Terra Australis Incognita:  

A conversation with Kathleen Soriano about 'Australia' at the Royal Academy

One of the main problems mounting Australian contemporary art exhibitions in the UK is a lack of general knowledge and familiarity of Australian art by the wider public.   Who would come?  Seems to be the concern for curators and museum institutions.  Even the names of established artists like Bill Henson and Fiona Hall would be unfamiliar to most.

The last major survey exhibition of Australian works occurred over 50 years ago at the Tate.  It has been little wonder that the 'Australia' exhibition at the RA has been much anticipated in London.  This exhibition is highly ambitious in its nature, seeking to construct an Australian art history framework and address some of these problems.  Despite the intentions of the show, it has received particularly scathing and potentially damaging comments.  The most quoted, Waldemar Januszczak, has made allusions to some of Australia's greatest well known paintings to that of excrement.  Rather than being critical, these comments seek to provoke.  But it not just British press, but Australian press - repeating these comments without regard to wider implications.  What long term effects do these types of exhibitions and reviews have on perceptions about Australian art and future abilities of Australian artists to exhibit overseas?  Given the extreme rarity of these type of survey exhibitions of Australian art  - criticism has its place, but can we really afford not to support these exhibitions and make the best of this opportunity?  One can only hope that this doesn't discourage visitors from seeing the exhibition and making up their own minds.

'Australia' Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Kathleen Soriano discusses what inspired the exhibition, its challenges, the press comments and the exhibition's legacy.

CK Were you anticipating negative reviews in Australia?

KS Yes, I was anticipating negativity.  I didn't anticipate getting it right from an Australian's point of view… but more importantly it's a survey exhibition.  It's very difficult to satisfy the majority of people with a survey show.  It's the best and worst of a survey show, which I always knew it would be.  But I was doing it for different reasons - it had to be done.  And so I knew walking into it that the survey thing would be an issue and of course - taking on a country.

CK Quite challenging... but still, I think it's a great thing for Australian art in general.

KS  I think so.  I do, I completely do.

CK What inspired you to put the exhibition on?

KS  It all started when I first went to Australia about 20 years ago.  I knew I would encounter a lot of indigenous artists that would be new to me.  But I didn't really think about the non-indigenous artists.  So it was a real surprise when I came across Glover, Von Guerard, Streeton, Roberts… and the women artists in particular - Margaret Preston, Grace Cossingtton Smith, Clarice Beckett…  They were the ones I thought my goodness, 'Why haven't I heard about these people? ' 

CK: - And they really are great women painters.

KS Yes, and I couldn't really understand it.  At the time I was working at the NPG and we were working a lot with the NPG in Canberra.  Myself and my curatorial colleague were going backwards and forwards an awful lot.  Every time they would come back they would be like: "How come we haven't heard of "…"?"

Because there's a long connection with England, a lot of the artists that first went out there were English and then subsequently sending their work back to the Summer Exhibition every year.  There was more of a connection and seemed to be less of a reason not to know it.

Then I was doing a short amount of work at Southbank Centre and I was working with Michael Lynch...  At the time he was working at Southbank, he and I wanted to see Bill Henson's show at the MCA in London.  We tried to convince the Southbank Centre and Portrait Gallery... but we couldn't convince them.  


Sidney Nolan,  Ned Kelly  ,1946.    Enamel paint on composition board.    90.8 x 121.5 cm.    National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.    Gift of Sunday Reed 1977.    Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia.

Sidney Nolan, Ned Kelly,1946.  Enamel paint on composition board.  90.8 x 121.5 cm.  National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.  Gift of Sunday Reed 1977.  Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in partnership with the National Gallery of Australia.

Grace Cossington Smith,  The Bridge in Building,   1929-1930,   Oil on pulpboard.    75 x 53 cm.   National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, gift of Ellen Waugh 2005.   © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

Grace Cossington Smith, The Bridge in Building, 1929-1930, Oil on pulpboard.  75 x 53 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, gift of Ellen Waugh 2005.

© Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

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