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Australian sculpture

Normal Redpath sculpture at Treasury Building, Canberra

Norma Redpath sculpture at Treasury Building, Canberra, 1966. Photograph by John Baker. Image courtesy of the ACT Heritage Library.

Sculpture is part of many everyday Australian places including streets, public squares, buildings, parks and gardens. Sculptors use materials such as stone, wood, metal, resin and plastics to create anything from small fine art objects to large-scale works that can become powerful landmarks.

Some sculptors are self-taught, others learn from an early period of assisting a more senior artist, or from formal training at Australian and international art schools.

Carving, casting, welding and assemblage are just a few of the techniques used to create sculptures.

Some forms of sculpture are incorporated into other objects or surfaces. Buildings can incorporate relief sculpture, for instance the front of The Art Gallery of New South Wales features The offerings of peace panels in bronze by A B Burton. The influence of sculpture is obvious in the overall design of some notable Australian buildings such as Federation Square and The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (2002) both in Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House (1973).

Developing Australian sculpture

Sculpture is one aspect of the ongoing creative and cultural traditions of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The array of sculpture made in Australia since early European settlement reflects the vision and talent of many artists from many cultures. The subjects and ideas each sculpture expresses, the materials and techniques it is made with, the reason it was made and the way that people interpret it can all be influenced by artistic, political and cultural fashions.

18th and 19th century sculpture

Sculpture of the 18th and 19th century followed classical European traditions, mostly representing the human form or aspects of nature in realistic, if sometimes romanticised, ways. For a range of practical and other reasons, sculpture was not part of early decades of Australian colonial life.

Examples of European sculpture begin in Tasmania in the 1830s and 1840s with stone-carvings on the Ross Bridge by Daniel Herbert, portraiture busts by Benjamin Law and wax portrait medallions by Theresa Walker, among others. By the mid-to-late 19th century, sculptors such as Emil Todt, Thomas Woolner and John Simpson MacKennal were creating portrait medallions, busts of notable people, statues and monuments using carving, modelling and metal casting techniques.

Works like Charles Summer's large bronze sculpture Burke and Wills (1865) - now located on Swanston Street, one of Melbourne's main city streets - are very much a part of many Australian townscapes, reminding passers-by of past events and people.

In the late 1800s, the Impressionist movement had a strong impact on painting while the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was a leading European influence for sculptors. Among those influenced by the English New Sculpture movement of this time were Australian artists Charles Douglas Richardson, Bertram Mackennal and Harold Parker.

20th century sculpture

Work on war memorials was a focus for Australian sculptors like Charles Web Gilbert and Paul Montford during the 1920s. The influence of Art Deco was unmistakable in Rayner Hoff's War Memorial (1927-31), in Adelaide. Ola Cohn's sculptures of the 1930s reflected a new modernity that was a bit beyond most Australians at the time.

Although sculpture was moving towards more abstract forms, academic naturalism remained at the core of Daphne Mayo's well-known works, which were largely commissions. Lyndon Dadswell was appointed as an official war artist during World War II.

English sculptors Henry Moore (1898-1896) and Anthony Caro (1924- ) were two contrasting, but key, influences for Australian sculpture after World War II. Caro also taught at the St Martin's School of Art in London where several Australian sculptors trained including Ron Roberston-Swann and Michael LeGrand.

Memorial to the men of the 2nd Australian Division, France. Sculpted by Lieutenant Web Gilbert.

The original memorial to the men of the 2nd Australian Division, Mont St Quentin, Peronne, France. c. 1925. Sculpted by Lieutenant Web Gilbert. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P02205.011.

Among Australia's other post-war sculptors were Gerald Lewers, Margel Hinder, Clifford Last and Clement Meadmore who worked with abstract forms using materials such as steel, stone and wood. Robert Klippel used junk, such as metal wires, cogs, pulleys and other machine parts welded together with other found objects, to create his work.

Some important developments for Australian sculpture took place in the 1960s. These included the 1961 Mildura Art Prize (leading to subsequent, significant Mildura sculpture events) and the 1963 touring exhibition Recent British Sculpture. Norma Redpath, Inge King, and Bert Flugelman were among many artists whose sculpture gained momentum during this decade.

American influences of minimalism and abstraction came to Australia in the 1970s, and the 1973 touring exhibition Some Recent American Art contributed to this. Many definitions and expressions of sculpture were explored. For instance, Ken Unsworth's Sculpture As Ritual, presented on 27 October 1975 and Stelarc's Performance Event 1976 explored radical uses of the human body - each artist's own - in sculpture.

In the early 1980s, Australian sculpture had to overcome a sense of stagnancy. It moved forward through a search for new meaning and changes including a return to figurative works that appealed to wider audiences.

Artists creating sculpture through this period included Victor Meertens, Bronwyn Oliver and Peter Tilley. Smaller-scale works became more popular with varied use of materials - almost anything imaginable - and a new sense of whimsy in some approaches.

Among artists of the 1990s were Michael Esson, Peter Cole, Marea Gazzard, Mona Ryder, Tony Trembath and Hossein Valamanesh. By the end of the 20th century, the work of Australian sculptors confidently drew on many styles, techniques and cultures - following individual interests and also branching into newer forms such as sound sculpture and installations.

Looking at Australian sculpture

Sculpture as public art

AMP Sydney Tower with Olympic theme sculptures, 2000

The AMP Sydney Tower with the Olympic theme sculptures, Sydney CBD, 2000. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23301253.

Australian cities, towns and landscapes feature the work of Australian sculptors as decorative, social, political and artistic statements. Some works such as Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault (also referred to as The Yellow Peril ) have attracted public outrage, other works are points of remembrance, pride or affection.

During the 1990s, sculpture has added impact and character to major projects such as the Federal Parliament House in Canberra and Melbourne's city gateway at the beginning of the City Link freeway. A number of artworks were commissioned to celebrate the Sydney 2000 Olympics, including sculptures by Dominique Sutton that featured on the city's Centrepoint Tower. Two of these, the gymnast and the wheelchair basketballer, are now at the Australian Institute of Sport. The other one, the sprinter, is at Sydney Olympic Park.

Sculpture parks

Australia has a number of special galleries, parks and other places where people can enjoy sculpture collections. These include the Broken Hill Symposium, the McLelland Gallery and Sculpture Park, William Ricketts Sanctuary, Herring Island Environmental Sculpture Park, Macquarie University Sculpture Park, Gomboc Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia Sculpture Garden.

Each year the Helen Lempriere Scholarships and Sculpture By the Sea bring together leading contemporary sculpture for public enjoyment, and provide recognition for artists through art prizes, awards and publicity.

Useful links

Sculpture parks

References used in preparing this story

  • Drury, N, New sculpture: profiles in contemporary Australian sculpture, Craftsman House, 1993.
  • Lumley, A, Sydney's sculpture, Longman Cheshire, Australia, 1990.
  • Sturgeon, G, Contemporary Australian sculpture, Craftsman House, Australia, 1991.
  • Sturgeon, G, The development of Australian sculpture 1788 - 1975, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978.

Last updated: 15th February 2008