Learn About: Australian and Aboriginal Art

Learn about Australian and Aboriginal art, and the history of it, with our valuations and appraisals experts. Find out how it has developed over the years.

The art of Australia has a fascinating history incorporating colonial art, Aboriginal art, which is amongst the oldest surviving artistic cultures in the world, and artefacts. All types of Australian art have seen great interest both in Australia and internationally and it is now easier than ever before to ethically buy Aboriginal art.

Colonial and National Art

Art and imagery have been part of the international image of Australia since Europeans first arrived on the continent with their ambition to map the vast region. Mapping was accompanied by ethnographic portraits and sculpture, as explorers sought to understand and to record the peoples, plants and places of Australia for a European audience. With colonial settlement came a growth in the number of landscapes being painted by the likes of John Glover, known for his romantic depictions of Tasmania from the 1830s & ‘40s. The Heidelberg School of Heidelberg, Melbourne is probably the best known Australian colonial art movement and captured the romantic ideas of rural pioneers and manual work in the face of urbanisation. Heidelberg, dubbed the Australian impressionist movement, came towards the end of a century of colonial settlement fuelled by the Victorian gold rush which idealised the outdoors and rural life in a similar way to Americans in their colonisation of the western states of America. Landscape painting took on a nationalist sentiment in the 20th century following the federation of the Australian colonies into one nation in 1901.

Aboriginal Art

In contrast to colonial art, Aboriginal art is a tradition with an ancient but troubled history with recognition as one of the most enduring, but also exciting and current, art styles in the world. Aboriginal painting encompasses a huge variety of styles, techniques and media from more apparently abstract art, to figurative painting to sculpture. Aboriginal traditions are highly local and often have multi-layered and complex meanings with special significance to the communities from which they arise. In some cases, painting is a communal and cooperative enterprise of stories and ideas which are recorded only by specific artists and communities.

The earliest aboriginal painting, as with many global examples of prehistoric art, was done in ochre as rock art. At the other end of the history of Aboriginal art, however, is a community of current artists whose work is recognised internationally and boasts its own dedicated sales by top global auction houses. The transition of Aboriginal art from a culture untouched by imperial Europe to one which is highly valued by the international art community was not an easy one, and the ethical production and sale of Aboriginal art is still an issue at the heart of Australian art. The 20th century saw Aboriginal art collide with European artistic desires with the first Aboriginal watercolourists in the 1930s and the Papunya Tula cooperative in the early 1970s which opened up Aboriginal artists to western tastes, and the period since has been a steady drive towards reducing the prominence and operation of dealers seeking to exploit language, literacy and economic vulnerability. Today, the Community Art Centre model is central to ethical art and allows appreciators of these unique art styles to buy with peace of mind, even if the battle against more unsavoury sales continues.

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