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Australian Symbolism: the art of dreams

The first exhibition to focus on Australian Symbolism

Charles Conder Hot wind, 1889 oil on board, 29.4 × 75 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Australian Symbolism: the art of dreams is the first major exhibition to explore the influence of the Symbolist movement on Australian art at the turn of the nineteenth century. While Australian painting from this period is known for its depiction of the landscape as a national emblem, figures of fantasy and mythology also gained an increasing presence in art at this time, reflecting the impact on Australian artists of the Symbolist movement flourishing in Europe.

In Paris in 1886 poet Jean Moréas published a manifesto eloquently describing the Symbolists’ aim as to ‘clothe the idea in sensuous form’ and to turn the artistic gaze inwards to register the terrains of the imagination, dreams and desires. By the 1880s Symbolism could be identified across the visual arts, literature, music and theatre.

Australian Symbolism: the art of dreams features 70 paintings, sculptures, photographs and decorative art objects that showcase the diversity of Australian artistic responses to Symbolist themes and ideas. Works by some of the era’s most well known artists are included, such as Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Rupert Bunny, Sydney Long, Bertram Mackennal and George Lambert.

The exhibition investigates two main streams of Symbolist art in Australia: works by artists who trained or lived overseas and drew directly from European Symbolist genres; and works by artists in Australia who referenced Symbolism to define a local experience.

In Paris in the 1890s Rupert Bunny’s Pastoral c1893 and Abbey Alston’s The Golden Age 1893 were acclaimed at the Salon and depict Arcadian dream worlds with figures transfixed by music. Another Salon work, Bertram Mackennal’s exceptional life-size sculpture Circe 1892–93, portrays the quintessential Symbolist femme fatale and is a direct outcome of the sculptor’s experiences in Paris.

While Australian expatriates in France painted European idylls as dreams of a modern Arcadia, artists working in Australia were similarly adopting Symbolist subjects to redefine the environment in terms of a spiritual reading of place. With suggestions of dreams, legends and mythologies, and depictions of personified elements of nature, Symbolism inspired artists to characterise a poetic rather than material reality.

Charles Conder was one of the most influential Symbolist artists in Australia and his work appealed directly to his fellow painters, especially Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Conder’s Symbolist painting Hot wind 1889, in which he depicts nature in the guise of a treacherous woman, will be displayed alongside Streeton’s painting Spirit of the drought c1896, in which the influence of Conder is evident in the form a nymph descending from a parched hilltop to administer her powers of destruction.

Of all the Australian artists influenced by Symbolism, Sydney Long is perhaps the most well known and loved. Two seminal works by Long – Spirit of the plains 1897 and Pan 1898 – are included in the show. Rarely seen together, these works are key achievements of Symbolist expression and show Long’s use of Art Nouveau stylisation to portray an emotionally charged and mythologically enhanced Australian environment.

There will be an extensive program of events related to the exhibition, including exhibition talks, lectures and musical performances.

Denise Mimmocchi, a curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, is curator of Australian Symbolism: the art of dreams and author of the accompanying book, the first publication devoted to the subject of Australian Symbolism. The richly illustrated book will be available from the Gallery Shop and online for $35, and selected bookstores nationally for $45.

On view
12 May – 29 Jul 2012
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


Media contact

Claire Martin
Tel 02 9225 1734
Mob 0414 437 588