[Editor: An article about Australian art. Published in The Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 November 1905.]
Everywhere throughout Australia there are gratifying evidences of intellectual and artistic culture which exceed anything that might be reasonably expected, when the age and circumstances of the several communities composing the Commonwealth are considered. Discussion, which from time to time seems inevitable, on the “colonial type” has generally been based on abstract theories, and somehow it has come to be regarded as a commonplace that the only requisites for pioneer work in new States are muscle and pluck. The necessity for these is so evident that it has in a high degree operated to obscure the desirableness of other qualities which, if not quite so urgently needed, are still distinctly valuable in any state of society, and not the least valuable under the conditions of colonial life. A great deal will always depend on the views entertained as to what constitutes national prosperity and greatness in deciding the shape opinion will take as to the kind of people who are best adapted to mould the destinies of a new land, and it should never be forgotten that the early settlers, to a greater extent than any of those who follow them, will give direction to the civilisation of the nation they help to found. “The child’s the father of the man,” and the infancy of a State is prophetic of what its future will be. If no place is found in the early periods for cultivated taste, and for the works without which aesthetic development is impossible, the corporate life will crystalise into philistine moulds which will make the after task of awakening the people to a love of the beautiful exceedingly difficult. It is because of what Australian culture tends towards, rather than upon what it has already achieved, that as a nation we are entitled to congratulate ourselves in this connection. In every department of the higher intellectual life good, honest, and promising work has been done. Some of the best Australian examples in literature, music, and art have received a wide recognition outside the Commonwealth, and the names of a few Australians are already world-famous because of the productions of their genius.
The opening of the eighth Federal Exhibition, which will take place at the Society of Arts’ rooms to-day, calls attention to the achievements in one department of aesthetic work. Although the collection is not so fully representative of the Commonwealth as a whole as might be desired, it still serves well to illustrate that Australia has not, in striving after commercial and industrial prosperity, lost sight of the significance of artistic growth. As might be expected, the strongest features, in its purely local characteristics, are the landscape pictures. The time has not yet arrived for great things in the way of allegorical paintings, although the beautiful conception of Mr. Rupert Bunny, “Descending Angels,” which was purchased at a previous Federal Exhibition by the Board of Governors of the National Gallery, furnishes proof that colonial artists in Europe amid the old world conditions from which inspiration for this kind of work may be most readily obtained, can rise to a notable height of excellence, both in idea and in execution. Unfortunately neither Victoria nor New South Wales has contributed any work approaching the same high order of merit to the present exhibition. Indeed, the pictures from the other States are distinctly below the average standards of previous years. The fine canvases of Lister Lister, which have on several occasions added to the value of the New South Wales section, are missing from this year’s gallery, and a number of other recognised artists of Melbourne and Sydney who have previously shown are not represented. It is, perhaps, not remarkable that of an exhibition held in Adelaide the South Australian contributions should form the strongest feature. Local artists have greater inducements to enter their works than have painters at a distance, inasmuch as the advertisement which such a display gives is of greater value to the men on the spot than it can be to those in other States. There are, however, considerations which might be reasonably expected to operate in inducing the best artists of all parts of the continent to send specimens of their most characteristic work. The opportunity which is presented of making their attainment known to a wider circle, and the possibility of having a picture selected for a place in the National Art Gallery, are points that might well be taken into account by painters in the other States. Several of the leading men are already represented in the National Gallery, and perhaps this may account for some of them having abstained from contributing to the present exhibition. Whatever the reason may be, the fact is indisputable that the strength of the present collection is to be found in the South Australian contributions and the two magnificent canvases sent from England, through the Adelaide Society of Arts, by the celebrated seascape painter, Mr. Julius Olsson. The pictures of the four young South Australian artists, Messrs. Will Ashton, Hans Heysen, H. Lever, and H. S. Power, more than any others, with the exception of the two works sent out from England, tend to raise the standard to a gratifying level. Without their contributions the average quality would be perceptibly below that of some previous occasions.
If the art studies of Australians and the art taste which they encourage had an intellectual value only, the community could not well afford to ignore them. The many ways in which they add to the fullness of life make it highly desirable that they should be fostered. The true artist devotes himself to a close study of nature in her external aspects at least, and develops an alertness in detecting her ever-changing phases of loveliness. The beauties which men of the Peter Bell calibre would pass by unheeding appeal to the artist’s disciplined eye, and his work is to realise their power of impressing others through the medium of his canvas, and so teach them to see for themselves. He is, in a word, the interpreter of nature. The artist’s mission is ever to discover beauty, and for this reason there is a moral significance no less than an intellectual value in his work. One of the best safeguards against the coarse materialism with which this age is threatened is the cultivation of the aesthetic faculties and the development of a manhood which refuses to be satisfied with bread alone.
The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Thursday 9 November 1905, page 6