Eugene von Guérard, Nature revealed
Ian Potter Gallery, NGV, Federations Square, Melbourne, 16 April – 7 August, 2011
Nature revealed is an extensive record of von Guérard’s art that takes a good couple of hours to digest. By the time I’d worked my way through the exhibition I was at once overawed by his prolific output, his relentless expression of a detailed and ‘picturesque’ enframement of the landscape, and equally discomforted by a sickly sweet, tick-a-box translation of an ideal Romanticism.
But for all its subtly kitsch flavouring and semi-Disneyesque undertones, it’s important to place this oeuvre in the context of its time and the position of this artist in the environment in which he worked. This is, after all, nineteenth century colonial Australia and von Guérard is a European migrant with a wealth of northern hemisphere experience. For every ray of sunlight deliberately beamed down like an aura upon a new brick house set amongst a sea of bushland forest, one must remember the perceived infinite expanse of land at the time. For every awkwardly posed, pompous-looking euro-settler pointing deliriously at the majesty of the trees, one must remind oneself of the onslaught of the industrial revolution across Europe’s cities at the time.
Detail, clarity and crispness are the calling cards of character in von Guérard’s paintings. This imbues the work with a magnetic attractiveness that draws the viewer in. You cannot help but be mesmerised by the fine detail, and the obvious investment of time in the production of the work. The colouration is vivid, with a sharpness that soon turns to a sugary distraction, bordering on the sort of saturation familiar in illustration and cell animation. This couples with another effect of the works, whereby the fine detail, while at first impressive and realistic, soon gives way to an illustrative feel, more like slightly wobbly technical drawings of mechanisms than true representations of the organic world.
This counterplay of paradoxical effects – the initial attractiveness of the characteristics of the work, followed by a creeping discomfort at those very effects – speaks as much about the paradoxes contained in the content of the work, as it does about the technicalities of von Guérard’s painting technique. These works are studies in Romantic colonialism. European sentiments overlaid on the exotic other. The desperate urge to foster a relationship with a vanished ecology through the enslavement of a vanishing ecology.
At a certain point, as I made my way through the body of works, a certain formulaic regularity becomes apparent. Foreground of human activity – check; trees on right and left used as framing device in foreground – check; body of water/forest in middle ground – check; mountain range in the background – check; ceiling of blue sky with intermittent clouds – check; one flock of birds in the sky – check! Once this becomes obvious, it becomes harder to accept the images as a reality. They begin to read as caricature and reinforce the earlier feelings of a slight tendency toward illustration and a cartoon/animation sensibility. They begin to read as ‘product’.
Against these concerns about the work I was excited by two particular aspects of the collection. Firstly, von Guérard is a brilliant painter of forests. He’s ok with trees, but he has a genius for forests. At a certain point I found myself desperately wanting to part the curtain of his foregrounds, the incessant framing devices of weirdly wriggling gums, so I could stare through to the potency of his forests. I would happily flick away the annoying little colonialists or the unfortunately obvious ‘noble savages’ set upon the stage just to be able to digest the spatial sweep of the carpeted sea of eucalypts.
Secondly, over the course of time, there appears to be a shifting focus in the Romantic drive. Where nature stands in for the power of god in Romantic art, it is most commonly the sky, the sun and the light that is called upon to supplant ‘old beardy’. It’s an easy switch to make, one skyward concoction replaced by one skyward reality. Much of von Guérard’s work echoes this policy. But in his painting Bushfire, from 1859, seven years after his arrival in Australia, von Guérard captures the upward glow of the fire on the ascending smoke plumes. It is more strongly evocative of the local landscape, where fire is an intrinsic component and the effect is to place the power of nature down on ground level. Not amongst the clouds, not even amongst an implied olympian mountain range, but right at the feet of the land itself.
This notion is reinforced in a section of works titled Weathered by water. Here a body of paintings depicting the impact of water upon the landscape again brings the potency and power of nature down to the level of the land itself. Where earlier works put the viewer on the mountain, Caspar David-Freidrich style, these works put the viewer’s feet firmly on the ground and bring the strength of nature within reach.
This is a body of work that carries an important weight of history, an insight into our past, its realities and its falsifications, and by bringing it all out into the light of day in 2011, it serves to bring our contemporary thoughts on the environment, progress and art into examination. For me, the mindset with which I analyse these works is partly driven by concern with our poor ecological record on the conservation of wildlife, by a nagging fear of climate change wrought by poorly planned industrial activities, and of a wealth of other issues surrounding our treatment of the environment, of the indigenous populations and the complicity or otherwise of our culture, our corporations and our governments in all of this. Viewing the art then becomes an exercise in exploring the past that triggers a contemplation of the future, and for that alone, was an excellent way to spend an afternoon.