National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part II)

Tuesday, 10 January 2012 

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part II) 

The current hang appears to be tighter, with the Heidelberg School occupying only three rooms in the north-eastern galleries on the second level. Numerous other works by Conder, McCubbin, Streeton, and Roberts are displayed in abundance, including the iconic 9 x 5 works and Roberts’ enchanting Sunny South, arguably the first Australian painting to feature a male (non-Aborignal) nude. It is also delightful to see the curatorial acknowledgement of other concurrent nineteenth-century art movements, notably that of Art Nouveau as seen in Arthur Loureiro’s Spring of 1891.

Few portraits of the period are in my opinion as striking as that of Madame Pfund (1887) by Tom Roberts. The Swiss-born Elise Pfund ran Oberwyl, an exclusive girls’ school in St Kilda, and together with her husband was among important patrons of the Heidelberg circle artists. She is effectively silhouetted in the portrait against a darkened background, accentuating her late-Victorian tightly-laced corset and an extravagantly-oversized tournure at the rear of her black dress. Roberts imbues her figure with a spirit of authority by selecting a low view-point, and as the result Elise Pfund appears to tower above the spectator. A strong light source, streaming from the left hand side of the picture, illuminates her transcendent, stern, and yet benevolent gaze, and picks out the red silk detailing of her feathered head-dress. The same colour is echoed in the folded fan, visible in the lower centre of the portrait, thus making an overall colour gamut of an otherwise sombre and restrained palette of the composition balanced and contained.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012. 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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