Exhibitions, Visual Arts

The Greats review (Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney)

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A fizzing time-capsule has landed on our shores courtesy of our northern hemisphere cousins, the Scots. Director Michael Brand’s negotiations with the directors of the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art have presented the Art Gallery of NSW with the most dazzling exhibition since the Hidden Treasures from National Museum, Kabul which visited in 2014.
It is a distillation of both celebrated and less well-known European works from the late 1400s to the 1900s and like all chronologically arranged exhibitions it provides insights into the history and culture of these centuries. Canvases by Botticelli, Titian and Veronese remind us that the business of applying pigment to canvas or indeed the walls of palaces and churches (which don’t travel well) focused extensively on the exploits of ancient Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and heroes and heroines from biblical stories.
The silken gossamer-fine lines and luminous complexions of Botticelli’s miracle The Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ child would alone justify a visit. In the 19th century, it had the unfortunate experience of being dismissed by the connoisseur and art historian Bernard Berenson whose influence in some circles paralysed independent thinking. He pronounced it a product of Botticelli’s workshop. Happily science, in the form of infra-red reflectography, has dispelled any doubt that it is by the hand of the master himself.

Sandro webBotticelli, The Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ child, c. 1485, tempera and gold leaf on canvas. copy
Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ child, c. 1485, tempera and gold leaf on canvas

The passage of time seems to filter or blur the effects of even the most monstrous acts on canvas. This why we can wander through museums witnessing beheadings, flayings, executions, stonings, burnings at the stake and hanging, drawing and quartering without flinching.
Works such as Adam Elsheimer’s The stoning of Saint Stephen and Anthony Van Dyck’s Saint Sebastian bound for martyrdom have been entirely sanitised by history for us. The former work was painted on copper plate prepared with a tin alloy coating, a surface which allowed for the most pristine of details and jewel-like exactitude. The latter was painted on the continent before Van Dyck embarked on a sturdy career in England as the leading court painter of portraits to Charles I.
We are also reminded of how dependent artists from earlier centuries were on prestigious commissions from patrons and benefactors — initially the church, the nobility, aristocracy and later the professional and merchant classes. These patrons outlined the brief and called the shots. Who would know, for example, if a patron might not have asked for extra ‘putti’ (chubby male cherubs) to be inserted into the composition called The adoration of the shepherds by the Italian Domenichino?
Increasingly the prosperous Dutch and Flemish merchant classes of the 17th century whose Calvinist religion eschewed religious painting, wanted their own lives depicted on canvas which gave rise to finely detailed domestic interiors (which functioned as visual inventories of their achievements and possessions), portraits, seascapes, landscapes, farm scenes and still lifes.
Paintings begun to be sold at art fairs and it has been suggested that over a million Dutch pictures were painted in the 20 years after 1640. One particular interior, gloomy by southern hemisphere light standards, is Gerrit Dou’s An interior with a young viola player. Like all works in the exhibition, its provenance is well-documented, extensive and fascinating. It had been acquired by a gentleman with the intention of offering it to Queen Christina of Sweden in 1651, but she returned it the following year. It then passed to the composer Handel’s great patron, the 1st Duke of Chandos. From there it wove its way around some of the great houses of England until it was loaned to, and subsequently bought by, the Scottish National Gallery in 1945.
A sprinkling of early 18th century French paintings revisit the light and frothy milieu known as Rococo. Jean-Antoine Watteau was central to this development, specialising in a category of painting known as fête galante: a gathering of elegantly dressed people in an arcadian parkland setting. Here, his Fêtes Vénetiennes reveals his virtuosity in rendering silk and satin for which he remained unsurpassed.
Some 60 years later, across the English Channel Sir Joshua Reynolds was as busy as a bee producing portraits of grandees. Here The Ladies Waldegrave is something of a departure. Three lasses, who at first glance appear to be playing cards (a ruinous obsession of the idle rich at the time) are engaged in something more demure: lace making. It is a perfect capsule of the fashions of the period — hair powdered and piled high, low cut gowns to reveal creamy bosoms and rouged cheeks. It also carries with it a very English air of hauteur.
The Scott, Henry Raeburn was not a product of the academic painting schools. This may explain the surprising informality of his Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch which is a graceful as a dragonfly on a pond. We might also ponder that the time it was painted (c.1795) Europe was experiencing the Little Ice Age.
The modernist excursions of impressionism to post impressionism are embodied in carefully selected works by Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, Gauguin and Cézanne, but one work poised between the past and modernism will catch everyone’s eye. This is the American painter John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) which revived his fortunes on Britian’s shores after they had sagged in Paris with the very public and hostile response to his Madame Gautraux — his favourite portrait.
Johnweb Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, oil on canvas copy
John Singer Sargent, ‘Lady Agnew of Lochnaw,’ 1892, oil on canvas

The work captures something of the spirit, the self-importance and the hubris of the Belle Epoque — a giddy period where the western world was full of confidence in the future, only to see WW1 extinguish it. Its studied informality and summary brushwork belie its careful preparation. This is a painting which reminds us that the past is only a heartbeat away.
Finally, The stature of the works has been enhanced by a sensitive design and layout for the exhibition which pivots around a dramatic oxblood red hexagonal space showcasing the Scottish masters. There are some exquisitely subtle details here such as the painted wall behind the Botticelli tempera work. It’s faint egg-shell gleam replicates the gesso surfaces to which European painters applied tempera paint until oils superseded them in the 1500s.
The graceful minimalist steel easel which supports the Titian’s Venus rising from the sea is a subtle allusion to another native of Venice, the architect and designer Carlo Scarpa whose modern designs to display antiquity are unmatched.
[box]The Greats Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, Art Gallery of New South Wales, until February 14 2016. Main image: Sir Henry Raeburn, Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch, c. 1795, oil on canvas[/box]

One response to “The Greats review (Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney)

  1. There were quite a number which particularly held my gaze. But one especially took my fancy. Writing to an old friend recently who admitted to not being much taken by grand art I said that while style and technique might interest some – and me, too – that I am most drawn by the literary allusion (classical or Biblical) and by the historical dimension. So JMW Turner’s “Bell Rock Lighthouse” (1819). The engineer was Robert Stevenson – grand-father of Robert Louis Stevenson. The family Engineering firm was famous for its lighthouses – and under the guardianship of RLS’s father and uncle – in the early Meiji Era of Japan won the contract to build a lot of lighthouses around its treacherous coastline – one of which opened in 1876 on the Sea of Japan far south-western corner of Honshū – the tiny off-shore island of Tsuno-shima (Horn Island) – relatively near to where I lived for a decade -and-a-half. (Apart from the attached residences and their roofing tiles it would not be out-of-place on any Australian promontory.) Many years ago I lived briefly on the Thames in the houseboat: “Stella Maris” – at 106 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Across the embankment I could see the apartment on the 4th or 5th floor of the building where JMW Turner spent the last period of his life – just 125 years earlier. In San Francisco back in late June this year my wife and I saw a brilliant collection of Turner’s greatest pieces – this AGNSW exhibition one tiny (by comparison) representation of his impressionist flair brought all that back, too. Thanks Patricia for your excellent review. By the way – I have just sent off a postcard of the Turner painting to a former student of mine in Japan. We both share an interest in a great teacher/revolutionary from his region (YOSHIDA Shōin – 1830-1859) about whom RLStevenson in 1878 wrote a sketch – Yoshida Torajiro – you can Google it.

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