Sydney Long: The Spirit of the Land
Reviewed by Caroline Jordan
Only at the National Gallery of Australia, 17 August—11 November, 2012, with a catalogue by Anne Gray and Roger Butler. Exhibition is closed but the website and image galleries are still available on the NGA website here.
Sydney Long is one of the painters I like to visit when I go to Sydney. The AGNSW holds some of his iconic works: the pale-skinned boys river bathing in By Tranquil Waters (1894) (Fig. 1), the nymphs and satyrs gambolling in the Austral twilight in Pan (1898) (Fig. 2), an Aboriginal maiden playing a pipe to a flock of magpies in The Music Lesson (1904) (Fig. 3), and the swirling decorative panel Fantasy (Fig. 4). Add to this Brisbane’s blithe nymph leading on a flock of brolgas in Spirit of the Plains (1897) (Fig. 5) and Canberra’s sublime Flamingoes (1907) (Fig. 6) and it turns out one has practically all one needs to know of Long’s work. This retrospective exhibition confirms that a mere half-dozen well-known paintings in public galleries do indeed represent the artist’s best. The one revelation that I would add to my list of works to visit in the future is Adelaide’s exquisite landscape The Valley of 1898 (Fig. 7).
Long started out as a conventional Australian Impressionist, training with Julian Ashton in Sydney. He did a few sunny pastorals, but The Valley shows him hitting his true melancholy notes in the Australian bush. Long was not drawn to the heat of the summer day, Streeton’s famous blue and gold, but to the seductive cooled-down quiet of late afternoon and early evening. The Valley, painted in lush greens, purple and blues, shows Long on the cusp of change. In place of the fine, crackly grasses that Roberts and McCubbin paint in their foregrounds, Long’s is smoothed out and flattened into blocks of colour, and his spindly saplings are beginning to shape-shift into squiggly Art Nouveau lines.
Long’s transition to painting full-blown Art Nouveau bush idylls was already underway in 1897-8, when he painted The Valley. The Spirit of the Plains and Pan, both large, highly stylised, frieze-like compositions, represent the pinnacle of his achievement. Ghostly gums are flatly painted as if on a lighted theatrical backcloth. Against this, as if on a stage, the nymphs and fauns and the girl with her rearing flock of brolgas conduct their musical revelries. The salmony-pinks and greeny-blues of Plains are the high key version of the deep red-green contrast of Pan, Long’s favourite rich and reverberating colour combination.
There is no doubt these pensive paintings are abidingly strange in their melange of European mythology, Japanese-inspired Aestheticism and the Australian bush. As hybrid Antipodean arcadias or Federation fantasies, they were at once nationalist and fashionably internationalist, being given the honour of being reproduced in the English Art Nouveau bible, The Studio, in 1897 and 1899 respectively.
Long was not alone in his taste for pagan subjects in Australia in the lead up to Federation and the fin-de-siecle. Norman Lindsay made a career out of them. Rose, the future Mrs Lindsay, was also Long’s favourite nude model. However there is none of Lindsay’s hysterical eroticism—all thrusting bosoms and flared nostrils—in Long’s restrained and delicate, even rather sexless, nudes. Rupert Bunny painted huge pallid gods moping on a shore in Pastoral (1893) (Fig. 8) and Abey Alston depicted them flinging themselves about in a sunny Australian landscape in The Golden Age (1893) (Fig. 9), both big canvases aimed at the Paris Salon. Bertram Mackennal’s sculpture Circe (1892-3) (Fig. 10), the sorceress with the power to turn men into swine, is only the most imposing and well-known of a number of femmes fatales by other artists, including Streeton and Conder. Streeton’s Spirit of the Drought (1896) (Fig. 11), a personification of a willy-willy with a pile of bones at her feet, is cousin to Long’s watercolour The Spirit of the Bushfire (1900) (Fig. 12) who spreads out her fiery skirts over the landscape. These magical non-humans who skip through the bush, benign, ecstatic, forsaken or menacing, anticipate the bush fairytales of the next generation, notably May Gibbs’ gumnut babies and Big Bad Banksia men of the children’s classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918).
Long’s work seems less isolated and eccentric in such company and I regretted the absence in the exhibition of examples of related art, design and magazines like The Studio to augment his paintings, which the National Gallery of Australia could easily have supplied out of its rich decorative arts collections. For example, Spirit of the Bushfire is closely related to Jules Cheret’s poster of Loie Fuller dancing at the Folies Bergere (1897) (Fig. 13), which was on display downstairs near a French lamp of Fuller from 1901. Why not have both relocated into the exhibition and placed alongside Long’s work, as those of Australians Lionel Lindsay and Mildred Lovett were? The latter two did works directly inspired by Long’s paintings. Lovett’s hand-painted Art Nouveau vase based on Long’s lost picture Pastoral (1909) (Fig. 14), which he repainted in 1914 as Fantasy, is a delight.
Long’s vision for an ‘imaginative school’ of Australian painting was expressed in 1905 in an article in Art and Architecture, which is in part an admission of his own failure in the last few years in shifting the tastes of a philistine Australian public. This school would be characterised by ‘delicate colour harmonies’ and a ‘symbolic and decorative manner’, such as he himself had successfully aspired to in his compositions of the late 1890s. Long was convinced that any poetic revolution in Australian painting was unlikely to occur any time soon, however, given the public’s attachment to the realistic and the obvious. Gloomily, he predicted that ‘the Swagman will tramp his ‘Last Tramp’ and boil his billy on the walls of our Exhibitions for many years to come.’ In 1905 Long was questioning whether an artist such as himself could hope to ‘people the bush with nymphs, or the rivers with naiades’ and have them look convincing rather than ridiculous. The challenge was for something else that would better express the ‘lonely and primitive feeling of the country’. Long settled on a purely nativist vision of an Aboriginal Arcadia, evoking the sounds of bellbirds and curlews, the delicate silvery colours of the gumtrees and native flowers, and stories of the ‘heroic figure in his tribal fights’, ‘the dusky maiden’s love tragedy’ and ‘graceful pastorals of native children’. ‘Instead of Pans and Centaurs’, he wrote, ‘he will bid the Aboriginal blossom out in all the graceful proportions of his manly vigour’, before adding significantly – ‘when sufficient time has intervened to allow us to forget his failings’.[i] This was the problem of creating myths for a white Australia: ones borrowed from the Greeks and Romans inevitably struck a false note, while ones borrowed from the Australian dreamtime had somehow to erase the uncomfortable consciousness of real live Aborigines who were not easily relegated to the spirit world, in a continent that had only been colonised in many places for less than a century.
The expression of this Aboriginalism in Long’s art is The Music Lesson (1904), of a half-draped Aboriginal girl-Pan and her flock of magpies, whom she gathers around her by her playing. While this fulfils Long’s vision of ‘a melancholy pastoral … rendered in music’, presumably he saw this, too, as an experimental failure, given that it is the only work he did in this vein.
Long oscillated between a more conservative realist style, expressed in many pastoral and urban landscapes, and his early Art Nouveau fantasies. He returned to his early successes during and after the war, painting new versions of Spirit of the Plains (1914), Fantasy (1914) and numerous flamingoes, that he had first seen in their glory in the Taronga Park Zoo. In 1918, at the age of 47, he enthusiastically took up etching and reprised some of his famous Art Nouveau images again in that medium, partly inspired by a desire to establish a money-making sideline out of them.
Long’s evasive and cantankerous personality emerges in the story of his late career as a leader of printmaking in the 1920s, first in London and then as president of the Australian Painter-Etchers’ Society from 1924 to 1931. Long fudged his dates so that it looked like he had begun etching in 1915, apparently so that it would not look like he had got the idea from Lionel Lindsay, who had adapted one of Long’s compositions into an etching in 1918. Long also fudged the numbers of prints in his editions. Having initially been a supporter of Long’s, Lindsay fell out with him severely over such matters in the 1920s. A pattern emerges of Long being flexible with the truth, prevaricating about his birthdate to make him seem younger than he actually was, and pre-dating his marriage by thirteen years. His humble family origins are murky and the terms of his marriage a puzzle, given that it is assumed he was homosexual. This may have been the reason that the artist and designer Thea Proctor broke off her five-year engagement to him in 1902 and became close to the virile George Lambert, with whom Long had once shared a studio. Although all three former fellow students were in London in the same period in the 1910s, Long was by then sadly estranged from them and from other well-established and well-connected expatriates such as Arthur Streeton, whose success he referred to jealously as the ‘Mackennal-Lambert-Streeton syndicate’. Not an easy person, then, by all accounts, and quite possibly his own worst enemy. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to warm to the face that Mildred Lovett depicted in a portrait bust from around 1909 (Fig. 15). It is the face of a sensitive, intelligent aesthete with large eyes and a bony nose, remarkably like the profile of Pan in fact. Mr Long was a man of contradictions. He may not have produced a towering body of work, but at his best—in Spirit of the Plains—he struck a pure nostalgic note that is like no other in Australian art.
[i] Sydney Long, ‘The Trend of Australian Art Considered and Discussed’ (1905) in Bernard Smith, Documents of Art and Taste in Australia, Oxford University Press, 1975, pp.263-8.
Click on thumbnails to see larger images.
Fig. 1 By Tranquil Waters (1894). Oil on canvas on hardboard, 111.3 x 185.4 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, purchased 1894.
Fig. 2 Pan (1898). Oil on canvas, 107.5 x 178.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Gift of J R McGregor 1943
Fig. 3 The Music Lesson (1904). Oil on canvas, 71.7 x 51.4 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 1969.
Fig. 4 Fantasy (c1916-1917). Oil on canvas, 132.5 x 107 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased under the terms of the Florence Turner Blake Request 1971.
Fig. 5 Spirit of the Plains (1914). Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 153.7 cm. National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1971.
Fig. 6 Flamingoes (1907). Oil on canvas, 30.6 x 61 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, acquired with the assistance of the Masterpieces for the Nation Fund.
Fig. 7 The Valley of 1898. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 61.2 cm. Art Gallery of South Australia, Eder Bequest Fund 1898.
Fig. 8 Rupert Bunny Pastoral (1893). Oil on canvas, 142 x 251 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Purchased 1969.
Fig. 9 Abey Alston The Golden Age (1893). Oil on canvas, 141.5 x 250.5 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, presented by the artist, 1895.
Fig. 10 Bertram MacKennal Circe, (1893). Bronze, 205.5 x 79.4 x 93.4 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 1910.
Fig. 11 Arthur Streeton Spirit of the Drought (1896). Oil on wood panel, 34.7 x 37.2 cm. National Gallery of Australia.
Fig. 12 The Spirit of the Bushfire (1900). Watercolour and pencil, 30.8 x 46.7 cm, Art Gallery of Ballarat, purchased 1977.
Fig. 13 Jules Cheret Loie Fuller at Folies Bergere (1897). Colour Lithographic poster, 119.6 x 82.4 cm. National Gallery of Australia.
Fig. 14 Mildred Lovett Art Nouveau vase abased on Long’s lost Pastoral (1909). Hand painted porcelain with overglaze decoration, 26.4 x 14 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1909.
Fig. 15 Mildred Lovett, Sid Long c 1909. Terracotta, 52.7 (h) x 34.0 (w) x 27.7 (d), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, gift of Julian Ashton 1920.