National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part I)

Monday, 9 January 2012 

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part I)

I haven’t been through the rooms of the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent displays of Australian art for some time now, and the balmy summer afternoon seemed as good as any to spend a few hours within its air-conditioned comfort. I must confess that I had admired the National Gallery’s building in Federation Square from the moment I saw it. In my opinion, it is as much a monument to the late 20th-Century architecture as its former home, the Neo-Classical temple in Swanston Street, is to the mid-19th-Century; or Roy Grounds’ modernist bastion in St Kilda Road to the prevalent architectural style of the 1960s. However, I was always puzzled by the absence of a grand – or at the very least an easily identifiable – main entrance: one entry is tucked away at the end of the Atrium off Flinders Street; another is facing the rail yards at the dead end drive to a car park in Russell Court.

From the moment the new gallery opened its doors, I was equally befuddled by the sheer expanse of depressingly empty, grey-wash walls in the foyer and escalator areas. Some of my clients, in order to accommodate their increasingly growing art collections, are building extra walls and home extensions. Here, on the other hand, we had a brand new, purpose-designed gallery which brazenly featured that anathema to every serious art collector: feature walls!!! I cannot possibly relate my elation when I saw, upon entering the gallery today, that some of these walls have been repainted in white, and others feature signature wall paintings and light installations by Brooke Andrew. I am cautiously optimistic that this re-design heralds a gradual reversal of the erstwhile trend.

Immediately upon entering permanent Australian art rooms, I noticed two things: the sobriquet of Colonial (used to describe Australian art prior to 1901) has been dropped in favour of a more general (and politically correct) descriptor 19th Century Australian Art; and the rooms begin with a vast display of Aboriginal shields, some of which date back to the nineteenth century – a very elegant and thoughtful acknowledgement of artistic traditions that existed on this continent prior to 1788. John Glover’s monumental River Nile of 1837, depicting Aborigines, is hung adjacently to the display of shields. Its detailed execution, careful brushwork, and subtle light effects bear witness to the artist’s high standing, which he attained prior to his arrival in Australia in the British artistic circles where his landscapes were considered comparable to those of Constable.

Among the display of early Australian portraits, that of an Unknown Lady attributed to Henry Mundy of c. 1834 is as good as anything that would have been exhibited same year at the Royal Academy. Showing a clear indebtedness to the spirit of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mundy poses the lady out of doors, on the terrace of her Italianate mansion, with an obligatory column and landscape in the background to underscore the ‘landed’ status of the sitter. The woman’s lively face is painted confidently in fresh and fleshy colours; the eyes sparkling; corners of her mouth caught in a knowing, superior aristocratic smirk. The textures of gauze head dress and flowers are expertly handled; the dark green of her shawl is echoed in the elegant parasol with a jewelled ivory handle seen in the foreground of the picture.

… to be continued… 

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2012


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