Although Australia is enormous, a whole continent in itself, the history of its art is not as vast as that of, say, Africa or the Americas.
At least that is the conclusion that the Royal Academy’s new exhibition “Australia” unintentionally suggests. You walk out with the impression that this would-be blockbuster is much too large for the size of its subject.
Not that there is nothing worth seeing. As one walks around though, the title of a drawing by Mike Parr from 1990-1991 comes to seem more and more apt: “Great Distances between Small Towns.”
While there are beautiful and interesting things on display, there’s far too much nondescript and mediocre stuff in between.
Many of the best exhibits are by artists of Aboriginal descent, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s huge “Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming)” from 1995. This, nearly three meters (10 feet) across and covered in wandering white lines, looks a bit like an abstract by Jackson Pollock or Brice Marden. Actually it deals with the ancient theme of journeying across the bush.
Such images draw on traditions that stretch back for millennia. The twist is that they seem much more toughly modern -- with their flat, minimalist, pared-down look -- than the work, mainly derived from earlier European art, of white Australians.
Of course, there have also been some notable talents among the latter. Charles Conder (1868-1909), for example, was a charming Pacific-rim Impressionist.
True, like many talented Australians he did not stay put in the country. Born in Britain, he was sent to Australia by his father in 1884, then moved to Paris in 1890 where he became a friend of Toulouse-Lautrec, and died in Virginia Water, west of London. Nonetheless, his “A Holiday at Mentone” (1888) is a beguiling vision of Victorian beach life, down-under style.
In comparison, Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) was more quintessentially Aussie in his themes (though he too ended his days in England). His renowned Ned Kelly series of 1946-1947 lives up its reputation: a compellingly romantic take on the great saga of the outlaw outback, half modernist, half rooted in folk art.
There are other pleasures to winnow out. Fred Williams (1927-1982) was a remarkable and distinctive painter. Pictures such as his “Yellow Landscape” (1968-1969) present a convincingly Antipodean vision: almost abstract, with small twig and stone-like objects spread out in a huge dry, space.
In “Rain Dreaming at Nyunmau” (1994) Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri presents a flat, layered panorama halfway between archetypal Aboriginal art and color field abstraction. It looks deliciously pink and stripy.
A continuing alternation between the European and Aboriginal strands of art is the most intriguing aspect of “Australia.” Even if they never quite come together sometimes, as here, they come close.
That’s not quite enough to redeem an exhibition in which the good things are spread out widely, like the desiccated sticks in Fred Williams’s landscape, and separated not by space but by too much dull, surrounding art.
The whole affair ends with three dreary catch-all rooms of work from the last couple of decades, most of which really should not have been included at all.
That’s a shame, because -- as often with huge lumbering surveys such as this -- there’s a small, concise exhibition lost somewhere inside its empty expanses, struggling to find its way out.
“Australia” is at the Royal Academy until Dec. 8, supported by Qantas and the Campaign for Wool.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Hephzibah Anderson on books and Philip Boroff on Broadway box office.