The cognoscenti are often scathing about “blockbuster” exhibitions, calling them little more than promotional bling. That doesn’t include museum directors and financial officers, of course, who rely on them to boost income.
It’s an elitist attitude. Most people don’t have the wherewithal to visit major galleries worldwide to get an overview of art history and they may not have the art education to remember, contrast and compare what they see over time. And nothing beats seeing pictures in the flesh: being awestruck by what philosopher Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of the real thing.
When King Louis XVI was beheaded by revolutionaries in France in 1793, it not only opened up access to government power, but to much glorious art that was previously only seen in wealthy private houses. The confiscated Bourbon hoard of paintings and sculptures was the basis of the magnificent public collection in the Louvre – the first public art museum – that’s now available to ordinary Parisian passers-by and tourists from around the world.
Several other museums began in the same way, with the annexation or donation of royal collections, but Britain’s began differently. As a crown at the height of its colonial power, it was perhaps less likely to give up its emblems of pomp and glory. The National Gallery in London was established by wealthy businessmen and others who believed in the project.
This gallery was the model for Australia’s first state gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria, established in 1861, and for the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, opened by the Queen more than a century later in 1982. These post-Enlightenment institutions were educational establishments devoted both to cultural heritage and to training successive generations of artists.
An exhibition of fine works lent from London’s National Gallery – Botticelli to Van Gogh – has just opened at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It contains 61 masterpieces, the most memorable including Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 34, Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), in a sequence of rooms that survey different times and places, from the Italian Renaissance, through the Dutch Golden Age and British landscape painting, to French Impressionism.
The Italian Renaissance room contains some beauties: a plump The Virgin and Child (c. 1480-90) by Domenico Ghirlandaio; one of a series depicting the early life of Saint Zenobius (c. 1500) by Botticelli, the gathered people dressed in his soft pinks and blues and white; and Titian’s post-Resurrection psychodrama of Christ and Mary Magdalene in Noli mi tangere (c. 1514)
Carlo Crivelli’s magnificent The Annunciation, with St Emidius (1486) made me think of the American art historian, Nancy Ramage, who once said to me of masterpieces, “Do we look at [them] in the same way that the Renaissance did, or the Romans did? I think probably not. We bring our own culture to it and its setting is different.”
Crivelli’s depiction is an urban Italian scene. The archangel, winged and kneeling, forefinger pointing upwards, is chatting to St Emidius, the martyred saint carrying what looks, in Ramage’s terms, like a developer’s model of a building project. It is, in fact, a model of Ascoli, strategically placed coats of arms reflecting its recent partial release from papal control. The painting is a variation on the Venetian style Crivelli trained in, though not as bright and busy as the Bellini brothers’, and dense with gothic symbolism.
The Dutch room contains Rembrandt’s famous Self-portrait at the Age of 34 (1640), painted at the height of his fame. The work is dark, restrained in its evocation of a rich man’s dress, which only serves to highlight the humanity of Rembrandt’s face and his eye contact with the viewer. He is said to be strutting his stuff but seems weary and sad.
Also in this room are paintings by Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch and a beautiful, almost monochrome, maritime scene by Willem van de Velde, longwindedly titled A Dutch Yacht Surrounded by Many Small Vessels, Saluting as Two Barges Pull Alongside (1661). One of the scant 34 paintings now attributed to Vermeer: A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-72) is here too. It is one of two of that name and stands in the same room in London as his A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, made about the same time. Its dark hues don’t project the joy of his more famous portraits of wealthy young women, but his technique is there in the balance of interior design details, the musical instruments, the richly draped dress, and a large painting looming over her head.
The room of British portraiture contains fine examples of what you’d expect: van Dyke’s double portrait of the Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover (c.1635), all silk and pearls, attended by Cupid, bearing roses; a George Stubbs rural scene, The Milbanke and Melbourne families (1769), containing his famous horses and well-dressed gentlemen and a lady. The Grand Tour room includes memoirs of the educational trips to Europe, and especially to Italy, that young English gentlemen took in the 18th century, including two works by Canaletto.
The Spanish room is replete with paintings by El Greco and Velázquez and Zurbarán. There’s a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington, the only British subject he painted. Goya was gripped by the drama and horror of war, as his powerful Disasters of War prints demonstrate, and the Duke of Wellington had just won the Battle of Salamanca.
Landscape and the Picturesque contains two paintings marvellously juxtaposed as they are in London: A Seaport (1644), painted at sunset by the master landscape painter, Claude Lorrain, and Claude’s admirer J. M. W. Turner’s Ulysses deriding Polyphemus – Homer’s Odyssey (1829). Unlike Claude’s ordered scene, Turner’s stormy work – bordering on abstract as so many of his powerful paintings do – makes the viewer search for meaning, finally finding, for example, an outline of Polyphemus’s head and shoulder, barely distinguishable from the cloud. Paris, London and the rise of Modern Art contains the kind of names we are more used to seeing feed public hunger: Corot, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne. The standout is van Gogh’s celebrated Sunflowers (1888). Benjamin’s “aura” jumps out and grabs the viewer here: the flowers’ energy and the background’s pale luminosity are impossible to reproduce.
Returning to Ramage’s point, my favourite historical comparison in the show is between two paintings of dragons. In Ingres’ Angelica Saved by Ruggerio (1819-39), the princess is tied to a stake, naked and swooning while Ruggiero, flying a hippogriff, plunges his lance into the monster’s mouth.
In the eccentric Uccello’s very secular St George and the Dragon (c. 1470), the princess is fully dressed and the focal point of a picture superficially dominated by the dragon and St George’s powerful white steed. Despite the subordinate femininity shown in the princess’s portrayal, it’s difficult not to read the picture, if only wishfully, with a 21st-century eye. She is restraining the dragon on a leash and has one hand extended in a gesture we would recognise today as an expression of WTF.
Miriam Cosic’s accommodation in Canberra was provided by the National Gallery of Australia. Botticelli to Van Gogh is on display at the NGA in Canberra until June 14.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 13, 2021 as "Aura of the real".
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