It’s not unusual for art exhibitions to receive complaints, often on the grounds that content is confronting – such as with violence or nudity. But on ideological grounds?

A few weeks ago, curator Suzette Wearne received a complaint about Weird Melancholy: The Australian Gothic at the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art. It repositions early-Australian landscape painting as something frightening and uncanny.

“There’s a motif of ‘the Other’ in the exhibition – the distinctly different, which scares us,” says Wearne. “In Australia, I think the Other is the Indigenous population, and in a way this show is about us collectively turning our backs on Indigenous people since colonisation.” And someone complained because they don’t agree with this?

“Yes. In a way, I was genuinely surprised it took so long for someone to be unsettled by an alternative reading of landscape painting.”

Weird Melancholy is a collection of fairly traditional landscape paintings with the occasional photograph, all from the Ian Potter collection. But in this context, the works are unsettling. The Australian Gothic isn’t new, and Wearne cites cinema as its most popular form. “There’s a strong tradition in Australian cinema that really bad things happen when you go into the desert,” says Wearne. In classic Australian films, such as Wake in Fright and Picnic at Hanging Rock, nature isn’t just inhospitable, it’s hostile. Weird Melancholy shows us that our visual artists saw this long before our filmmakers. “Artists of the era had darker feelings about the wilderness than we acknowledge, much like explorers from the era had.”

The show isn’t arranged chronologically. It’s grouped according to mood and tone, and so the above-mentioned motifs emerge. “These works really express that European myth of terra nullius. If you look around the room, most of these works depict an emptiness, and what the settlers a thought was a void untouched by social history.”

And it’s not just landscapes. There’s a 19th-century family portrait taken in the bush – overdressed white figures sheltering in an enormous hollow tree trunk tree; photographer Leah King-Smith projects Indigenous spectres back into the landscape using photographic double exposures; and portrait painter Hugh Ramsay is represented by a simple, dark portrait of a nude woman with her back turned to the viewer, which Wearne sees as a literal depiction of our collective backs turned on the land’s history.

These works are often subtly imbued with a sense of the supernatural. “I’ve described it as the animistic charge of the landscape,” says Wearne. “The landscape is a living entity, and it’s either swallowing people up or outright rejecting them. This isn’t the classic narrative of the Australia being homey. Most artists found it to be foreboding.”

Weird Melancholy: The Australian Gothic is at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne until August 9.