Wayne Tunnicliffe, Australian Art curator for the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Sydney, Australia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Absorbing Australian Art at Art Gallery of NSW With the Curator

Last week the winners of Australia’s most important and most talked-about annual art contest, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, were announced and the exhibition of finalists opened at the Art Gallery of New South WalesSydney’s and Australia’s premiere art museum.

During the final days of last year’s exhibition, we met Wayne Tunnicliffe, Head of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW for a chat.

Years ago when we lived in Sydney we used to visit the Art Gallery of NSW whenever a new exhibition opened. I also happened to work nearby so I’d drop in once a week or so to see my favourite paintings and seek out new works. I became so familiar with the permanent collection that hung in the gallery in those days that when I dropped by it felt like I was visiting old friends.

A lot has changed since we left Sydney for Abu Dhabi in 1998 and Wayne, an art historian who has been at the Art Gallery of NSW for 12 years, and was formerly Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, has been partly responsible for the shake-up, exhibiting works in new and exciting ways, mixing forms and mediums, and interrupting chronology when it makes sense to hang work contextually.

Just before we met Wayne, the museum had opened the Art Gallery of NSW’s new Australian Galleries, a selection of work from its unrivalled collection of Australian art – from colonial to contemporary art and across all media: paintings, prints, sculpture, photography, and video – presented in new contexts, with older popular works hung alongside more recent little-known acquisitions, and many pieces brought out of storage at the Art Gallery of NSW for the first time in years.

As we strolled around the Australian Galleries with Wayne, we chatted about the changes at the museum, Australian Art, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, including the most controversial, The Archibald Prize, and the contemporary art scene. I have inserted a lot of links below – every time Wayne mentions an artist or work of art – so you can click through to gain a better understanding of what we’re chatting about.

For more interviews with locals from Australia and beyond see our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.

Australian Art at Art Gallery of NSW – A Guide by Curator Wayne Tunnicliffe

Q. Tell us about the Australian Galleries at the Art Gallery of NSW.

A. What we did here was include contemporary art in this gallery, but when there are continuities in practice rather than disjunctures. Our collection is particularly fine in early Modernism in Australia and you get that sense in this room — there are works from 1914 to 1915, the first experiments of Post-impressionism, in fact in Australia you’ve got pure Abstraction by 1919, and we have the earliest surviving Abstract painting in Australia, which is superb work.

Here we have placed a 1920s Bugatti (Bugatti Type 35 by James Angus) driving into the Sydney Harbour Bridge, into Grace Cossington Smith’s harbour bridge (The curve of the bridge), which we thought was a nice thing to do. The Bugatti is a work from 2006, while Grace Cossington Smith’s is from 1928-29, but of course Grace Cossington Smith is looking to the future with this engineering marvel unfolding in Sydney, James Angus is looking at this engineering marvel from this point in time back to the past.

And of course if there had have been a 1920s Bugatti in Sydney in 1932 when the bridge opened it could have driven over it! So it’s just a nice way to make those connections.

Q. What should visitors seek out to better understand Australia?

A. They should start in the 19th century Australian Galleries and look at the group of late 19th century Australian impressionists, like Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Condor. That is one of the finest groups of those works in Australia, so you immediately get a sense of Australia imagining itself for itself in the 1890s, coming up with a concept of nation at that time, and coming out with what would become these iconic subject matters – bushrangers, shearers, the landscapes.

You get that moment over there and then you walk across here and see this moment of modernity in Sydney as well, where the city becomes important, and you’ve got paintings of the harbour bridge and paintings like Grace Cossington Smith’s The Lacquer Room (of Sydney café-goers).

Then moving through the galleries, we have a room that has Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and the Pukumani Poles together — all works from the 1940s and 1950s, which are just key Australian works, and you get the sense of Australia mythologizing the landscape with Sidney Nolan’s paintings of Ned Kelly; the Pukumani Poles, which is the first work of Aboriginal Art collected for an art gallery in Australia on display; and Arthur Boyd’s work, with those mythologized landscapes as well.

That combination really locates you into Australia and Australian art history and they are glorious works to look at, absolutely glorious.

Q. What works help visitors better understand Sydney?

A. For Sydney, there’s Grace Cossington Smith’s work, especially the Curve of the harbour bridge, Thea Proctor’s work, and that of Harold Cazneaux, especially of the modern woman in Sydney. These are all very Sydney based works even though they look very international as well, and that’s typical of Sydney in the 20th century.

You have a sense of place in the works being made here, but also a sense of a city looking out to the world around it. Later, there is Brett Whiteley’s work also. Whiteley screams Sydney. And John Olsen. Great Sydney moments. Whiteley remains a quintessential Sydney artist and we have big holdings of Whiteley, and of course there is also the Brett Whiteley Studio, which we look after.

Q. It’s a break with tradition, hanging photographs beside paintings.

A. Yes, in doing things like this: putting Elioth Gruner’s Spring Frost (1919), one of our most famous landscape paintings, in a room with Janet Lawrence, who has a very contemporary take on nature and ways to look at and think about the land. It was a really great thing to do.

And then Gruner’s work over there, The Valley of the Tweed (1921), where you get a sense from this work here (Spring Frost), from just after the first world war, flooded with light, a beautiful and bucolic image that is all about rural plenitude and comfort after the horrors of the war in a sense. But then from 1921, there’s this painting of the Tweed Valley – look at the difference between the perspectives, that long sight line, the dead trees all over the hills.

I don’t think we can say Gruner is an environmental artist, but he is looking at the landscape and seeing how it’s changing through our interaction with it, and he starts arriving at this very modern visual imagery, these simplified forms that contrast between shadow in the foreground and the light. The difference between the two works in two years is really dramatic.

We wander into the next room at the Art Gallery of NSW where portraits of beloved Australian artist Margaret Olley hang, one a 1948 portrait by another legendary Australian artist, William Dobell, which won him a second Archibald Prize, and the other by contemporary Australian artist Ben Quilty, which won the 2011 Archibald Prize, visible behind Wayne in Terence’s portrait above.

Q. What do we have here?

A. There are these two portraits of Margaret Olley. They’re both very Sydney moments and yet they are such different works. You get the sense of how art shifted in sixty years of portraiture, having Olley as this one linking subject. And she has got almost the same look in her eyes in both of them. She’s looking out at us and saying why isn’t that wall salmon pink? She would say: I don’t like white walls in galleries, make them pink, or make them green. She loved green and pink!

Q. Tell us why Australians love the Archibald Prize so much.

A. I think it’s a combination of things. Of the history – people have grown up with it; we’ve got people who have been coming here to see it since the 1940s, and seeing every Archibald, so there’s this real sense of attachment and longevity with that prize.

Also because people are very comfortable with portraiture – it’s a type of art where everyone thinks they know what a good portrait is, whether they are looking for a likeness or psychological insight, they have a sense of what to expect and feel empowered enough to make their own judgements.

Because it is a prize, everyone can come in and think “Oh, the Trustees did a great job selecting the winner!” or “What were the Trustsees thinking?!” so it has that sense of involvement. And Sydney is a city of voyeurs and exhibitionists in some ways, so you’re invited to come and look and people are on display. So it had that celebrity culture factor long before celebrity culture existed. It was ahead of the curve in some ways.

Q. It has always attracted controversy.

A. It has. People look for controversy as well, even if there’s no controversy. Because the Archibald is a prize, people are very invested in it. It has rules and most of the controversies are about the rules because they’ve been broken, from the very famous 1943 court case with William Dobell’s Portrait of an Artist (of Joshua Smith) – was it a caricature or a portrait? — to the most recent court case in 2004, Craig Ruddy’s portrait of David Gulpilil – was it a drawing or was it a painting? They’re almost always about the rules and people get very heated up about them. And then there are the conservatives versus the more avant-garde, so it’s a great mix.

Q. Does the Prize appeal to younger art lovers?

A. It’s really revitalized itself in probably the last 10-15 years, once Adam Cullen won in 2000 with his portrait of David Wenham, who was a very interesting young artist and an edgy young artist. I think that galvanized a lot of younger artists. That’s one of the great things about the Archibald – people come and there are conservative portraits in there, but people also see the latest most interesting practitioners as well. So it’s a great way to get a very general art audience more engaged with contemporary art across a broad range of engagement.

We turn a corner, entering another room where we find works by another great Australian artist, Russell Drysdale

Q. Such a legend…

A. Just look at this Drysdale – this is another great moment when Australian artists started going out to the Outback and the Central Desert to find a visual identity. So again if we think about those Gruners and that landscape from the northern New South Wales coastline, and then by the 1940s artists are looking at the Outback towns and then the desert itself, and that becomes a very dominant way of thinking about our visual identity and one that becomes embraced publicly and by the tourist boards and is promoted internationally. That shift (from coast to centre) is really interesting.

We’ve also hung Rosemary Laing here, another contemporary photo-based artist who looks out to the desert for inspiration with these works. Then we have the Hermannsburg School of Aboriginal artists and Albert Namatjira painting the desert as well, into this room with the Pukumani Poles, the earliest works of Aboriginal art collected for an art gallery rather than a museum, that were commissioned by assistant director Tony Tuckson, who is also a painter as well, and that’s his work over there.

Then over here, the Nolans – which is a stunning selection of Nolan’s work from the 1940s to 1960s – into Tucker, Boyd, Brack, Joy Hester, Fred Williams, and a group of Fairweathers down there. This is a superb room. Australian art from the 1940s and 1950s, it’s as good as it gets – which is pretty darn good.

Q. How would you describe the state of Australian art now?

A. Incredibly lively – I think there are such a range of practices and such a range of engagement of work through younger artists. Some artists are selling well, some not selling so well. But I think there’s a real desire for contemporary culture too, as we’ve just seen with the success of the reopening of the Museum of Contemporary Art since the re-build, and our contemporary programmes here are well attended.

Q. Who is buying Australian art?

A. Mainly Australians but Australian artists are also being collected internationally, however, those collectors may not know they’re Australian – like Patricia Piccinini, David Noonan, Tony Clarke, Rosemary Laing, Tracey Moffat, and Bill Henson, all have big international followings.

At the Hong Kong Art Fair I attended a dinner hosted by a major European gallery and I was talking to a woman about Australian art and she had collected Patrician Piccinini and bought her work in European galleries but didn’t realise she was Australian. They are just seen as international artists. There is a strong sense these days of participating in the world without being localised.

Q. Where can foreign visitors see emerging artists?

A. They’re coming through the art schools, Sydney College of the Arts, National Art School and College Of Fine Arts and they’re very enterprising young artists and are often starting their own exhibition spaces. There are lot of artist-run initiatives in Sydney where you can see really good emerging artists and a mix of practices, studios open to the public, little galleries in lounge rooms or above shops, as well as professionally run galleries. The younger artists are very active and in terms of mediums they’re working in anything and everything.

What we’re finding these days is that artists are not necessarily medium-specific but are using whatever medium is most appropriate to the ideas they want to convey in that show. Having said that, there has been a real return to painting amongst younger artists as well. They seem comfortable with that medium again, which is really nice to see. Terrific video based digital media practices as well, and a lot of live performance-based art as well – which is harder for museums to collect, but we do show it.

Q. The contemporary art scene in Sydney feels more dynamic now.

A. Absolutely. It’s a much more dynamic scene. We opened the new contemporary wing after the John Kaldor Family Collection came to us, which was the most important private collection of international contemporary art in Australia, so we have a lot of big programmes planned and big display spaces showing that work. Kaldor had a big elaborate Victorian house with big rooms of contemporary art and we recreated some of the rooms from his house as well. (View the collection here.) Then there’s the MCA of course. And the White Rabbit Gallery, which has Kerr and Judith Neilson’s private collection of contemporary Chinese art.

Q. Visiting the gallery today, we get a better sense of how Australian art has developed.

A. We have that history and continuity, and this contemporary art is within that history and context, and people can come here and see hundreds of years of art practice and trace those continuities and changes. I think Sydney is also much more comfortable with contemporary art now. People will come and see their old favourites and then they’ll also come down and see the new collections and they’ll establish new favourites as well.

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

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