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The idea of a “national art” is surely out of date in our internationalist times. Yet many countries still wrestle with the concept of an artistic identity. And such categories are useful to museums and galleries: the Royal Academy’s big autumn show, simply called Australia, spans 200 years of the country’s art history. Famous names will rub shoulders with artists familiar only to connoisseurs, contemporary conceptualists will collide with Aboriginal artists and narrative-minded Victorians (from the era, not the state). The RA is calling it the “most significant survey of Australian art ever mounted in the UK”.

The same might have been said of an exhibition curated by my uncle, Sydney Ure Smith, in the same venue 90 years ago. Syd was an artist who stood centre stage in the Sydney art scene for more than 30 years. He published the journal Art in Australia and, in 1921, became president of the Society of Artists, the local equivalent of the RA. This paved the way for him to mount an ambitious show of Australian art in London, at the RA’s Burlington House, in 1923.

With more than 200 pieces – a blockbuster before the age of blockbusters – it included work by the great en plein air painters Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin, who will feature in the RA’s September show. But it can’t have been easy to curate. The Sydney art scene fizzed with arguments about what form Australian art should take, as arch-conservatives such as the figurative artist Norman Lindsay railed against Picasso, Matisse et al.

In private, Syd considered modernism a bit of a fad but, ever the pragmatic liberal, he was intent on keeping the show on the road. “Despite much local criticism, it can fairly be said to be a representative collection of contemporary Australian Art,” he asserted in his catalogue. “Our wish has been to familiarise the British public with the work of our best men.” And, indeed, the odd woman: the early modernist Margaret Preston, for example, featured then and will feature again now.

‘Ned Kelly’ (1946) by Sidney Nolan

In a different way, the Whitechapel Gallery’s 1961 Recent Australian Painting was also about cultural identity. Curated by the innovative Bryan Robertson, it went beyond Sidney Nolan (whose Ned Kelly paintings will be at the RA), Russell Drysdale and Arthur Boyd, who were already known in London, to introduce the likes of Jeffrey Smart and the 22-year-old Brett Whiteley, and it met with critical acclaim. “Not a mere rehash of European and American pictorial achievements …a vivid expression of a whole country’s individual character,” pronounced the Daily Mail – though what the second part of that comment actually means is anyone’s guess.

Since then, things have changed. Few Aussie artists today seem keen to produce Australian Art, with a capital A. “It’s partly because of the complexity of what that might mean,” says Blair French, assistant director at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “Over the past 20 years, there have been practices that explicitly attempted to deal with the phrase ‘Australian identity’, but with the premise that it’s fluid and means different things to different people.”

For Wayne Tunnicliffe, head of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), the shift began in the late 1960s: he points to the work of conceptual artist Ian Burn in the Art & Language collective in London and New York, and to the Australians who produced hard-edged abstraction.

“They were using a language that increasingly became a global language – it didn’t include bush rangers or gum trees or any of those signifiers of place, which had become almost clichéd,” he says. “Today, people are not uncomfortable with place but it’s no longer a language they need to use in their work. Artists like Shaun Gladwell, David Noonan, Bill Henson and Tracey Moffatt all have international careers without necessarily being identified with Australia.”

But if “Australian-ness” matters less to young Australian artists, from a curatorial standpoint it is the one thing that the RA has had to identify to justify the title of its show. Director of exhibitions Kathleen Soriano has spent a decade looking for “a way into” Australian art. Her epiphany came in Sydney, standing in front of Arthur Streeton’s “Fire’s On” (1891), a painting in which human activity is dwarfed by the immensity of the setting: “Suddenly it was blindingly obvious that the Australian-ness is in the landscape,” she explained to me earlier in the summer. “Not just the geological formations and the shape that the trees make but also the artist’s palette and the monumentality of the scene, where the landscape is so much in the foreground.”

‘Fire’s On’ (1891) by Arthur Streeton

As she assembled the Australia exhibition, Soriano sought to maintain the perspective of an outsider. “I wanted to retain my naivety and fresh eye for as long as possible,” she said. I marvelled at the fact that she, as a Brit, could quote Dorothea Mackellar’s poem “My Country” at the press briefing, blissfully unaware of the terrible drone of children reciting it in unison that fills any Australian’s ears. But more worrying was her quotation from my uncle’s 1923 catalogue: “It is to landscape …we must look for whatever is fresh and original in Australian art.” This was, in fact, from an essay by the hardly progressive Lionel Lindsay. He went on to heave a sigh of relief that Australia had stayed unaffected by the “stunt art” – namely modernism – “that has ravaged the older civilisations”.

The RA’s decision to build a show around landscape hardly evokes a positive response in some Australian art circles. “It seems like a very English view of what Australian art is – which doesn’t seem to have shifted much from the Whitechapel show,” says Tony Bond, a freelance curator and writer, who until recently was head of international art at AGNSW.

For Nancy Underhill, biographer of Sidney Nolan, landscape is bound up with a critical perspective that expects Australian art to embody a sense of place – “Would you ever say that an exhibition of French art should look like France?” she asks – and an art historical view that deems Australia unique. Landscape, she argues, is part and parcel of the myth of Australia as a weird, exotic place that has its roots in 19th-century depictions of the continent’s flora and fauna, and which artists such as Nolan ran with.

“There has always been this idea of funny kangaroos, fish that fly, birds that can’t fly. Then along comes Nolan and he presents pictures of birds flying upside-down. It’s conscious quaintery. Australia is the most urban continent. People live in cities. We’ve been presented in a false way and it has stuck.”

Underhill worked with Sandy Nairne, now director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, on Eureka, a 1982 London show of contemporary Australian art that was split between the Serpentine Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Both saw it as an opportunity to present art from Australia simply as interesting (sometimes groundbreaking) work.

‘The Bridge in Building’ (1929-30) by Grace Cossington Smith

“With Eureka,” says Nairne, “one of the things that became important was that the title did not say ‘Australian art’, because in Australia it was so striking that there were all these artists with diverse cultural backgrounds working in very different ways. But the critics simply wrote ‘Australia’ back in. I remember feeling afterwards, very powerfully, the sense that these big stereotypes about nationality and presumptions of naming and identity were very difficult to shift.”

Later in the decade, Nairne helped to make Angry Penguins and Realist Painting in Melbourne in the 1940s happen at the Hayward Gallery, in time for the bicentennial celebrations. It was another bid to “undermine the obvious stereotypes” of the outback or the colonial town, as he put it in the foreword, and opened London critics’ eyes to a chapter of fierce, urban, wartime Australian modernism that most were unaware of.

The RA’s show does seem to contain plenty of urban art as well. So how does this square with its focus on landscape? “I’ve interpreted landscape very broadly,” says Soriano. “It’s about land and landscape, so we can bring in urbanisation, the beach …and when you look at landscape, there is a whole debate about the presence or absence of the figure.”

There’s a danger, of course, in broad interpretations: in struggling to view a diverse body of work through the landscape lens, we may be blinded to its richness. But there are no safe options when you try to capture a nation’s art in a single show. Counting from the first white settlements, Australia is nearly twice as old as when Syd grappled with the problem, and infinitely more sophisticated. The RA is taking on a continent: good luck to it.

‘Australia’, Royal Academy, London, September 21-December 8, www.royalacademy.org.uk

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