Posts Tagged ‘National Gallery of Victoria


National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part VII)

Sunday, 15 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry (final) …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part VII)

… This exultation, however, was short-lived, as displays of permanent collections of contemporary art were dismantled, and the space was increasingly given over to temporary exhibitions. The whole-sale acquisition and permanent installation of the Joseph Brown Collection further encroached into the amount of exhibition spaces that could be dedicated to displays of contemporary collections.

The current situation is such that the North-Western gallery on the top level serves as an intermittent display space for Australian art post 1960s. The current selection of works is certainly worth visiting – for it is quite unknown how soon it will be pulled down and replaced by yet another temporary exhibition; or for how long living Australian artists would be denied the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing their works on the walls of this premier institution. There is also a danger that international visitors, who might come to the NGV when these galleries are dismantled, would walk away with an erroneous and undeserved impression that pretty much nothing of value has happened in this country after the Antipodean revolution of the 1960s – for that’s when the chronological displays of Australian art conclude in the (thus far sacrosanct) spaces on the second level galleries.

The solution, of course, is that the NGV in Federation Square desperately needs another floor – or another space – dedicated to the display of their extensive, exhaustive, and incomparable collections of post-1960s Australian art and artists. That such a space has not been envisaged or considered necessary when the new building was being designed is baffling and incongruous to say the least, as if the architects were not briefed that the collection would continue to grow and that more worthy art would be produced – and acquired – as time progresses. 

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


National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part VI)

Saturday, 14 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part VI) 

It is with a sense of elation that I saw a display of post-1960s Australian art from the gallery’s permanent collection in the northern wing of the top floor spaces. A giant Robert Klippel statue greets the visitor at the entrance. Alun Lean-Jones’s Noumenon of the 1970s gives a foretaste of things to come. The display in the first gallery includes a giant You Beaut by John Olsen from 1962; a shaped canvas by Tony McGillick; a vast Brett Whiteley nude; an industrial Jan Senbergs; and Richard Larter’s iconic paintings of his wife, Pat. Placing a set of giant Gawirrin Gumana’s totem poles in the next room in the centre of Fred Williams’ Pilbara landscapes of 1981 is an inspired touch, as is Nick Mangan’s In the Crux of the Matter against Peter Booth’s post-apocalyptic nuclear Winter of 1993. Paintings and installations by Rosalie Gascoigne, Louise Weaver, Howard Arkley, Rosslynd Piggott, Tim Maguire, and others complete this section. In the adjoining gallery, under the banner of 10 Ways to Look at the Past, there’s a limited display of contemporary artists, consisting of works by Tom Nicholson, Tracey Moffatt, Peter Kennedy, David Noonan, Brooke Andrew, Ricky Swallow, and a few others.

As I sat down at the NGV’s Crossbar Café for a bite of smoked salmon sandwich and a sip of coffee, I caught myself thinking that the display of permanent holdings of Australian art from the 1780s to roughly 1960s has always been consistent and well-represented. The display of Modern and Contemporary Australian art post 1960s has appeared at times as an afterthought. For example, when the entire collection was housed in the St Kilda Road building, the display of Australian collections inexplicably stopped with the art from the 1960s; only three pictures by Booth, Tuckson, and Watson near the exit summed up the history of contemporary art from the 1960s to the present day.

When the collection was split in two, and Australian holdings were relocated into the Fed Square building, there was a general expectation that Modern and Contemporary art would be given a more considerate treatment. Certainly, the opening exhibition redressed this problem, as, from memory, it provided a detailed examination of Australian art post 1960s in all its stylistic complexities and diversity of various media. It also showed the immense holdings of contemporary Australian art within the NGV’s collections, no doubt due to generous bequests that are specifically targeted towards the acquisition of contemporary art; the Gallery’s own buoyant collection policy in this area; numerous gifts of contemporary Australian art, which are generously donated to its collection with the encouragement from the Commonwealth Government’s Cultural Gifts Program in exchange for tax concessions; and last but not least the presence of a number of high-profile art collectors on the NGV’s various boards and committees…

the be continued…

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


National Gallery of Victoria (Part V) – Dobell’s Portrait of Helena Rubinstein

Friday, 13 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria (Part V) – Dobell’s Portrait of Helena Rubinstein

Little prepares you for the visual and mental leap from the playful exuberance of the early 20th-Century Australian art to the austere sobriety and psychological re-examination of the human condition by Australian artists from the 1940s onwards. Paintings by Nolan, Tucker, Boyd, Blackman, and Hester provide a striking and almost violent contrast to those by Lambert, Bunny, and Fox. The landscapes and still-lives of the 1920s and 1930s could not be more dissimilar than abstract compositions by Crowley, Balson, Miller, and Hirschfeld-Mack. The nature of avant-garde Australian portraiture undergoes a similar metamorphosis, and I spent a long time gazing at William Dobell’s portrait of Helena Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was a Polish/Jewish-born cosmetics entrepreneur, who had a good eye for niche marketing as much as for men who were able to support financially her growing enterprise and social ambitions (one of her husbands was a prince). She was also a well-known philanthropist, who established a travelling fellowship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales enabling a number of young aspiring Australian artists to travel and study overseas.

At first glance, Dobell is able capture in his enthralling vision this larger-than-life character. Everything in this portrait is over the top – Helena’s extravagant red and orange patterned dress with puffed sleeves and crinoline skirt; a tight corset that barely contains her expansive bust; and oversize jewellery the blue stones of which are dripping from her ears and weigh down her milky-white arms. Dobell chose to portray Rubinstein from a low view-point, which visually increases the stature of the physically diminutive woman, and relates to the viewer her forceful, ebullient, and formidable personality. The swirls of a rich brocade in the background add to the sensation of movement, drama, and – if you will – majesty within the portrait.

But subtly and slowly the artifice within the composition becomes increasingly apparent. It is known that before sitting for the portrait Rubinstein exasperated Dobell by changing her choice of jewellery and dresses umpteen times, and the way in which they almost overwhelm the sitter emphasises the vanity. The awkwardly drawn prominent black brow is almost a caricature; and the bulbously-aquiline nose exaggerates Semitic features of Dobell’s octogenarian sitter.

Like with many of his portraits, Dobell strives to combine the individuality of the sitter with the creation of a character stereotype. He painted Rubinstein at least eight times, and in a later portrait of Helena seated in a green interior Dobell captured her as the personification a genteel grand dame she purported to be, rather than a vision of a formidable personality, over-emphasised vanity, and exaggerated femininity that comes forth from this striking and highly individualised portrait.

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


National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part IV)

Thursday, 12 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part IV) 

The Edwardian Rooms feature a number of flamboyant and large-scale creations by Rupert Bunny, Emanuel Phillips Fox, and George Lambert that celebrate the elegant and indolent lifestyle of the of the bourgeoisie, forever lounging by a seashore and taking endless cups of tea in the shade of their stately gardens. Noticeably absent from this vision of Arcadia is Norman Lindsay’s Spring Innocence, for which the National Gallery shelled out nearly half a million dollars about five or so years ago.

The art of Hugh Ramsey, that most promising Australian painter whose untimely death at the age of 29 is regretted by art historians to this day, is explored in some depth within the gallery, including his portrait of a student of the Latin Quarter. I always found it to be a covertly sexy picture, as even the thick woollen sweater and baggy pants cannot disguise the muscular armature underneath. The youthful determination is reflected in the strikingly handsome and masculine face with the prominent nose and square jaw; and yet there is also something elegantly romantic about his outstretched sinuous arm and a languorously limp long-fingered hand.

In a totally different spirit is George Lambert’s Hera. As most of Lambert’s female protagonists, she is posed coquettishly, twisting her body, with a hand on her hip, and a come hither tilt of her head. She is wearing a diaphanous bright pink dress; a blue shawl edged with golden fringe is thrown over her shoulders, and its rich patterning shimmers in the rays of light. Multi-coloured flowers, that favourite device of the artists who wish to further emphasise and emblematise the exuberance of youthful femininity, burst forth from a glass vase on the left hand side. There are no hints of struggle or privation as one can detect in the humble still life in the right foreground of the Ramsay portrait with its crumpled napkin, hunk of bread, and dusty pewter and glass ware: everything in Lambert’s portrait is about youth, exuberance, and joy.

The collection of the early 20th-Century Australian art is remarkably rich in sculpture. Bertram Mackennal’s life-size study for the Eton College’s War Memorial in the middle of the gallery bears shades of Leighton’s Sluggard, while Web Gilbert’s marble The Sun and the Earth is as close as one could possibly get to the spirit of Auguste Rodin. The sculpture encapsulates the essence of Art Nouveau with its flowing and sinuous lines; the embracing figures slowly emerge from the roughly hewn lump of marble; the tactile plasticity of their naked bodies visually defies the cold and firm sensation of the lifeless stone.

… to be continued… 

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


National Gallery of Victoria – Leon Pole’s ‘The Village Laundress’

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

… continued from the previous entry …

National Gallery of Victoria – Australian Collections (Part III) 

Leon (Sonny) Pole (1871-1951) had inscribed himself onto the pages of Australian art history with his celebrated masterpiece, The Village Laundress (1891), which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. The clarity of its composition; the complexity of its narrative; the mature resolve of its colour gamut; painterly dexterity, and keen awareness of contemporaneous art movements belie the artist’s comparative youth (he was only 20 when he painted this work). The presence of a narrative subject matter, the implementation of plein-air landscape painting practice, the sensitivity with which the scene is depicted, and the incorporation of muted colour schemes posits the painting in the epicentre of the divergent late nineteenth-century art movements and underscores the painting’s importance in the annals of Australian art.

Pole depicts a woman with two daughters traversing the narrow path that leads away from a humble cottage. Quiet introspection reigns over the woman’s face, and permeates the overall mood of the painting. While her figure is somewhat reminiscent of the labourers in paintings by Jean-François Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage, she shares none of their robust physique, nor does her demeanour show the joy of physical labour celebrated in the works of French realist painters. Instead, it is a sensitive and personal depiction of a young family, which emphasises the melancholy fact that they are forced to undertake this physically-intensive chore. The woman’s elegant attire, with fashionably elongated corset and hair swept back and piled high, is more suited to smart streets of an urban metropolis than to the unpaved pathways of rural outskirts.

The sobriety of the woman’s dress and her melancholy introspection perhaps point to a narrative of a lady from an upper-middle class background, recently widowed and fallen onto hard times, forced to eek out her living as a humble village laundress. I believe Luke Morgan echoed this view when he wrote some years ago that “the painting documents the changing circumstances of a Victorian family.”

The narrative of the composition takes place within a landscape setting, which is unmistakeably reminiscent of Heidelberg and its environs. While the figures are carefully modeled within a studio environment, the landscape is executed in a freer and more immediate manner, an artist’s response to the Impressionism-inspired spirit of Streeton, Conder, and Roberts, and the tonal sensibilities of Withers and Davies. It is visibly informed by Streeton’s Still Glides the Stream (AGNSW), from the small rise the middle ground to the distant hills in the upper right. Lyrical floral passages, suggestion of plants and flowers, which echo the hues of the girls’ dresses, and hints of delicate embroideries on their aprons, forebode the nascent Art Nouveau movement.

… to be continued… 

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012. Where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries. This entry is partially based on my essay which originally appeared in Annual Collectors’ Exhibition 2008, Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, 2008, 16-18.]


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.]


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.]

Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

April 2019
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