Art Nouveau in Australia

Posted: 11 Dec 2012  |  By: Sasha Grishin

Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes, Canberra
Until 11 November 2012

Sydney Long was Australia’s most accomplished art nouveau painter and printmaker. This major retrospective exhibition, accompanied by its scholarly monographic catalogue written by the show’s curator, Dr Anne Gray, redefines our understanding of Sydney Long.

Along with the iconic paintings, we are shown — frequently for the first time — many of his oils tucked away in private collections and in regional collections. His watercolours, which are generally poorly known, are a great highlight and the major revelation of this exhibition. His sensitive etchings inspired by the new aestheticism in the turn of the century British printmaking, are quite outstanding in the Australian context and are certainly a good deal more interesting than the contemporary productions by the Lindsay clan. Possibly only Jessie Traill was a more interesting and accomplished etcher at this time.

He was born in Goulburn in 1871, where he received his early schooling. Long shifted to Sydney and in about 1890 enrolled in the Art Society classes where he studied under A.J. Daplyn and later Julian Rossi Ashton. While still studying under Ashton, he exhibited his By tranquil waters, 1894, at the annual exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales, where it caused a sensation — thanks to the naked youths ambiguously arranged at twilight — and from where it was acquired by the Trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

It marked a move to the new romanticised vision of the Australian bush, inspired as much by the English Aesthetic movement as by art nouveau, a vision which was to gain full expression in his paintings such as The spirit of the plains, 1897. Here, a naked youth playing a flute-like instrument leads an elegant procession of brolgas silhouetted against the horizon with its sinuous trees. The scene is set at dusk where a risen moon provides for the naked figure a halo-like aura, while the whole composition is realised in soft pastel colours.

In 1910, Long went to London where he studied etching with Malcolm Osborne and produced a number of exquisite intaglio prints. These etchings, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, brought Long a degree of international recognition; and on his final return to Australia in 1925, he became the president of the Australian Painter-Etchers Society and within two years was conducting a private school of etching. In 1952, Long returned to Britain where he died in London in 1955.

His memorial exhibition was held in Sydney in the year of his death and now, more than half a century later, we are presented with this timely reassessment. Long’s work does in places look dated and dribbles with nostalgia for a bucolic past and innocence which never existed. The saccharine content in the bush mythologies and of flamingos reflected in a pool is a little high for contemporary taste and Edwardian prudishness has long been shocked out of our psyche. After Arthur Boyd and Clifton Pugh, how can one look again at sex and death in the bush and feign shocked surprise?

Long did not simply illustrate a mythology, he evoked it, like some sort of daydream which all of us could share. It is an affirmation of beauty, innocence and the preparedness to inhabit a dream.

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Issue 38