Building upon the gradual realization of the artistic achievements of Australian Aboriginals that began in the late 1800s, the twentieth century witnesses the discovery and recognition of the vast depth and diversity of pre-European Aboriginal art as well as the development of a series of distinctive regional schools of contemporary Aboriginal painting and sculpture, including Western Desert acrylic painting, or “dot” painting.
In the first years of the century, Australian art is still dominated by the Impressionist landscape painting made popular by the Heidelberg School of the 1880s and 1890s. The Society of Artists in Melbourne and Sydney sponsors exhibitions filled with local landscape scenes. It is only in the years following World War I that the effect of international modernism begins to appear in Australian art. The 1930s mark the establishment of a number of institutions for the exhibition of new Australian art, both abstract and representational, including the Modern Art Centre in Sydney and the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne. Toward the end of the decade, some contemporary landscape painters begin to adopt the formal devices and pictorial motifs of Aboriginal art, interpreting them through modernist eyes.
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, tension mounts between the proponents of representational and nonrepresentational art. The conflict peaks in 1959–61, when figurative artists calling themselves the Antipodeans and the “Sydney 9” group of abstractionists square off in a series of provocative exhibitions. Abstract painting, however, continues to dominate the Australian art scene for the next decade. Artists such as Fred Williams (1927–1982), Ian Fairweather (1891–1974), and Janet Dawson (born 1935) draw upon the colors and forms of the Australian landscape for their abstract work, and in 1968 an exhibition titled The Field launches the careers of a new generation of artists practicing “color field” abstraction.
The decade of the 1970s sees a great deal of experimentation in media other than traditional forms of painting and sculpture, much of it informed by political activism and the women’s movement, which motivate artists to produce community-oriented, socially engaged work, including posters and protest banners. By the end of the decade and into the 1980s, painting regains its status as a major form of visual art in Australia with the development of Neo-Expressionism. Many painters also show an interest in incorporating references to Australian history and earlier Australian art into their own work. Bea Maddock (1934–2016), for example, creates works that unite the characteristics and themes of Aboriginal and modernist art, combining layers of landscape imagery and written language.
The latter decades of the century witness the growing recognition of contemporary Aboriginal painting as an important movement within twentieth-century art. The bark painting traditions of Arnhem Land, which had first come to the attention of Westerners nearly a century earlier, continue to flourish, while Western Desert painting continues to expand and evolve. At the same time, other regions such as the Kimberley and Queensland also begin to produce contemporary paintings in their own distinctive regional styles. In the major cities, artists from Australia’s urban Aboriginal communities also begin to create works in a variety of media and styles.
With the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, the issue of national identity in Australian art becomes a major subject of discussion.
The Immigration Restriction Act, unofficially known as the White Australia Policy, is enacted to prevent the emigration of non-Europeans to the continent. The policy will remain in force until the 1950s and is not entirely overturned until 1978.
Miles Franklin’s (1879–1954) My Brilliant Career, considered the first authentic Australian novel, is published in Edinburgh.
The Franchise Act gives women the right to vote, but largely excludes indigenous Australians and people of Asian, African, and Pacific Island backgrounds.
The world’s first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Australian Charles Tait, premieres in Melbourne.
The First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work, in Melbourne, showcases both fine art and decorative arts.
The potter Merric Boyd (1888–1959) establishes a studio in Murrumbeena, outside Melbourne, and produces his own distinctive style of Art Nouveau ceramics, reflecting the more innovative aesthetics of the decorative arts—as opposed to the fine arts—in Australia in the early 1900s.
Anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) makes the first substantial collection of Aboriginal bark paintings from Arnhem Land. The growing numbers of Europeans in this region leads to the discovery and documentation of the rich and diverse body of rock art that adorns its caves and rockshelters.
The foundation stone is laid for the national capital, Canberra.
Australia’s official war artists, including George Lambert (1873–1930), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), and Will Dyson (1880–1938), depict the European battlefields and military life of World War I.
C. J. Dennis (1876–1938) publishes The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, a narrative poem about an Australian Everyman that becomes an instant best seller.
Australia becomes a founding member of the League of Nations.
The federal government begins the process of selecting, arranging transport for, and settling British migrants to the continent.
After living and working in London for many years, painter George Lambert returns to Australia and heads a new movement of artists who emphasize simplified forms and a linear style.
A Group of Modern Painters, an exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries in Sydney, features the work of a number of notable modernist artists, including George Lambert, Thea Proctor (1879–1966), and Roy de Maistre (1894–1968).
The first major exhibition of Aboriginal art is held in Melbourne. The show is an important milestone in the Western appreciation of the work of Aboriginal artists.
The Modern Art Centre opens in Sydney, providing a venue for Australian art of the twentieth century.
Aboriginals in the Central Desert record traditional designs in crayon on paper at the request of anthropologists. Sharing the same iconography initially documented by Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen in the 1890s, these early drawings are an important precursor to contemporary Western Desert painting.
Albert Namatjira (1902–1959), an Aranta man from the Central Desert, learns the techniques of Western watercolor painting in the realist tradition from the Euro-Australian artist Rex Battarbee (1898–1969). Namatjira’s paintings, which depict landscapes from his traditional homeland, are highly sought after by Western collectors and he becomes the first successful contemporary Aboriginal artist. He has a solo exhibition in 1938 and in 1939 his work Haasts Bluff (Ulumbaura) becomes the first contemporary Aboriginal painting to be acquired by a major art museum (the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide).
William Moore’s Story of Australian Art, the first full-length history on the subject, is published.
The Contemporary Art Society is established in Melbourne and holds its first group exhibition the following year.
Exhibition 1, a group show at the David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney, brings together the experimental work of artists who practice abstraction based purely on color theories and geometric principles.
Australia joins World War II on the side of the Allies, declaring war on Germany, then Italy (1940) and Japan (1941). The Australian government agrees to accept Jewish refugees.
The palette, compositional devices, and nature motifs of Aboriginal art begin to influence modernist landscape painting. Painter and printmaker Margaret Preston (1875–1963), for example, incorporates the earth tones and dot patterning characteristic of Aboriginal art in her landscapes from this period.
A number of figurative artists committed to a socially critical art, including Albert Tucker (1914–1999) and Arthur Boyd (1920–1999), portray the irrational violence of World War II and the sometimes brutal everyday life of urban Melbourne.
Angry Penguins, a journal of progressive literature and art, is published in Melbourne.
The book Place, Taste, and Tradition by art historian Bernard Smith is published, in which he praises Social Realism and other artistic movements that comment directly on their own place and time.
The painter Sidney Nolan (1917–1992) begins a series of paintings illustrating the life of nineteenth-century folk hero Ned Kelly, blending elements of Australian biography, history, landscape, and myth.
Australia becomes a charter member of the United Nations.
The Macquarie Galleries in Sydney showcases the work of nonfigurative artists, including Ian Fairweather (1891–1974), whose linear abstractions combine elements of Eastern and Aboriginal art. The exhibition Direction 1, held at the Macquarie Galleries in 1956, broadens interest in abstract art.
The federal government formally adopts a policy of assimilation with regard to Aboriginal people.
The British begin testing atomic weapons in remote areas of Australia. Many of the test sites are Aboriginal homelands.
The Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) is established.
The Antipodeans, a group of conservative Australian artists organized by art historian Bernard Smith (1916–2011), exhibit their work in Melbourne and publish a manifesto promoting figurative painting and opposing abstract art.
The “Sydney 9″—a group of artists formed to promote abstract art—respond to the Antipodeans in exhibitions held in Sydney and Melbourne. Participating artists make a dramatic entrance, arriving at the opening via helicopter and brandishing abstract paintings.
A major exhibition titled Australian Aboriginal Art tours the state galleries of Australia.
Australia signs the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Australian troops are sent to fight in Vietnam.
The Federal Government adopts a policy of integration of Aborigines.
The Gurindji people begin a campaign to obtain title to their tribal land in the Northern Territory.
In a national referendum, 92 percent of Australians vote to allow the federal government to legislate on behalf of Aboriginals.
An exhibition of abstract “color field” painting by Australian artists, titled The Field, opens at the National Gallery of Victoria.
A new wave of Australian filmmakers, many trained at the state-supported Australian Film, Television & Radio School, achieve international success with films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and Mad Max (George Miller, 1979).
The Inhibodress collective and gallery are founded as the site of numerous Conceptual artworks and performance pieces. Mike Parr (born 1945) and Peter Kennedy (born 1945) gain notice as two central figures of the group.
Neville Bonner becomes the first Aboriginal member of parliament.
Geoffrey Bardon, a Euro-Australian schoolteacher in the Aboriginal community of Papunya in the Western Desert, encourages a group of senior Aboriginal men to paint a mural depicting an important local Dreaming (creation story) on the wall of the community school. The men go on to create smaller paintings in acrylic on plywood, linoleum, and later art board and canvas. These works represent the first contemporary Western Desert acrylic paintings, also sometimes called “dot” paintings because of their distinctive dotted backgrounds. As the popularity, critical acclaim, and sales of Western Desert paintings grows, other desert communities, such as Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia, and Balgo, which share a common iconography with Papunya, begin to produce paintings in a similar style.
The Builders Labourers Federation, in an alliance with environmental groups, calls a work stoppage on a luxury development that involves the destruction of the last bushland on the Parramatta River. This type of protest action becomes known as a Green Ban.
Australian writer Patrick White wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Sydney Opera House, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, opens.
The First Biennale of Sydney inaugurates a series of large survey exhibitions of Australian contemporary art.
The Gurindji people of Northern Territory are granted ownership of their tribal land. The Senate endorses a resolution acknowledging prior ownership of the country by Aboriginal people and seeking compensation for their dispossession.
Australian scientists develop the world’s first system for storing solar energy on a mass scale.
The Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Ordinance is enacted to protect Aboriginal sites from desecration.
Figurative painting returns to the forefront in the work of Neo-Expressionists such as Peter Booth (born 1940) and Davida Allen (born 1951), featuring bold technique and vivid, sometimes fantastic subject matter.
Kakadu National Park, incorporating a number of Aboriginal sacred sites in the Northern Territory (such as Ubirr), is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The Australian National Gallery (now the National Gallery of Australia) opens in Canberra.
Elders at Yuendumu community in Central Australia paint scenes from their traditional mythology, or Dreaming, on the doors of the local school. Receiving wide critical acclaim in the art world, the creation of the “Yuendumu doors” becomes an important event in the history of contemporary Aboriginal art.
Koori Art ’84, the first major exhibition of works by contemporary urban Aboriginal artists, is held in Sydney.
Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, the first cooperative for the encouragement and display of works by urban Aboriginal artists, is founded in Sydney.
The Aboriginal Memorial, an installation of 200 painted hollow log coffins, one for each year of European colonization, is created by Aboriginal artists from Ramingining in Arnhem Land to mark the Australian bicentennial.
The exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, showcasing contemporary Aboriginal art, is held in New York.
Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, a film by Tracey Moffatt (born 1960), is shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Born in the Aboriginal community of Brisbane, Moffatt treats social themes in ironic, often haunting film and photography installations that quickly catapult her onto the international art scene.
Rover Thomas (ca. 1926–1998) and Trevor Nickolls (born 1949) become the first Aboriginal artists to be selected as Australia’s representatives to the Venice Biennale.
In the Mabo decision, the High Court recognizes a new class of ownership right—native title—and invalidates the concept of terra nullius (“empty land”) by which Britain justified the colonization of Australia.
Arnhem Land bark painter George Milpurrurru (1938–1998) becomes the first Aboriginal artist honored with a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
The First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art is held at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Aboriginal painter and multimedia artist Gordon Bennett (1955–2014) produces the video Performance with Object for the Expiation of Guilt. Bennett utilizes elements of traditional Aboriginal art to interrogate colonialist versions of history, injecting Aboriginal perspectives and illuminating the present-day struggles of indigenous peoples in Australia.
Australians vote down a referendum to replace Queen Elizabeth II as head of state with a president chosen by parliament.
“Australia, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=oca (October 2004)