Kelly’s armour is a modernist black square, the policemen surrounding him are figures as provocatively naive as Rousseau’s.

Condensing 200 years of Australian art into fundamentally a landscape show, the Royal Academy asserts a coherent narrative. It culminates in Shaun Gladwell’s energetic 2007 video of hands-free motorbike riding in an inland plain, “Mundi Mundi” (an Aboriginal name suggesting homage to Thomas’s “Roads Meeting”), but also, less convincingly, in politically correct trivia: Gordon Bennett’s “Possession Island”, a Captain Cook illustration in Aboriginal dot style; Hossein Valamanesh’s carpet installation linking nomadic Australians and Persians.

Today’s globalised Australia is bigger, better, more connected, than this. Disastrously absent, for example, are acclaimed contemporary sculptors Ricky Swallow and Ron Mueck. Their exquisitely crafted still-lifes and portraits exhibit true tragic sensibility, the power of time rather than place – universal not local concerns. By excluding work of this quality and range, this show remains finally, insistently, unnecessarily provincial.

‘Australia’, Royal Academy of Arts, London, from today to December 8, www.royalacademy.org.uk

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