On Streeton, memory and love of the land

Over the weekend I went with a friend to see the Streeton exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Arthur Streeton was a leading Australian impressionist painter, part of the famous Heidelberg School in the late 19th Century, and among the first to truly capture the light and essence of the Australian landscape ‘on canvas’ (or, in fact, on salvaged wood).

While I adored the exhibition and would highly recommend it, this is not essentially an art post. Part of what so profoundly affected me about spending time in the presence of Streeton’s majestic depictions of the Australian landscape was the power of familiarity and nostalgia.

Immersing myself in his loving snapshots of some of my country’s (and my city’s) most beautiful scenes, I was struck by how much our childhood experiences can shape and enrich our adult lives.

Among those of us who, from a desire for self-improvement, delve into our insecurities and emotional challenges, much attention is paid to the experiences in our lives that have triggered difficult feelings and longlasting hangups; far more rarely do we reflect on how our positive experiences have also made us who we are.

I first considered this phenomenon a few months ago when I came across an article on research by John Hopkins University on Protective Childhood Experiences (PCEs), and how these were just as impactful, if not more impactful, than the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that are more often discussed.

While not quite the same thing, I became acutely aware on Saturday afternoon at the Gallery of how my parents’ appreciation of nature, especially the Australian bush and coast, and our many memories of deep calm and connection in these environments – from long walks on the northern beaches, to drives for hours through the rural landscape, and up-hill hikes through dense bushland – have imbued in me a deep love for the grey-green foliage and ‘Streeton blue’ ocean (‘Streeton blue’ was the name given to the uniquely vivid tones the artist blended to capture Australian land and seascapes; apparently the European establishment had not quite seen anything like it).

As I stood in front of some of the larger, more famous scenes of Sydney and the bush, I was also reminded of growing up mere steps away from the edge of Ku-ring-gai National Park in Sydney’s north; the languid summer evenings spent wandering outdoors with my cousins, the golden light and smell of eucalyptus, and the satisfying feeling of scrambling over rocks and spotting local wildlife (we once came across an echidna and got right up close to it).

Those who have spent any amount of time within it will appreciate the uniquely rough beauty of the Australian landscape; the extremes of our weather, the mystical regeneration of our plant life after fire, the blueish eucalyptus haze hanging over our mountainous areas. Even when you are lucky enough to have travelled widely abroad like I have, the cliché is real: there is no place like home. (I suppose that is how everyone feels about the natural enviornment in which they played, hiked and picnicked in their formative years.)

The uncannily accurate recreation of light in Streeton’s paintings takes me back to those places and times, and I was surprised to find a sense of deep connection and joy bubbling up from the memories connected to these scenes. The quality time we spend with our family, the appreciation we instill in them for things of beauty, and the early-set habit of enthusiastically embracing the fresh air and soothing sunlight of our natural enviornment truly have the power to create a lasting legacy of wellbeing and connection to the land.

And I can’t write about connection to the land without a final comment about that land’s original owners. If I am so bewitched by the natural beauty of the Australian landscape after only 33 years of enjoyment, how much more deeply rooted would the sense of belonging, affection and heritage be for those who, along with their ancestors, have spent tens of thousands of years living among it, nurturing it and learning to love its bounties and its quirks? The more I read and hear about those early experiences of disposession and the continued destruction of ancient sites, the more I begin (only begin) to understand their depth of pain.

Featured image: Land of the golden fleece, 1926

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