With more than seven million square kilometres of sparkling terrain to explore, Australia supplies no shortage of inspiration for artists. And whether they’re painting Post-Impressionist depictions of the outback or performing abstract experiments with the colours of the landscape, these are the 10 artists who put the Australian art scene on the map.
Nolan (1917-1992) grew up in rough-and-tumble Depression-era Melbourne and emerged as one of Australia’s most prolific and celebrated 20th-century artists. Nolan’s vibrant Modernist paintings focused on uniquely Australian stories from the bush – his depictions of Ned Kelly and his gang of bushrangers cemented both Kelly’s standing in Australian folklore and Nolan’s lofty status in the national art scene.
Grace Cossington Smith
Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was a genuine trailblazer – her 1915 painting The Sock Knitter is considered Australia’s first Modernist work, leading the country’s response to European Post-Impressionism. Cossington Smith’s brilliantly colourful paintings focused on familiar surroundings: everyday Sydney during the 20th century, including many dazzling portrayals of domestic life.
The influence of Vincent van Gogh on the paintings of Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) is obvious and so is the effect of drugs, alcohol and the Vietnam War – Whiteley’s intense, abstract style was his signature before he succumbed to a heroin overdose aged just 53. Today, you can learn more about Whiteley’s life and work at his former studio in Sydney’s Surry Hills – the Art Gallery of New South Wales has transformed his old property into a museum over the past two decades.
Once described as ‘the natural enemy of the dull’, Margaret Preston (1875-1963) was an artist ahead of her time. Born in Adelaide and trained in Munich, Paris and London during the era of European Modernism and French Post-Impressionism, Preston was as renowned for her character as her progressive art – she wrote extensively as a cultural commentator, advocating Indigenous and women’s rights earlier than most of her contemporaries.
An Arrernte man from the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, Namatjira (1902-1959) is undoubtedly Australia’s most famous Indigenous artist. His Western-style watercolours of the ancient Australian outback introduced Aboriginal art to the white community for the first time, and also earned Namatjira the long-overdue distinction of becoming the first Indigenous person to be granted Australian citizenship in 1957.
Transforming regular materials into pieces of art, Hall (1953-) uses her work to explore the relationship between nature and culture – literature and ecology are consistent themes. Hall’s early focus on painting and photography expanded into sculpture, installation, moving image and even garden design in the 1990s, boasting residencies at all of Australia’s major galleries and representing the country at the 2015 Venice Biennale.
Born in Ballarat and now based in London, Noonan (1969-) utilises images found in books and magazines to produce screen prints on linen, creating narratives out of this eclectic found material. His monochromatic prints channel the golden age of cinema, and can be found exhibited in ‘La La Land’ Los Angeles itself as well as London, Paris and all of Australia’s top galleries.
There is no more revered living Australian artist than John Olsen (1928-), a 90-year-old national treasure. In the 1960s, Olsen returned to Australia after several years travelling around Europe to paint a series of vivid, dynamic, experimental portrayals of the Australian landscape – a style that has come to define Olsen’s decorated seven-decade career.
Growing up on Queensland’s sugar cane farms before cutting her teeth in Sydney’s post-war art scene, Margaret Olley (1923-2011) is Australia’s most famous painter of still life and interiors, inspired by fruit, flowers and pottery. Visitors to New South Wales’ Northern Rivers region can pop into the Margaret Olley Art Centre in Murwillumbah, a charming gallery that celebrates the artist’s career and legacy.
This Singapore-born Punjabi-Australian artist (1959-) uses everyday items to create large-scale pieces that make a resounding impact on the viewer – for example, highway garbage turned into toy cars for Roadkill (1999) or books sculpted into beads for Pearls (2000). Much of Gill’s sculpture, painting and photography also critiques Australia’s callous refugee policy in Southeast Asia.