Still lessons to be learned from the past

Rhonda Dredge

An exhibition of small 9 by 5 paintings has opened at the Victorian Artists Society (VAS) in East Melbourne that celebrates the landscape in miniature.

The subjects are big, ranging from awesome views of the Blue Mountains to ultramarine storm clouds.

Is it possible to capture grandeur on a small canvas or even a romantic impression of light?

According to the curators of the show, “when you draw, line is important but in painting the first thing to look for is the impression of colour”.

Those works that illustrate this principle stand out such as Storm Fronts over the Ranges Winter by Kate Cross.

And those that keep the composition simple such as Windswept Trees, Ocean by Jo Reitze take advantage of the horizontal form.

This exhibition of 237 works aims to recapture the mood of the original 1889 impressionism show at Buxton Rooms in Swanston St.

The format forces artists to confine their ideas to the size of a cigar-box lid and to take on a perceptual approach to painting at a time when abstraction and conceptual work dominate.

Landscape is attractive because of its inclusive nature, expressive colour and form, both impressionist and deeply considered, and the VAS is the place for considering these questions.

“The effect is only momentary, so an impressionist tries to find his place,” the catalogue says, quoting from the original manifesto.

“Two half-hours are never alike, and he who tries to paint a sunset on two successive evenings, must be more or less painting from memory.”

Cross manages to capture this concept of impermanence as well in three successive renditions of storm fronts across the ranges.

“So, in these works, it has been the object of the artist to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character,” the catalogue continues.

Landscape painting lives on, still a popular genre 130 years after the original exhibition, which has gone down in art history as the first truly Australian movement.

Those who have a soft spot for repetition and nostalgia will love this exhibition. There are plenty of sunsets to compare, but what about the light touch that was so typical of the Heidelberg School?

The majesty of a bluff such as Blue Mountains 2 by Neil McIrvine can’t fail to impress but what about the feathery brushwork of Streeton and the others in the group?

Broken River, Mansfield by Mary Ellis is muted, soft and ephemeral, if not quite in the freer style of the originals.

It is fair to say that landscape painting has taken a turn to the more literal and there are still lessons to be learned from the light-obsessed en plein air painters of the past who went out in autumn and winter to find small pockets of interest.

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Victorian Artists Society, until June 12. •

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