Charles Conder (1868-1909) was one of the lynchpins of the famous Heidelberg School of Australian painting. Perhaps his best-known work is ‘A Holiday in Mentone’ (1888) depicting ladies and gentlemen walking on the beach and across a pier. It’s one of the high points of Australian impressionism, in which artists captured the unique light effects of the Australian landscape, painted directly from life.
But just one year later, something odd began happening to Conder’s work. The 21-year-old artist exhibited a painting called ‘Hot Wind’ featuring a seductive female figure in oriental garb, leaning over a burning brazier and blowing a gale of smoke and ash that casts a pall over the bush landscape. A serpent approaches the woman from the side, but she’s not perturbed; the creature’s slithering form is even echoed in the ribbons of cloth the woman is wearing.
Conder had recently arrived in Melbourne from Sydney and had travelled through bush devastated by drought. What he produced in ‘Hot Wind’ was an allegorised depiction of nature as an evil temptress. In the catalogue to the new Australian Symbolism exhibition, curator Denise Mimmocchi namechecks the painting as a touchstone Australian work that reveals the influence of the Symbolist movement, big in Europe at the time.
What is Symbolism? French poet Jean Moréas coined the term in an 1886, declaring that artists should avoid straightforward description and instead “clothe the idea in sensuous form”. The British Pre-Raphaelite artists, French painter Gustave Moreau and Swiss-German painter Arnold Böcklin exemplify this turning of the artistic gaze inwards to focus on dreams, desires and the imagination.
Australian Symbolism: The Art of Dreams shows the trend reflected in the big names of Australian art of the period. In addition to Conder there are works by Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Rupert Bunny, Bertram Mackennal, Sydney Long and George Lambert in the show. Including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and decorative arts, these are sensual, fanciful works invoking poetic landscapes, figures from mythology and femmes fatales (see below).
The show is the first to examine Australian art through the prism of the Symbolists and helps explain the shift from naturalism into the mass artistic shake-ups of the 20th century. As Mimmocchi writes: “While Symbolism was a short-lived influence on Australian artists, its wider impact is in its transformation of the art of the material world into one of abstract thought.”
Bertram Mackennal 'Circe' (1892-93) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Five femmes fatales
Symbolist writers and painters kept returning to the figure of the sexy but dangerous or hysterical woman...
1 Salome The stepdaughter of Herod in biblical tales. Herod begs her to perform an erotic dance, but she demands in return the head of John the Baptist.
2 Judith In the Old Testament, drunken Assyrian general Holofernes is decapitated by Judith, a widow he’s trying to have his way with prior to sacking her city.
3 Isabella A figure from Italian literature, Isabella is so unhinged by grief that she keeps her murdered husband’s head in a pot of basil (sensing a pattern here?).
4 Circe An alluring Greek goddess of magic. In Homer’s Odyssey, she serves Odysseus’s men a feast that turns them into pigs.
5 Eve The first woman: snake-talker, apple-offerer and original sinner, always getting blokes into trouble. Sheesh!