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Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950 Opens at National Gallery of Australia

CANBERRA.- The National Gallery of Australia presents Misty moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950, the first exhibition of its kind ever assembled, and showcases the previously unexplored riches of the Australian Tonalist painting movement, which flourished during the twentieth-century interwar period. Remarkably, despite the fact that some of Australia’s greatest twentieth-century artists, such as Max Meldrum, Clarice Beckett, Lloyd Rees, Roy de Maistre and Elioth Gruner, variously explored the gentle atmospheric effects of Tonalism, it became maligned over time and developed into one of the most misunderstood and most underestimated movements in Australian art.

There are many complex reasons that have contributed to Tonalism’s marginalisation, and certainly its radically humble qualities were overshadowed by more fashionable genres such as narrative painting and grand sunlit landscape painting. However, possibly of greatest detriment has been its confusion with the long Western art tradition of tonal painting. Tonal painting was popular around the turn of the twentieth century, coinciding with a renewed appreciation of the dark-toned seventeenth-century subjects of Velasquez (1599–1660) and Rembrandt (1606–1669). A descendent of this tradition was a dominant form of low-toned painting taught in Melbourne, whereby the painted surface is progressively and slowly built up, working in part from dark to light. Form is sharply painted in great detail, creating an effect of realism, and is typically seen, for example, in the early work of Margaret Preston, Hugh Ramsay and George W Lambert.

Tonalism is fundamentally different and is best understood as a painting system. It involves no under drawing and is based on the rapid and direct recording of tonal impressions (generalised massed areas of light and dark) onto the canvas in the order the impressions meet the eye of the artist. Its intention is to create an exact illusion of nature. In this way, it is a spontaneous, ‘perceptual’ and responsive form of painting, as opposed to traditional tonal painting, which is craft-based and measured.

Thus, rather than appearing highly detailed and photographic, Tonalist paintings are more generalised and identified by a soft-focus, tonal atmospheric aesthetic. The blocked-in tonal transitions in many of these paintings are also sometimes slow to unfold and demand time and physical distance from the viewer (six metres) as the fields of tone optically shift and lock into focus to create the desired three-dimensional illusionary effect within a unified tonal pitch.

This Tonalist system of painting was highly controversial and was pioneered by Max Meldrum (1875–1955), the ‘stormy petrel of Australian art’ and one of the most important artists, teachers and theorists of the first half of the twentieth century. When Tonalism arrived in Melbourne in 1919 in the form of a large group exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery, it was bitterly received and divided the arts community. The sheer immediacy of its technique, its modest subject matter and the subtle appearance of the paintings fundamentally challenged well-established, nationalistic and elevated painting traditions that were more reliant on high craftsmanship and immediate visual impact.

Misty moderns charts the earliest beginnings of the Tonalist movement through Meldrum’s 1917 revolutionary perceptual landscapes. These small-scale experimental studies demonstrate arguably the first important advance in Australian landscape painting since Australian Impressionism of the 1880s. Using his newly devised painting system, Meldrum responded to the delicate tonal qualities of the Australian bush in Eltham (29 kilometres north-east of Melbourne) and painted a watershed series of spontaneous works remarkable for their brevity and spatial penetration. Paring back his painting process to a rapid application of broken areas of restricted tone, Meldrum created works of extraordinary dynamism, light and space. Meldrum’s The three trees c 1917 is one of his most progressive paintings from this early Eltham period, and along with several of his other key early works, became widely known in artistic circles when illustrated in his influential hardcover book Max Meldrum: his art and views, published in 1919. The startling simplification of form and recessive space demonstrated in these early reductive paintings of Eltham are significant today for prefiguring the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Minimalist interpretations of the Australian landscape.

The deep impression that Meldrum’s perceptual painting system had on Australia’s first wave of modernists is also demonstrated in Misty moderns by the inclusion of rare Tonalist works by Roy de Maistre, Roland Wakelin, Lloyd Rees, Arnold Shore, William Frater and Godfrey Miller. Among the most interesting of these early exploratory subjects is Roy de Maistre’s Berry’s Bay c 1920, which is a rare synthesis of formal elements related to the artist’s pioneering semi-abstract ‘colour music’ studies and the softened forms of Tonalism. A small group of Tonalist self-portraits painted by some of these young artists in the privacy of their studios are among the most engaging and most unexpected works in Misty moderns. The sheer economy of Roland Wakelin’s brushwork in his introspective and monochromatic Self-portrait 1920 accounts to the pull of Meldrum’s ideas in the preeminent artistic circles of Sydney at this time. Meldrum galvanised the artists’ commitment to forging a pathway into art by offering a painting system that strengthened and simplified their approach. Tonalism also inadvertently sharpened the artists’ receptivity to modernism. These surprising experimental paintings challenge pre-existing ideas about the development of Australian modernism and point towards the reinstatement of Max Meldrum as a major force in twentieth-century Australian art.

Clarice Beckett’s spellbinding suburban, coastal and city views of the 1920s and early 1930s included in Misty moderns confirm Beckett’s position as one of the movement’s greatest artists. Forgotten for over 30 years, Clarice Beckett has only in recent times been rightfully acknowledged as one of Australia’s greatest landscape painters of the twentieth century. The National Gallery of Australia led the way in resurrecting the reputation of Clarice Beckett when James Mollison, as acting director, acquired a seminal group of the artist’s then recently rediscovered works in 1971.

Beckett transcended Meldrum’s painting system, transforming it into her own ethereal signature style, distinguished by a wonderful command of design and feeling for colour. Carefully selected examples of her most luminous and minimal landscapes, such as Passing trams and Taxi rank of the early 1930s, are displayed in elegant groupings that collectively resonate, forming a moving highlight of this exhibition.

Misty moderns concludes with a series of introspective themes painted during the early 1940s as the terror of war raged and the competing forces of modernism began to firmly take hold. Living and working in London in 1942, expatriate Colin Colahan was appointed an official war artist, providing him with an opportunity to extend his gaze beyond the domestic realm to produce a series of sensitively observed war subjects. His poetic airfield scene of Ballet of wind and rain 1945 is one of the many revelations in Misty moderns that will be on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra from February to April 2009. The exhibtion brings together 82 paintings by 18 artists drawn from significant private and public collections from around Australia.

Tracey Lock-Weir, Curator, Australian Paintings and Sculpture, Art Gallery of South Australia, and curator of Misty moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915–1950The Art Gallery of South Australia’s Misty moderns: Australian Tonalists: 1915–1950 national tour has been made possible by the support of the Australian Government, through Visions of Australia.

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