Exhibition Review

‘Terribly true to nature’: A review of Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed

Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, until 7 August 2011, followed by Brisbane and Canberra

Reviewed by Caroline Jordan

Eugene von Guérard born Austria 1811, lived in Australia 1852–82, Europe 1882–1901, died England 1901 North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko 1863 oil on canvas 66.5 x 116.8 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

One of the big clichés of Australian art is that the first generation of landscape painters saw the landscape ‘through European eyes’. Fred McCubbin wrote in the 1890s that titans such as John Glover and Eugene von Guérard of the 1850s and 60s ‘ could not see the blue-green of the wattle… etc’. This was largely self-promotion on the part of McCubbin and his Australian-born Impressionist mates, artists of an up-and-coming generation who had been trained by von Guérard at the National Gallery School in the 1870s. As these Young Turks saw it, it fell to them to strip off the Old World blinkers and show the New World in its true colours.

The language of climate change now seems to inflect all reappraisals of Australian landscape painting, but Tim Bonyhady’s essay in the catalogue, ‘The Tipping Point’, actually refers to the savage slide in von Guérard’s reputation. He points out this began much earlier than the 1890s, in 1863, with the chilly reception accorded North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko (Fig. 1). This painting is now as recognisable a masterwork of the Australian sublime as Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog (1818) is of the German. Men stand buffeted but exhilarated on an inhospitable rocky peak before a vast mountain vista, notable for the striking piebald colouration created by the retreating snow.

The painting is documentary, like all of von Guérard’s art, and also has a heroic story attached to it. The men are not stock figures, but members of Professor Neumayer’s scientific expedition undertaking a ‘magnetic survey’, Von Guérard among them. The painting records the traumatic day before a life-threatening storm whipped up on the mountain, separating the party. Von Guérard and Neumayer saved one man’s life by dragging his frozen and exhausted body back to camp, while the rest made their own way back, the last given up for dead but miraculously reunited with them some twenty days later.

After the painting’s initial tepid reception, Bonyhady recounts a dispiriting tale of it doing the rounds of Intercolonial Exhibitions in Melbourne in the 1860s. ‘Rocks, rocks, rocks on every side’ decried the exasperated Argus critic, and ‘most uncomfortable to look at’, despite being ‘terribly true to nature’. Misunderstood and unsold, the painting eventually washed up in Mexico City, where Surrealist painter James Gleeson rediscovered it in 1973 and helped secure it for the collection of the National Gallery in Canberra.

‘Terribly true to nature’ was an ambiguous compliment at best, but one von Guérard endorsed. The current exhibition concludes with a quote standing in for the artist’s manifesto: ‘My wish was…to put before the public views from this part of the world that demonstrate the character of the Australian landscape faithfully and with truth to nature’ (p. 25). Having just spent hours in absorbing study of rooms upon rooms of von Guérard’s magnificent lifetime achievement, this struck me as a lame understatement. ‘I did my humble best’, it seems to say, a sentiment that becomes poignant in the light of von Guérard’s fall from popular favour in his adopted country. Looked at more closely, though, it is a statement of rather more ambition than this – first, of a wish to put the wonders of the New World before Old Europe, that is, to expand Europe’s sum of knowledge beyond its own parameters, and second, to indicate the artist’s own strict and virtuous upholding of the principle that nature was King.

Guest curators Ruth Pullin and Michael Varcoe-Cocks wind us back through von Guérard’s career to demonstrate the ideological depth of these twin ambitions and the confluence of scientific discovery, artistic experimentation and global travel that shaped the artist as a young man and led him to Australia in 1852.  Like David Hansen’s similarly revelatory John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque exhibition that passed through the NGV in 2004, this retrospective shows us a Janus-faced von Guérard, one looking at Europe, the other at Australia. It is hard to imagine it being done any other way, so much does one inform the other.  And why would it not? Glover arrived aged 64, von Guérard at 41. They sprang onto the Australian landscape already fully formed, and so much the better for us to have the incomparable legacy of their mature work.

In fact, there was never any embarrassing juvenilia or uncertainty of style to be found with this most consistent of artists. This may be attributed to Von Guérard having learnt the craft of sketching and painting at his father’s knee. Von Guérard pere was a successful miniature painter to the Viennese court. Looking at their sketchbooks side-by-side (on convenient touchscreens) we can reach our own conclusions about the influence of the father’s example on his son’s latterly-criticised ‘microscopic gaze’.

His father dominates the story of the early years. There was some rupture with his mother, whom von Guérard never saw again after the age of 15, when he and his father left Vienna for a painting tour of Italy. Fortunately, von Guérard’s own long and devoted marriage suggest he was not fatally emotionally damaged by this broken maternal tie, the reasons for which remain a mystery. At this most impressionable of ages, it may have softened the blow of separation to find himself carousing in Rome with the German artistic diaspora around the Spanish Steps, studying landscape painting with Giambattista Bassi (whose works are featured), and witnessing the eruption of Vesuvius in 1834. Then his father fell victim to a cholera outbreak in Naples in 1836 and von Guérard returned to Germany.

Continuing his apprenticeship at the progressive Düsseldorf Academy in the 1840s turned out to be a good move. In Italy, von Guérard had mastered the use of shot pink light in sun-washed compositions, but in Düsseldorf he was exposed to a more sombre and intimate schooling in natural observation. His teacher Johann Wilhelm Schirmer’s suite of paintings are amongst the most remarkable works in the whole show. Schirmer trained his students to work en plein air on subjects that are humble and often watery: reeds, rocks and streams, observed up close in a ‘worm’s eye view’, and always with a loving focus on the specificity of the environment – THIS rock, THIS plant in THIS place.

Von Guérard’s decision to come to Australia in 1852 is attributed partly to the lure of gold and partly to the influence of German natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Von Humboldt was once a household name, as famous as Charles Darwin. Von Humboldt’s extended sojourn in South America encouraged landscape artists and scientists to explore the exotic and dramatic landscapes and vegetation of the New World. Von Humboldt conceived of plant species as parts of a global whole, classifying them according to their geographical distribution. He urged artists to depict plants in natural settings and in relationship to other plants, describing whole ecosystems rather than individual specimens.

Enduring indifferent success on the goldfields of Ballarat, von Guérard perforce recovered his love of travel and adventure, seeking out the Humboldtian exotic on expeditions to Australian landscapes striking in their diversity: fern forests, mountain ranges, subtropical rainforests and New Zealand fiords. The exhibition groups his pictures accordingly under headings such as ‘The volcanic landscape’ and the ‘The geography of plants’, each a satisfying essay in how the artist worked up his ideas from sketchbooks through to highly finished pen drawings and oil paintings.

In the 1850s, von Guérard worked extensively around the volcanic crater lakes of the Victorian Western District, one of the distinctive types of landscape he had been encouraged by his teachers to paint while at art school in Düsseldorf.  His most famous painting in this series is Tower Hill (1855) (Fig. 2) in which his ability to combine miniaturist fidelity with the grand sweep of the sublime is on display. Timeless as this moody, forested mountain presiding over lush wetlands appears to be (and von Guérard was typically up to date with new scientific notions of deep geological time) not long after he painted it, Tower Hill was decimated by clearing, grazing, damming and the depredations of introduced species. So detailed and meticulous is von Guérard’s record of the prelapsarian Tower Hill, that from the 1960s it has been pored over for clues to the restorative replanting of the area.

Von Guérard never passes explicit judgement on what must have been a quite terrifying rate of visible environmental destruction, although North View of Daylesford (1864) (Fig. 3) comes close, with its brutally uprooted trees waiting as fodder for the devouring mine. Doubtless this politeness, as well as his incredible skill, endeared him to the wealthy pastoralists such as the Manifolds and the Wares who commissioned him to paint panoramic views of their properties as he passed through their districts. These views evoke Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘sunlit plains extended’, a land properly claimed and virtuously ordered, with scudding clouds and careening birds the only disruption to the peace.

Indigenous Australians could be an inconvenient reminder that this peace and prosperity had been extracted at someone else’s cost, but Von Guérard was more interested in recording native plants than native people. There are no elaborate ethnographic or allegorical compositions focused on the Australians in the manner of John Glover, in his Tasmanian scenes of wild corroborees, camps and hunts. Nonetheless, the Australians are present in von Guérard’s paintings from the beginning, always depicted as dignified and equal, and dressed in traditional garb rather than colonial odds-and-sods.

Glover painted pastoral Tasmania and Indigenous Tasmania but never the two together, as if they existed in a parallel universe or separate time-zones. Von Guérard did his own out-of-time Aboriginal Arcadia, in Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite (1857) (Fig. 4), where the sun literally sets on an idyllic scene of Australian family life in the bush. But von Guérard also showed the Australians interacting amicably and with agency with settlers, as in Aborigines met on the way to the diggings (1854) (Fig. 5), where they trade possum skin cloaks.

The curators are eager to interpret such pictures as moral allegories pointing up the excesses of white settlement, to the sound of long bows being drawn in regard to some pastoral views, Mr John King’s Station (1861) and the pair of panoramic paintings View of the Gippsland Alps from Bushy Park on the River Avon (1861) (Fig. 6).  The right hand view features some Australians relaxing in the middle ground, while the left hand view has a brown and a white bull gambolling in the same position. The sparring bulls in juxtaposition with the Australians supposedly conveys a message of racial harmony. Well, maybe, but it is interesting to consider the politics of von Guérard including any images at all of Australians in his commissioned pictures for the squattocracy. The artist could hardly bite the hand that fed him.

The pastoralists could hardly believe their luck to find a painter of the stature of von Guérard at their disposal in the colonial wilds of Australia in the 1850s and 1860s. The visitor to this exhibition will echo their sentiments. It would be impossible not to marvel at how much ground he covered, and how much work he did, combing over every inch of it to record it with pen and brush. What an incomparable record he has left us of our vanished landscapes.

Happily, the quality of the show is matched by the catalogue. Publishing of quality Australian art monographs, properly illustrated, has all but dried up in this country, and so-called ‘scholarly’ catalogues can be a hit-and-miss affair. This one is based on Ruth Pullin’s doctoral thesis and is a valuable acquisition in its own right. You will want to return to the exhibition after you have read it.

© Caroline Jordan 2011

Catalogue: Ruth Pullin, Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed, with essays by Michael Varcoe-Cocks and Tim Bonyhady, National Gallery of Victoria: Melbourne, 2011. ISBN: 9780724103409.

Exhibition Website: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/eugene-von-guerard

The exhibition has also recieved a very favourable review from Christopher Allen in The Australian



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[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]

List of images

Figure 1. North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko, (1863).

Figure 2. Tower Hill, (1855).

Figure 3. North View of Daylesford (1864)

Figure 4. Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite (1857)

Figure 5. Aborigines met on the way to the diggings (1854)

Figure 6. View of the Gippsland Alps from Bushy Park on the River Avon (1861)