While the current exhibition of John Russell’s work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is an incredible insight into both French and Australian impressionism in the 1880’s-1920’s, the real marvel of the exhibition is its revelation of the global influences that characterized this movement in European art and the continued influence these dialogue have had on contemporary art.
Not only was John Russell an extraordinary artist, but he led an exceptionally interesting life. His colleagues and friends from the time went on to become some of the most influential artists of his generation. These included artist such as Vincent van Gogh, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse.
Wayne Tunnicliffe, curator of this exhibition and the head of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, noted that “the exhibition highlights key connections to other artists of the time. It really looks at Russell’s practice and the scale of influence on other artists.”
What is remarkable about the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ exhibition is how the influence and contribution of the many artists that Russell associated with left an imprint on his work. In doing this, the exhibition honours not only to the works which Russell created, but the vibrant and equally colourful life that he lived.
The exhibition follows a rough chronological order, so, as you follow Russell’s artworks in the exhibition you gain an insight into his life and how his career progressed. The immense effect that the various different places that Russell lived had on his works is further made clear through the lay out of the 120 works which make up this exhibition.
Although Russell clearly became part of the world of the French impressionists during his forty years in France, Australia remains present in the works on display. This is not done through typical tropes of Australiana, but in a subtler way. Tunnicliffe highlighted that we should “think about Australian Art beyond paintings of Australia and rather to think of it from a more global perspective.” In Russell’s context it was taking Australia to France and bringing France back to Australia.
Russell’s works feature “light and strong colours that he took from Sydney Harbour and the Australian landscape,” said Tunnicliffe. When reconsidering Australia’s influence in a more abstract sense, the intrinsic link that Australia had to Russell’s artistic development becomes apparent.
In art, however, influence is never a one-way street. This exhibition showcases how French impressionism absorbed a variety of artistic traditions which were then realized in the works of Russell and his contemporaries. There are numerous Japanese paintings featured in the exhibition, which demonstrate how Russell, along with other impressionist artists, was heavily inspired by Japanese art. Through the exhibition you get “this nexus between Sydney, Paris and Tokyo,” said Tunnicliffe.
Tunnicliffe and the curatorial team have also included correspondence between artists like Van Gogh or Rodin with excerpts of letters that they sent to one another. Employing such archival material gives a holistic understanding of their process, and is wonderful to hear about the works from their perspectives. It’s amazing to have such a present voice from the artist, decades after his death.
Russell “had a remarkable ability to find talent even if it was unrecognised,” commented Tunniclifee. This was particularly relevant in his friendship with Van Gogh, which is demonstrated as their works are displayed next to each other. The portrait of Van Gogh that Russell painted and the self-portrait that Van Gogh created are remarkably similar and it is evident the respect they had for each other’s art and how they aided each other’s work.
A highlight of the exhibition is the pairing of the In the Morning and the In the Afternoon pieces. The pair have been re-united for the first time since the 1891 after ‘In the Afternoon’ was lost for many decades and was only recovered four years ago. “It’s in fantastic original condition and it’s in its original frame. So this is the first opportunity to show them together again,” said Tunnicliffe.
John Russell – Australia’s French Impressionist runs until November 11.