The Royal Academy's new "Australia" exhibition, characterized by The Guardian as "highly publicized and much-anticipated," has opened in London to fantastically dreadful reviews. In fact, the reviews are so bad, they're almost good. Almost.
It's probably the only art show in recent memory to include a work that's being likened to "a cascade of diarrhea" (free metal band name up for grabs!) and if not, we are supremely curious about the other one. (The work in question is John Olsen's "Sydney Sun.") At any rate, "Australia" is the first major display of Australian art that London has seen in decades and features work from the likes of Sidney Nolan and John Olsen, but the city's critical elite has been less impressed. Here, enjoy a sampling of the scorn they've heaped until the show.
Most scathing was the Sunday Times' Waldemar Januszczak, whose review is behind a paywall, though The Guardian provides highlights:
The reviewer described a piece by John Olsen as evoking "the sensation of standing under a cascade of diarrhea."
He lamented the lack of Indigenous art and said the examples included were "problematic and tokenistic." He also labelled Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer as "poverty porn" and said Fred Williams "splatters the delicate emptiness of the desert with thick cowpats of minimalism"—but he did find praise for Albert Namatjira and Sidney Nolan.
The Evening Standard's Brian Sewell was little more forgiving, cruelly questioning the purpose of the exhibit, which he termed "the stale rejiggings of a half-remembered heritage wrecked by the European alcohol, religion and servitude that have rendered purposeless all relics of their ancient and mysterious past":
What on earth does the National Gallery of Australia . . . hope to achieve with this inadequate exhibition? The English have no romantic engagement with Australia that justifies our having to inspect such consistently provincial trivia, and though we may be amused to see the Australian Cultural Cringe so compellingly demonstrated, the demonstration (as with Australian humour) wears thin with repetition. [ . . . ] The Royal Academy’s exhibition, in the end, amounts to nothing but sad Reader’s Digest stuff.
Less scathing, The Independent's Adrien Hamilton nonetheless finds the exhibit as "incomplete" as the country it represents:
If the show ends on an incomplete note, it is because its art, like the country at large, seems still uncertain of where it is going. For all its size, Australia is still a nation of only some 22 million people—barely more than a third of the United Kingdom’s. No wonder it puts so much emphasis on its native Aboriginal artists. They at least seem confident in their dreaming.
Those detecting a troubling racial tone in such sharp criticisms are not alone. One of the artists in question, John Olsen, rather casually dismissed Januszczak's review as "an attempt to put Colonials in their place," which sounds about right. (And let the record state that there have been several positive reactions as well.)
Given such merciless reports, is it any surprise the cultural assumption that most critics are simply failed artists persists? Then again, it's comforting that Olsen has taken it in such stride. "You can call it diarrhea or energy," he told The Age. "It just depends on what you ate last night."
Let's go with "energy."
Top image of Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneers: Public Domain, via Wikimedia.