Australian Fine Artist

Lecture at VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) by ADS Donaldson

Notes and Personal Impressions

Sydney-based artist and lecturer Andrew Donaldson gave a very interesting lecture at VCA that prompted a lot of questions about how painting has been written and talk about for over a hundred years.

Donaldson attended university in the 1980s and has noticed that the dominant model for teaching art has stemmed from that period. The traditional method of Academic training was replaced by a preference for theoretical investigation and Post-Modernism.

This is something, that as a current university student, I have noticed and have been a little disappointed about, as for me as a practising artist, it is the foundation training and understanding provided by academic methods, that is an important underpinning to any further investigation of my style and method of painting.

Donaldson continued his post-graduate studies in Germany and was surprised  by the method of teaching that put together all years and media to work and network with each other. The emphasis on practical training and learning to master the student’s chosen material and style was very different to Australia and a lot of other overseas universities.

Thinking that he was the only Australian to have studied in Germany at the school, proved to be a misconception for him as well. It seems that over the years there had been a continual presence of Australian artists every decade.

This led to Donaldson talking about how contemporary art came to be the way it is today. Citing Gombrich, in the book The Story of Art (Gombrich 1972), he reiterated, “There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists”. The story is about artists during history continually challenging themselves to develop and grow, and not as much about the outside ‘mask’ placed upon their work and motives.

We are often told about the exodus of Australian artists to Paris, London and New York to get away from the backwater that was conceived as the Australian art scene. From the time of the Colonial painters, and especially during the emergence of the Heidelberg School and Australian Impressionism we are led to believe by most of what we read that the centre of the art world was anywhere else except here.

What needs to be investigated and revealed is the important influence that Australian artists had on overseas painters, and how that influence changed the direction of major art movements into the 20th century. What is often overlooked at the time of the Impressionists in Australia, is the depression of the 1890s that caused a lack of sales in art leading many artists to go overseas to continue working and selling. In Europe and England, ideas were taken on by the overseas artists from Australians as well as the other way around.

It seems that Matisse understood that there was no ‘provincial’ solution to painting. That art was the networking of artists from all over the world and not just the impact of major art movements in particular ‘hotspots’ such as Rome or Paris. He was greatly influenced by Australian painter John Russell.

Looking ahead into the 1970s, and the art movements in New York, where did the artists come from? Was this city alone in the development of art at the time, or are we to believe that it was, whilst ignoring the important work being done by artists in Sydney or Melbourne for example?

Another example of what I am talking about is the introduction of the Avant Garde to the United States in the Armory Show of 1913. Many may know of the work of Duchamp, Kandinsky, Matisse, Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin represented. How many know that Australian artists were also present? I might add to that, how many know that there was a significant presence of women artists as well?

It seems that time is past due for recognition of the fact that Australian art, and indeed art worldwide has been misrepresented for generations. Artists networking, collaborating, learning and teaching each other are the backbone of art; wherever they are practising is where art is centred. We are led to believe that movements and styles are generated in one place by a single group of artists, or perhaps only one, with little consideration of the influences that artists have on each other worldwide.

To add that, the continual overlooking of important contributors for hundreds of years, like women artists for example, gives a skewed view of the progress of art since at least the Renaissance to today. As a challenge, I ask the reader to look for a book specifically about a female artist in the local general book store, or at an art book store. You may find, as I have, that there are very few if any available. As an art student, I have also noticed that the artists cited and given as examples are mostly male, and often from overseas, as if Australian based artists in general were not of significance in the development of the arts. I am not speaking of the few often quoted examples like Boyd, Percival, Williams or Smart, but of the many other artists who are mostly overlooked when learning about the history of painting in Australia and their impact on painting world-wide.

Donaldson believes that there are many centres of art around the world. So a rethink of art history requires decentralising and “de-porochialising” our ideas about how art works, and where changes, growth and shifts in the direction of art come from.

I tend to agree with him, that it is from the minds of artists that the arts scene grows, and it is from the continual networking and collaboration of artists, their quests for their own original vision in their works, that has created the vast amount of art that we could see today if only it was made available. It is in their work, and not so much in what people would have us believe was the place to be at the time, and definitely not the often cited main players, that we can see a clearer view of the history and development of painting into the 21st century.

Next time you read a review, an art history book, or a catalogue for an exhibition, take a moment to consider what is not being said, what lies between the lines, and who might be the important names that are being overlooked, by someone possibly with a vested interest in maintaining a skewed view of the real history of art and how artists really work.


Armory Show, 1913.

Gombrich, E.H. 1972. The Story of Art. London: Phaidon Publishers.

Comments on: "Painting in the 20th and 21st Centuries: The Myth of Parochialism" (2)

  1. Well said. De-parochialising our ideas sounds overdue and critical in the age of the internet. As well as overseas and Australian, there are some interstate and regional issues. A glass writer refers to “reticulate aesthetics” as opposed to a heirachial system in the arts, mainly due to the egalitarian aspect of the internet.
    I enjoyed reading this, thanks Janice.

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