A BREAK AWAY!
BY TOM ROBERTS
I love travelling to Australia and our films have consistently met an appreciative and diverse audience there. For whatever reason, sometimes our composer or art films have runs for weeks, even months. There’s an appetite for culture. It’s a long way to go of course – 24 hours in a plane. Yet that’s nothing compared to the time it would have taken to travel by ship in the pre-aviation era. We shouldn’t, however, imagine that even somewhere as far away as Australia wasn’t totally plugged into artistic developments far from its own shores. A great example is the birth and development of the Australian impressionists.
A couple of years ago we made a nice film called The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism which charted how European impressionism had driven a companion movement in the United States – but with its own distinct narrative and impact. So it was with the Australians – and artists like Arthur Streeton, Charles Condor and Tom Roberts. And it is a painting by Tom Roberts (a British ex-pat) that I urge you to take a look at this week. It is called A Break Away! and was painted in 1891 (less than two decades after the first so-called Impressionist show in Paris).
The technique may be influenced by Manet and Pissarro but the landscape is Australian, maybe one could even claim the light is too – and certainly it feels like the subject matter – the desperate efforts to steer a herd of sheep back on track – is a long way from the Seine or Rouen cathedral.
It is one of those paintings that is easy to read straight away and then, if you’re in a rush, you may move on. I urge instead a moment of pause. I’m no great expert but let’s have a closer look together. First of all, the perspective – well, unless Roberts is up a tree, this is clearly made up though he was an advocate of ‘en plein air’ painting. The impressionists may famously have painted outdoors but this strikes me as a studio painting actually. This isn’t about the fleeting effects of light – this feels like a highly considered Degas work where the more you look the more you see the thought and craft that is involved. Look at the landscape – impressionistic in technique but totally realistic too. I see it stretching away for miles and miles, I feel the heat coming off the burning soil and sand. Notice the rhythm of the trees – the position is no accident. They are large, dominating, also trying to survive the harsh conditions – and also acting to throw the tiny sheep into perspective. Look at those sheep – something has spooked them and they are all running away from the horseman on the left and past the horseman on the right. The painting is called A Break Away! so we know this is not intentional droving – and shepherds don’t normally want their sheep burning up calories by sprinting about and risking injury. Look at how Roberts drives your eye out of frame to the right – he uses that fence of wooden trunks and branches as well as the sheep herder’s right arm and hat. This is deliberate – your eye is being encouraged to follow the sheep right out of the frame – thus emphasising the situation the sheep herders find themselves in: the danger that the sheep will escape. Then look carefully at the craft: the dust, the colours and strokes that make up the horse, the energy captured in the depiction of the sheep. It’s fabulous.
What about the broader story? Is life in the country being favourably compared to the speed of modernity that was affecting Australian cities just as much as French or American ones? I’ve no doubt artists enjoyed camping out and mixing with tough rural folk. I’ve also no doubt that Australian artists like Roberts were thinking about what constituted Australian identity. Back in Britain, sheep are herded on foot and with collie dogs (at least that’s what I know) not by sun-baked cowboys. This painting is only ten years prior to Australia becoming an independent country. It all adds up. Indeed, Roberts later painted the opening of the first ever Australian Parliament.
One more lovely story to squeeze in is that at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam there is a wonderful self-portrait on which, only recently, conservators discovered an inscription: ‘for Vincent, in friendship’. That friend was John Peter Russell, an Australian painter that had left Sydney in 1881 and had turned up in Paris. There he became friends with the impressionist painters including Van Gogh.
Finally, back to Tom Roberts. These Australian impressionists also became known as the Heidelberg School. I went to see an exhibition at London’s National Gallery not so long ago – and thoroughly enjoyed it. I must say though, rather than their paintings from trips to Paris or London, it was the Australian subject-matter that I enjoyed most. It is a wonderful country that I feel we could all do with knowing more about – and one way of course is through its art, not least aboriginal art which is extraordinarily powerful. But artists like Tom Roberts too.
* * *