Category Archives: Art Galleries

Exhibition: Colony (NGV)

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NGV Ian Potter, Federation Square, closes 15 July.

I had decided that it was too late to blog about this exhibition, as it closes on 15 July. However, I notice that the Monthly is publicizing its review of it today, so I’ll jump in right at the end.

The exhibition is in two parts. The first, on the ground floor, displays documents, paintings and artefacts relating to British colonization in Australia.  The second, located upstairs, features contemporary indigenous artists’ responses to that colonization, both over 200 years ago and in an ongoing sense.

It seemed strange that it should be an art gallery that displayed the ground floor exhibition, and it was not clear whether articles were included for their artistic or historic merit. In many ways, the display would have been better placed within a museum. It took me some time to work out the order of the exhibition. It was only when I happened to look up, right at the roof level (probably 3 metres up) that there was a sign indicating that the display was grouped by colony (i.e. Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Queensland etc),  arranged chronologically by date of colonization. This is just one example of the way that the mounting of this exhibition annoyed me, and detracted from my enjoyment.  Whole panels of works arranged along a large wall had only one small sign, to the extreme right or left, and you had to go back and count to figure out which work you were interested in.  For objects in glass cases, the placement of lighting above the cases rendered the the contents completely invisible. The mechanics of an exhibition should be invisible, but that was certainly not the case here.

Even though I am fascinated by historical documents and artefacts, I far preferred the art exhibition upstairs, which was much more straightforward in its intent. They were thoughtful, provocative works that spoke to the material downstairs.  The exhibition is worth seeing, but for the upstairs gallery, not the confused display downstairs.

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Exhibition: States of Being- The Elemental Importance of Water

There’s a nice little art exhibition currently on show at the HATCH Contemporary Arts Space in Ivanhoe until 9 September. It’s called ‘States of Being- The Elemental Importance of Water’ and it features the work of nine artists, including the curator, that explore the concept of water in its various forms- river, sea, ice, cloud etc.

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There’s a series of paintings on glass that capture the ‘glimpse-like’ nature of the Yarra River as you walk along its banks in Heidelberg and Ivanhoe.  You rarely get a sense of the whole river here, because the trees and bends of the river break up your view of the water.  There are a couple of installations that play with water in its liquid form, and a series of tapestries that capture the sight of water seeping through the inland desert as seen from the sky. I was very taken with a video that overlapped still photographs of Iceland, watching clouds form and dissolve around a mountain-ringed lake.  Quite mesmerizing.

The HATCH gallery is at 14 Ivanhoe Pde Ivanhoe, and the free exhibition is open Tuesday-Saturday 10.00 til 5.00 until 9 September. There’s a flyer about the remaining activities associated with the exhibition at https://www.banyule.vic.gov.au/Arts-and-Events/Hatch-Contemporary-Arts-Space

Medieval Moderns

MEDIEVAL MODERNS: THE PRE-RAPHAELITE BROTHERHOOD

National Gallery of Victoria (International), Until 12 July 2015

There’s a lovely small, free exhibition of pre-Raphaelite paintings on show at the National Gallery International until  12 July.  The exhibition exemplifies the fallacy in trying to carve off ‘Australian’ from ‘International’ art because it includes artists like Edward La Trobe Bateman (in Australia between 1852-69) and Thomas Woolner who worked in Australia in 1852-4 after arriving for the gold rush.  He, like Bateman, associated with the Howitt family who were the centre of cultural Port Phillip in a reminder to us of the transnational nature of artistic and cultural interests.  Many of these works- particularly those of William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones- were purchased as part of the Felton Bequest.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of artists in the mid -19th century who eschewed the current trends in art and the increasing industrialization of production, and consciously turned to older styles of painting and imagery – hence dubbing themselves ‘pre’ the painter Raphael (1483-1520). Many of their works, created in the last half of the 19th century harked back to a quieter medieval milieu and a mythical forested, European setting. They marked their paintings with a small PRB logo in the corner. They came to the attention of the wider public through their illustrations of Tennyson’s poetry which was itself steeped in the mythological realm. Reproductions of their works were circulated throughout the Empire, with the Maitland Mercury noting on 26 September 1885 that a reproduction of Holman Hunt’s “The Shadow of Death” on show in a shop window had formed the basis of the local vicar’s “very eloquent” sermon.

An unusual window display for Maitland - Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death'. I wonder what they were advertising?

An unusual window display for Maitland – Holman Hunt’s ‘The Shadow of Death’. I wonder what they were advertising?

When we were in Birmingham we heard a lecture about Lizzie Siddal, whose long red hair and pale, thin features adorn many of these paintings, and she (and others visually similar to her) can be found in several of these paintings. As well as paintings and sketches for paintings, there are woodcuts, furniture, photographs, book bindings and wallpaper produced by the PRB, marking the extension from painting into the decorative arts and production methods, especially through William Morris’ influence with his company, Morris & Co.  Men predominate, of course, but there are photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron

We downloaded a PDF of the wall-panel labels used in the display before visiting, which I thought would be a good way of avoiding having to cluster up close to the painting, squinting at writing in the dark before moving back to view the picture. Unfortunately there seems to be no order at all to the PDF- or at least, I couldn’t detect it, and it seemed to be completely unrelated to the layout of the exhibition. A good idea poorly executed.

All-in-all, it’s a lovely little exhibition that reminds us of the riches that the Felton Bequest has brought to Victoria.

Eyeless at the Gallery

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I went to the National Gallery of Victoria a couple of weeks ago for their Italian Masterpieces exhibition and  I SAW THE PAINTINGS. “Why the capital letters, bold type and red letters?” you might ask.

Because there was a large group of schoolgirls from one of Melbourne’s more prominent private schools who didn’t see a single painting.  Instead, they were clustered in the middle of the exhibition room in small circles, their heads bent over their Ipads and their backs to the paintings.  I’m not sure what the assignment was, but they were all typing something onto what looked like a notecard on their screen.   Occasionally one or two looked at the written panel beside the painting.  At no time did I see a girl turn around,  look at a painting, step back to view from a distance, move forward to view close up, nudge a friend and point something out or interact in any way with anything other than her Ipad.

Their attendance at the gallery, in the presence of such beauty and treasure, was completely unnecessary.  They may as well have stood in their own schoolyard.

I don’t know what the instructional design principles  were of that assignment, but it failed in every regard.

By the way, the exhibition closes next weekend. Well worth seeing. Leave your Ipad at home.

Victor Hugo: Les Miserables From Page to Stage

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Picture of Cosette from the original 1862 version. Now used, of course, in publicity for Les Mis

Well, the name says it all really. The stage version of Les Mis is back in town again and this display at the State Library explores the book Les Miserables and its adaptation for film or stage. It’s a paid exhibition ($15 adults; $10 for foundation members).

The highlight of the exhibition is the 1862 manuscript of Les Miserables- a real coup for the library as this is the first time that it has been seen in Australia. It’s a huge volume, and each page is written vertically on half the page only, so that Hugo could make his changes in the space on the other half of the page. The first drafts were written on loose paper, then transferred into the large bound book for further editing. A line was drawn through the loose paper version to show that it had been incorporated into the bound text.

With the increased frequency of travelling library exhibitions over recent years in Australia, we have been exposed to more and more of these draft versions of great books. For example, the National Gallery’s ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries showcased a number of first-draft documents.  It is almost unthinkable to many of us now to contemplate writing much by hand, although some writers still do ( but surely they will be a dwindling band in the future). [As an aside, there was an interesting segment on the Media Report about a journalist who decided to write everything by hand for -ahem, two days- then photographed her handwritten version to distribute electronically as usual.] I know that the State Library of Victoria holds Peter Carey’s laptop but  the machine is not the same thing as its contents. There is something so material and human about seeing the towering tome of volume one of Les Miserables with its additions in cartoon balloons on the blank side of the paper. What happened, I wondered, when he ran out of room on the blank section?

It took Victor Hugo seventeen years to write the book, much of it while in exile from France after he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Napoleon III – or “Napoleon the little” as Hugo dubbed him in a pamphlet smuggled into France.  I am rather embarrassed that I was completely oblivious to Hugo’s political involvement. On the basis of his eminence as a man of letters, he had been elevated to the peerage by King Louis-Phillipe  in 1841 and entered the higher chamber (similar to the House of Lords). In 1848 he was elected to the house as a conservative, but seemed to become increasingly progressive in his views about poverty, education, the suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. When Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) seized power, Hugo left France.

I also hadn’t realized that the release of the first two volumes in 1862 was such a big occasion. It sold out almost instantly, and public readings were quickly organized for those who missed out. Within three months 100,000 official copies of the book had been sold, worldwide.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first deals with Hugo, the book, artistic depictions of the main characters, and sketches and photographic images of pre-Haussman Paris. As you might expect for a book that has been filmed so often, there were clips from the various versions, spliced together into a film loop. I was disappointed that the clips weren’t dated and labelled: there was a small panel to one side identifying the version, but once you moved back to see the film, you could no longer read the panel.

The second part of the exhibition is displayed in the Experimedia section of the library, which worked well as a space. This section is devoted to the Boubil and Schonberg “Les Mis” in its different manifestations all over the world.  It is appropriate, perhaps, that a book that had such a commercial and international debut 120 years earlier should spawn a truly global theatrical phenomenon.  There are publicity materials from productions all over the world: I found the Japanese Les Mis particularly interesting. This section was perhaps a little too commercial for my liking- capped off by the obligatory exit through the gift-shop- but I must confess to spending a good twenty minutes watching a film clip of the concert version.

And, I admit, I walked out humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

Exhibition open 18 July – 9 November 2014

10-6 Daily, Thursday until 9.00 p.m., State Library of Victoria

Other links:  The Conversation has an interesting review from the perspective of a Dickens scholar.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Well, it’s not quite over yet! You can catch this exhibition at the beautiful Art Gallery at Ballarat before it closes on July 27th 2014.

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When we talk of ‘British’ settlement in Australia, we often glide over the fact that this included English, Scots, Irish and Welsh settlers and officials.  Hidden in plain sight is the fact that Scots permeated the empire, both as agents of colonialism through their Scottish enlightenment skills in botany, surveying and art, and as settlers in their own right.  Once you’re alert to this, you find them everywhere in colonial Australia- and in my own research into Upper Canada and British Guiana, they’re there as well, as this Slaves and Highlanders site conveys.  Their Scots ties were not left behind, and they were reinforced in new colonies by the church (both Presbyterian and Catholic), Scottish organizations and the familial networks between new settlers.

This exhibition of artwork and artefacts underscores the importance of the Scottish artists who accompanied the First Fleet (think Sidney Parkinson), and those officials who dabbled in artwork in the early Port Jackson settlement (think John Hunter).  Their education and scientific learning , to say nothing of toughness), fitted them well as explorers (think Stuart and Sturt and Major Mitchell) and their financial acumen and entrepreneurial nous served them well as merchants (think Robert Campbell) and agriculturalists (think William Anglis).  They were governors (think Lachlan Macquarie) and firebrand preachers ( think John Dunmore Lang) .  When Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral into her ‘brand’, Australians did too, and Robert Burns and Highland games became incorporated into the Britishness that colonial Australians held onto while at the same time developing their own variation.

All these aspects are explored in this exhibition which covers the First Fleet to Federation.  There is, as you might expect in an Art Gallery, an emphasis on artwork which is drawn from many collections, including the Natural History Museum in UK.  (I liked the fact, conveyed through one of the information panels, that a wombat skin sent ‘home’ by one of the early Scots settlers is displayed standing on its two back paws). But there are some objects as well, including a silk scarf commemorating the Scottish Martyrs who were sent here as convicts (an EXCELLENT Radio National podcast on Thomas Muir here).  An introductory panel warns that women are not heavily represented in the display, but Georgiana McCrae had a presence.

The dearth of women might have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on family connections, which was hinted at with the displays on Thomas and James Mitchell, but not really brought to the forefront.  It could likewise have been drawn out further with Georgiana McCrae whose brothers-in-law popped up in different aspects of Port Phillip Society.  Family connections, the networks across colonies, and chain migration as one son, then another, then the whole family came across, ensured that the Scots spread across Australia and the empire generally.  They became part of, and shaped their new communities but retained still an emotional attachment to their Scots identity.

I would have loved to have purchased the book that accompanied the exhibition but it was just SO expensive.  It was available in hardback only, at $79.95.  I’d gladly buy a softcover book for $40.00 if it were available (even though the glue binding them is often inferior) but double the price is just too much.  The same applied at the Bendigo exhibition we attended recently.

I’m pleased that the regional galleries are mounting such well curated and well publicized exhibitions.  And we certainly weren’t alone in our enjoyment. It was a bitterly cold Ballarat Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was comfortably full.

 

 

‘Genius & Ambition’ Exhibition Bendigo Art Gallery

There’s much ado in Melbourne at the moment about the Winter Masterpieces Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, featuring over 100 works from the Museo de Prado Museum in Spain.   We decided to let the hype subside somewhat, and turned our attention northwards to the Bendigo Art Gallery which has its own exhibition of internationally-sourced paintings on at the moment. The exhibition is called “Genius & Ambition”, featuring paintings from the Royal Academy of Arts in London between 1768-1918 and it is on until 9th June 2014.

It’s in the art galleries of Victoria that you realize the huge cultural legacy of the gold rush, most particularly in the regional galleries of Ballarat and Bendigo.   The Bendigo gallery was founded in 1887 (Queen Victoria’s 50th jubilee) when it took over a polychrome red-and-cream brick building originally occupied by the Bendigo Volunteer Rifles brigade. Other galleries were added to it over time, with a large addition to the rear. For this exhibition, tickets were sold from the grand Capital building next door. It was previously the Masonic Temple- designed as “one of the grandest Masonic Temples in the colony”. I’m sure that it would have been.

I must confess that I wasn’t particularly clear on what the Royal Academy was. I’d seen ‘R.A.’ after the names of noted painters, and I know that ‘exhibited at the Royal Academy’ was a claim to distinction amongst Australian painters craving international recognition. From this exhibition, I learned that the academy was started by King George III in 1768, with Joshua Reynolds as its first president. There could only be 40 members at any one time, with another 40 associate members. In a large painting of the founding 40 members you can just see two women, suitably hidden away behind a chair at the rear of the crowd of artistic luminaries. Still- they were there.

The Academy included a training school and as one might expect in such an environment where there would be a certain amount of patronage and networking, there were several paintings of the members themselves and the artistic scholars going about their work (including one purporting to show the young William Blake in class).

It was only once I started looking at the paintings that the wide scope of the time period 1768-1918 came clear to me.  It’s  a very clear expression of Britishness over that period. The exhibition, over several rooms, was roughly chronological, and you could see the influences of Impressionism and the Pre-Raphaelites as these artists became accepted into the Academy. One section featured reference books from the R.A. library which influenced the technical skills in art (e.g. photographs of a horse galloping- the first time that galloping could be broken down into discrete time-stop motion; or a colour wheel). While interesting, I felt this part was a bit unnecessary because it deflected attention from the works themselves. The final room was turned over to Australian artists who travelled to London where they either attended the R.A. as students, or showed their works in the frequent R.A. exhibitions. There was a limit of three works by any one artist in any one exhibition, and several Australian artists had works accepted over a number of years. There were several women painters that I had not been aware of.

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I am nearly always struck by one or two paintings, and in this case it was Charles Sims’ Clio and the Children. Not so much for the painting itself, which is rather ordinary (in fact, looking at the odd proportions of the children very ordinary), but for the back-story. Charles Sims often painted outdoor scenes showing women and children, and this 1913 painting of a group of children listening to Clio, the goddess of History reading from a scroll is typical of his work. In 1914 his eldest son was killed in battle. Sims returned to the painting and daubed the scroll in blood, which changes the whole meaning of the painting.

Here’s a better view of it:

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The other painting was ‘After Velacquez’ by Sir John Everett Millais, who was the youngest student ever enrolled at the Royal Academy school at the age of eleven (although he was not admitted to the RA itself until the age of 34). It references Valacquez, but the sleeves in particular and the red hair of the young sitter are the mark of the Pre-Raphaelites.

I have to say, though, that this was a particularly dim exhibition. Perhaps it was a condition of loan, but you could barely see some of the paintings in the Stygian gloom, let alone read the panels. I used one of their Large Print booklets, and judging by their popularity amongst the patrons – not all of whom needed Large Print – you really do need to question the size of the font and the colouring of text panels. You need to be about 30 cm away to be able to even decipher the text, then push through the crowd also wanting to read in order to actually see the painting.

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I don’t really like using headphones at an exhibition if I’m there with someone else because it makes it such a solitary experience. You comment on a painting then realize that you’re talking to yourself because your companion can’t hear you. If you’re the one using headphones, by the time you realize you’re being spoken to, and mutter “Eh, what? Hold on!” (usually in an inappropriately loud voice) as you fumble around with the controls on the audio device, the comment seems so banal that it was barely worth making.

Lunch, a stroll up and down the expensive antique shops along View Street, a visit to the Op shop for less expensive old things, then off to Maldon for a coffee once our lunch had gone down. I was very disappointed to learn that the National Trust has sold the Penny School. Shame on them.