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Sydney Long - The Spirit of the Land Exhibition @ National Gallery of Australia

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by Jem (subscribe)
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The current National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Sydney Long - The Spirit of the Land, showcases work—prints, studies, immense oil paintings and delicate watercolours—from throughout Sydney Long's career.

I adore Sydney Long. There's something pretty much adorable about how he bridges the gap between being 'mainstream' or 'not particularly highbrow', and being an incredibly interesting and accomplished artist. Both these qualities are apparent in the current National Gallery of Australia exhibition, which showcases a range of work—from aquatints and watercolours to immense oil paintings.

Walking through the exhibition is like wandering through a hazy dream of pastoral Australia. And the past. Long was clearly fond of working in watercolour, and developed what he liked to think of as a uniquely Australian way to depict the uniquely Australian landscape of dust and gum trees. And, holy wow, the guy knew his way around paint, or, better still, he really, absolutely didn't, but faked it like a boss. I actually don't know, but suspect a bit of both. He seems to have been preoccupied with the delicate linework and outlining characteristic of Art Nouveau, and found a natural way to create it in watercolour.

I have a thing for ink on paper - the way the pigment sits in and also above the page, forming heavier lines at the edge of each mark, as it dries. It seems he had a tendency to overdo the lighter paint, layering watercolour until it'd become a dense kind of mess, then use gouache to form the line, and sharpen the edges where the ink should sit heavy. I mean, it's possibly an amateur way of correcting mistakes, but it also allowed him to build depth in the watercolour, without losing the kind of ethereal lightness inherent of the medium. Unlike the golden boys of Australian Impressionism, who sought new ways of capturing the landscape, Long seems to have self-consciously allowed his familiarity with watercolours to directly inform his approach to oil, creating large, elegant works that, nonetheless, retain the character and style of his studies.

The pride of Long's artistic legacy are his bush spirit idylls: works such as the NGA's iconic 'Spirit of the Plains' (1914), and AGNSW's 'Fantasy' (c.1916-17), both of which are included in the exhibition. But his oeuvre also boasts hundreds of oils, watercolours, prints and sketches of 'real' subjects, which demonstrate the development of his particular approach to Australian Impressionism and Art Nouveau. The NGA exhibition brings these together, and in great numbers, which creates an unusual or a novel viewing experience, grouping exciting explorations of subject and style with countless pastoral studies that are, frankly, mundane.

While not exactly jarring, I'm not convinced this is entirely flattering. Certainly, the grand subject paintings might have been shown to greater advantage in a smaller exhibition. Alongside his great fantasies, the landscapes and cityscapes seem, for the most part, very like everybody else's. Australian Impressionism isn't exactly known for being hugely diverse, and that's not a bad thing, but it's a shame, or it's something like that, to see Long's work, all hung up, looking so samey.

But that hardly matters: you're there to look at pretty things, and the show absolutely provides. I'd suggest you prepare with a sneaky breakfast at Ona in Manuka, leave the car at Bowen park, and wander along the lake, then up through the sculpture garden.

Nothing so perfect.
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When: Open 17 Aug – 11 Nov 2012, Canberra only
Where: Parkes Place, Parkes ACT 2600
Cost: $15 / $12
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