Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World

Visual Arts Review

Various Artists | Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World

Exhibition Gallery, National Library of Australia | Until 31 January 2021

Australian Dreams: Picturing our Built World shows how visual artists have documented and interpreted Australia’s buildings for over 200 years. The works are exclusively from the National Library’s extensive collections and include many of our best artists; those whose names and images are known by all art lovers, some less familiar.

Entering the gallery, I was immediately immersed in a stunning photo wall of 48 images, selected from the vast 25,292 collected for the Regional cities and major towns project, which documents the architecture of hundreds of Australian towns. There is a dark moody image of the closed railway station on the Kulwin line in Wycheproof. And there’s an image of Toowoomba’s closed Camera Obscura – how many remember sitting inside as the cylinder wall rotated noisily and you saw significant buildings below in the ancient crater where the city is situated?

Inside the gallery, there are many more wonderful photos, prints, drawings and paintings. Captions are not needed for famous buildings, such as Canberra’s Shine Dome and Parliament House but, for most of us, are necessary for a Surry Hills street, a deserted farmhouse on the outskirts of Maitland during the major flood of 1955, a home by Lynchford railway tracks, a scarred tree in the front yard of a suburban Canberra house, and a miner’s hut in Lithgow Valley.

A miner’s hut, Lithgow Valley, New South Wales, ca. 1885 © Charles Kerry

There are other delights in display cabinets – contemporary photo books documenting Oxford Street, Masters stores, and ordinary homes. How I longed to pick them up and turn their pages! There is a slide show from Wes Stacey’s archive – homesteads, timber buildings, and the architecture of historic towns and settlements.

Visitors to the exhibition explore the colonial era, when European artists produced paintings, prints and photographs of streetscapes and major public buildings in the new cities and towns, and on frontier properties. Conrad Martens’ striking watercolour of Craigend in Sydney is a feature.

Then we see the first decades of the twentieth century, when artists such as photographer Harold Cazneaux and wood engraver Lionel Lindsay created romantic images of old Sydney, the bush and grand colonial buildings. These images were influenced by the revival of etching in printmaking and a more impressionistic approach to photography.

Going home, Doohat Lane, North Sydney, New South Wales, 1910 © Harold Cazneaux

Later, modernism began to dominate – whether the subjects were post-war architecture or familiar old streets. We see compositions utilising strong contrasts, sharp forms and lines. Olive Cotton’s Fire Escape clearly displays her techniques as expressed in a 1938 magazine interview: “The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture.”

Fire Escape c.1935 © Olive Cotton (1911–2003)

The final images in the exhibition demonstrate how many of these artists found something compelling in buildings where ordinary lives played out, in various states of use, disuse, demolition and destruction. They also created images communicating why buildings are worth seeing and saving.

William Yang, a third generation Australian Chinese, has developed an international reputation as a photographer and performer. His art is about the telling of stories, often writing words on the surfaces of his prints, as in his image of Canberra’s School of Art after a hailstorm in 2007.

Hail #5, School of Art, 2007. From the series – Breathing the Rarefied Air of Canberra © William Yang

Other great images that appealed to me were Maggie Diaz’s Higgins Boys, Charles Bayliss’s Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, Wolfgang Sievers’ Olympic Swimming Pool, and John Bertram Eaton’s Steps in a Courtyard. Go see for yourself and think about what other buildings are worth going to see again or should be saved for future generations.

Sydney Technical College Building Exterior, 1889, 2 in Photographs of Premises Occupied by the Board of Technical Education of New South Wales, 1889 © Charles Bayliss (1850-1897)

This review was first published by the Canberra Times of 23/1/21 here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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