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Curator insights - Australian galleries

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Explore works from our Australian collection. Click on the linked artwork to find out if it is currently on display in the Gallery. Sidney Nolan First-class marksman 1946 (detail)

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Bertram Mackennal was one of the most successful Australian artists working internationally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His profile and performance in Britain, where he lived as an expatriate, substantially outshone that of his Australian peers such as Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. ‘The dancer’, acquired by the Art Gallery of NSW in 1910, was the first work by Mackennal to be purchased by an Australian public gallery (the National Gallery of Victoria bought his ‘Circe’ later the same year). Mackennal was born in 1863 at Fitzroy, Melbourne. His first training was with his father, John Simpson Mackennal, a locally prominent architectural modeller and sculptor. This was followed by formal instruction at the National Gallery School of Design under OR Campbell from 1878. Mackennal left Australia for London in 1882, and was admitted to the Royal Academy schools as a sculpture student in late 1883. After a short period, Mackennal moved to Paris, dissatisfied with his sculptural training in London. He took a studio and worked independently, while also meeting various sculptors, including Auguste Rodin, and learning from their methods. In Paris, Mackennal married Agnes Spooner, and they returned to England for the birth of their child in 1885. Influenced in the 1880s by the avant-garde aspirations of British ‘New Sculptors’, Mackennal had become a prominent civic sculptor and a master of Edwardian style by the early 1900s. He acutely understood sculpture as an art of patronage, and demonstrated his ability to work quickly and completely within the dictates of convention by undertaking various commissions for public monuments. Mackennal was the first Australian artist to have his work purchased for the Tate gallery. He was also the first Australian artist to be knighted and to become a full member of London’s Royal Academy. ‘The dancer’ is a life-size bronze nude, characteristic of Mackennal’s sculpture in its expressive modelling and direct sense of life. It reveals his skill in dealing with complex movement. The work presents a figure arrested in action: the dancer arches and turns her body with twin spiral movements from legs to spine and shoulders. Her pose is relaxed as she steps forward, flourishing Spanish castanets, her outstretched foot lightly touching the ground. Through the carefully balanced pose, the work expresses a sense of graceful movement and a relaxed sensuality. The influence of Symbolism and Art Nouveau can be seen in the simple planes of the work.
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During his lifetime Hans Heysen was one of the most accomplished and publicly acclaimed painters of the Australian landscape. He was equally a master of oil paint and watercolour, as well as a formidable draughtsman in pencil and charcoal. The landscape around Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills and especially its old gums were his preferred subject matter. He was also attracted to the rugged isolation of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. ‘Drought sheep’ underwent gradual development, indicated by the date Heysen put on the work (1916-21) and a preliminary drawing ‘Travelling sheep’ c1916, now also in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. The preliminary drawing is half the size of ‘Drought sheep’ and has an additional sheep in the bottom left foreground. Heysen removed it in the watercolour, strengthening the overall compositional movement to the right. In both drawing and watercolour, muscle, bone and sinew are suggested in the movements of each sheep. This evocative watercolour was produced around the time of the First World War when Heysen’s loyalty to Australia, like many others of German birth or background, was unfairly questioned. As well as capturing the conditions that accompany severe drought, it may reveal something of the artist, suggesting his anxiety at the time. A flock of parched sheep moves across a hot and dusty track under an overarching sky with clouds in magnificent ferment but without the promise of rain. Featureless and treeless, it is an unusual work for an artist whose paintings of grand eucalypt forests came to epitomise heroic Australian landscape painting in the interwar decades. Heysen won the Wynne Prize for landscape an unprecedented nine times between 1904 and 1932, boosting his early reputation and the popularity of his work. He was knighted in 1959.
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