Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, until February 21st

Rupert Bunny, Sea Idyll, 1890. National Gallery of Victoria.

Perhaps it was no wonder he went to Paris at 20 years of age – would a man named Rupert Bunny have lasted five minutes in the rough-and-tumble of 1880s colonial Australia?

Well, he never had to find out; France suited him perfectly. Bunny hopped across the globe in 1884 to make a happy landing in the midst of Belle Epoque bohemia. He soon became the most successful Australian painter of his time, feted in Europe as a visionary, a poet and a brilliant colourist.

Bunny’s art brims with myth, dream and idyll. In his world languid ladies, often accompanied by red roses and white swans, spend trancelike afternoons by the sea or in the woods. Vaguely ominous mer-people beach themselves on deserted shores; sometimes they appear to be watching us. Or did we somehow conjure them unwittingly? This sense of the Other pervades even his most mundane compositions.

His paintings inhabit their own special borderland, hovering like dragonflies between realism and fantasy, decoration and symbolism. One critic described him as the creator of ‘feminine Arcady’, which would have made a great title for this big Bunny retrospective, the first in many years.

Reviews for this show have been uniformly lukewarm, aside from grudging respect for his obvious technical mastery. No surprises there; he was unconcerned with pseudo-intellectual conceptual gimmickry and instead drew inspiration from several isms now critically unfashionable, such as aestheticism, symbolism and pre-Raphaelitism. He often stands accused of lacking innovation and failing to pursue the contemporary art movements of his day.

And yet his later myth series belies this complaint, combining Fauves-inspired colour saturation and flat perspective with his own figurative style. As the exhibition shows, Bunny never stopped experimenting and went through several distinct phases of style during his 46 expat years in France. His sheer enjoyment of painting is as obvious as it is charming.

His great achievement may be that while many of his paintings may seem limited in scope at first glance, bound to the boulevards, pavilions and parks of the Belle Epoque, they nevertheless radiate with an obscure yet intense atmosphere that is both universal and timeless.