From day one, Sydney has inspired artists, be they working in ochre and stone, pencil, charcoal or paints. There is a magic that draws the artist to capture something about the place.
Most times the artists work in isolation, but sometimes they are drawn together into groups or communes to bounce ideas and styles off of each other, pushing further their boundaries. In Sydney’s art history, two particular places stand out in this respect: the Curlew Camp in the 1890s and the Yellow House in the 1970s. Both explored different styles but moved in the same ideas.
In the 1890s Sydney, and Australia, was at the beginnings of a rethinking of the Australian identity. As the inevitable push towards a Federated nation began to gather speed, people began to rediscover the ‘bush’ as part of the Australian heritage. Around Sydney (and Melbourne) a number of bush camps sprang up.
Intially these were more commonly for city wrkers escaping for weekends. One such was located on the waterfront at Little Sirius Cover, near where Taronga Zoo is now. Set up by Reuben Brasch, a department store owner, the camp was a weekend getaway for Brasch and his friends. Amongst Brasch’s friends was artist Tom Roberts. Roberts had meet Brasch at a friends wedding, and had visited the camp, known as Curlew Camp some time in the early 1890s. Roberts lived at the camp for approximately four and half years, during which time he became one of Australia’s best known artists and a well known practitioner of the plein-air style. Plein-air fitted the new found nationalism perfectly, as it celebrated the outdoors and experimented in the translation of the Australian landscape. The bush was no longer to be shunned, but rather incorporated into the visual story of Australia. The Curlew Camp was perfect for this, being right on the harbour but surrounded by bushland.
Roberts introduced other artists to the site including Arthur Streeton who visited on and off for five years. The camp was occupied by artists, photographers (then being the newest, boldest art form) and other bohemians for almost 30 years. Eventually the camp was well enough established to include a weatherboard dining hall, a snooker tent and gardens. It was finally abandoned around 1912 when Taronga Zoo was built. These days an interpretative walk shows you where it all was, and you can stand amongst the trees and look for inspiration.
On the other side of the harbour and nearly 70 years later, another artist community sprang up, burning brightly and briefly in Sydneys art scene. Known as the Yellow House, this community flourished for 3 years in Kings Cross under the guidance of Sydney artist Martin Sharp.
Kings Cross had had an artist and bohemian scene since the 1920s. Although the art scene had faded a little in the Cross in the 1960s, a few galleries and studios held out. One such was the Terry Clune Gallery which opened in Macleay Street in 1957. The Terry Clune Gallery quickly became famous for exhibiting the works of up and coming an radical artists, including John Olsen, Robert Klippel and Russell Drysdale.
The Clunes also provided living space for artists, and so formed the nucleus of a new artist commune. One emerging artist they nurtured was Martin Sharp, whose work they showed in the 1960s before he moved to London and worked for Oz magazine.
On Sharps’s return in the later 1960s, the Clunes had shut up shop and the building had been sold to developers. Sharp tried to find space to exhibit his works, including new work done in London, but with no success. So in 1970, with the manager of another gallery, the Holdsworth Gallery, he approached the owner of the former Clunes Gallery and convinced him to allow him to use the old building while redevelopment proposals were planned.
Sharp immediately set to work. He envisaged a community of artists based on the idea of Vincent Van Gogh’s community house in Arles in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh’s house was known as the Yellow House, painted bright yellow as it was. And so Sharp painted his building bright yellow and invited artists to come. They did come, and as the building was condemned, they painted it. Every room was redecorated in the style of the artist who got to it first. Artists such as Brett Whiteley, Bruce Goold and Peter Kingston turned the house into an art work.
Late night taxis would drop people off just to see whats was happening; every visitor had to contribute something, even if it was just painting a wall or a window frame. Bands like Pink Floyd dropped in when in town, or comedian Marty Feldman. The Ginger Meggs school of arts was established, giving classes and holding regular performances.
And then it was gone. By 1973 the Yellow House had closed up, the artists moved on to other projects. The house though was not demolished or redeveloped, it survived. Today it is again the Yellow House, except now instead of art it creates food. But a gallery remains and some of the original works can be seen peaking through.