Masterworks from Yesteryear Responsibility and Right

“After sunset twas a silver ocean tonight. All people have to wait for the tram & I came down slowly in the dusk & close to me watching also was a little girl about 10, sitting on the sand. So still. I stood awhile thinking of her and the great spread of water. And I felt very much inclined to take this dear little creature in my arms and kiss her, sit down next to her. So innocent & who may some day become a fine woman. She may be powerful like this broad water some day. I watched with happy interest all this delight that men can’t sell to you – she got up fastened on her boots & went slowly after the other people. I watched her affectionately & then then the large pale moon on the rollers – Oh what a lot we enjoy & how good everything is. -The tram full of women and children, onle little boy on my knee. Workmen in the smoko two convent women also.” (Arthur Streeton in a letter to Tom Roberts c. April 1890. Letters from Smike, edited by Ann Galbally and Anne Gray, published by Oxford University Press Australia).

If Sir Arthur Streeton had sent this letter today, he would probably recieve a visit from the authorities and have his details recorded on some international database as a person of doubtful character. Today, society would probably look upon these thought as those of a disturbed person with unhealthy tendencies. But nothing could be further from the truth. This extract from Streeton’s letter was composed in an Australia that had values and beliefs vastly different to the one we know today.

If we were to generalise we could say that in Streeton’s times society seemed to focus more upon responsibility of the individual as opposed to the rights of the individual. Those times seemed to be more innocent than those of today. But the same couldn’t be said of the art that was made. It was built on centuries of tradition, hence the tag traditional that applies to much of it now. The art from Streeton’s era was steeped in craft. Discipline was important and individuality was restricted until the academic education was completed. And even though some may have exhibited an extraordinary talent, that talent was restrained during the instructive years and encouraged to develop in the privacy of the working artist’s studio.

Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1937) – Corfe Castle

These works are direct and are easy to understand and the artist’s skill is on show to be admired and envied. Contrary to much of the work made today the pictures on show in the Masterworks of Yesteryear exhibition do not require the services of an interpreter to convince us of their greatness, as the artist viewed that as his responsibility. And even though much contemporary criticism in Australia treats the art from this era as pass√©, it is our right to disagree with that opinion and enjoy these works for the quality they exhibit.

Today there is a tendency to ignore the craft of art and to reduce the instructive period. There is a tendency to rush into the market placewith something new and differenjt, no matter how bizarre. Dicipline, hard work and endeavour seem to have been replaced by fad, opportunity and urgency, doused with a liberal quantity of promotion. There seems to be more self taught artists practising now than there are that have been academically trained and one wonders which of today’s practitioners will stand the test of time.

All of the artists included in this exhibition have stood the test of time, and feature prominently in the standard reference material related to the history of Australian art. Each of the artists is represented by a significant work that is well crafted and exhibits the individuality for which they achieved their place in history.

Exhibition from Wednesday 25 August until Tuesday 14 September 2004