In Search of the Picturesque @ Geelong Gallery

Geelong Art GalleryThursday, 21 June 2012

In Search of the Picturesque @ Geelong Gallery

My immediate university commitments are over for the time being, and a day trip to Geelong with a visit to the art gallery, followed by a luncheon at the Geelong Club afterwards, was a lovely impetus to re-start this blog. The focus of our visit was In Search of the Picturesque: Architectural Ruin in Art. As the title eponymously suggests, the exhibition focuses on images of ruins in European and Australian art from the seventeenth century to the present day. It is most omnisciently curated by Dr Colin Holden, who divided the exhibition into five sub-sections, each of which represents a differing aspect of artistic, literary, and philosophical discourse on the subject of ubiquitous ruins, from the remnants of classic civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome; ruined Gothic castles and abbeys in Germany and England; to some of the derelicts and crumbling structures from the more recent past.

Claude LorrainThe chronological and geographical breadth of the exhibition is quite exceptional, and the generous loans from public and private collections across Australia resulted in a very rich and pleasantly surprising collection, which serves as yet another reminder of the sheer cultural wealth contained within treasure troves of this nation. The National Gallery of Victoria lent a most enchanting landscape by Claude Lorrain (1804-82) of the Tiburtine Temple at Tivoli; while the Art Gallery of South Australia lent a large-scale masterpiece by the same artist, where quite a bit of artistic licence has been used to move a few ruins around in order to present the Forum and Coliseum side by side. There is a painstakingly detailed Bernardo Bellotto (1720-80) of the remnants of the Forum, also from the National Gallery’s collection; the crispness and visual clarity of the painting defy the belief that it was produced at least a century prior to the invention of photography. The British fascination with ruins at home and abroad, especially the ones encountered on the Grand Tour, is related across a rich selection of eighteenth- and nineteenth century watercolours and engraving from a variety of lenders; while the popularity of the ‘classic’ ruin as a coveted, fetishized image among collectors is reflected in engravings and etchings by and after JMW Turner, Rembrandt, Callot, Tiepolo, Salvatore Rosa, Claude Lorrain, van der Velde, and others. Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78) is the undoubted star of the exhibition. His works are ubiquitous in the main gallery and in the dedicated viewing space downstairs. His complex and supremely detailed engravings of Greek and Roman ruins, mainly executed in the middle of the eighteenth century, posit the artist as the nexus between the contemporaneous, parallel, burgeoning neo-classical and romantic movements.

Russell Drysdale and Margaret Olley @ Geelong GalleryThe exhibition is given an Australian perspective not only through the works of Lionel Lindsay, who travelled extensively throughout Europe and captured his impressions in a number of most exquisite watercolours and etchings, but also through those Australian artists looking at ruins and architectural remnants within our own country. Views of derelict buildings in Hobart by Blamire Young (Rat’s Castle, c. 1919, Art Gallery of NSW); and Hill End by Russell Drysdale (1948, Geelong Gallery) and Margaret Olley (1948, NGV) are among the most poignant representations; the sober mood and limited colour palette imbue these works with an overall reflective and contemplative atmosphere.

I have used a number of colourful epithets in the past to illuminate my impressions of various exhibitions, but as far as this show is concerned, only one comes to mind, and it is the one I rarely (if ever) used before – ERUDITE. It is surprising and refreshing to come across an exhibition like this that succeeds in producing a memorable effect by the sheer quality of the exhibits, intellectual gravitas, and the erudite selection of the artworks on display.

As far as this exhibition is concerned, I have only two regrets: that it is closing this Sunday (24 June), and that it is not travelling beyond the present venue, for it truly deserves to be seen and appreciated by further audiences.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012; where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]

Blamire Young - Rat's Castle


Bernardo Bellotto

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

June 2012


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