Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Highlights from the NGV

Founded in 1861, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is the oldest public art gallery in Australia. Its first home was the State Library, where it resided for more than 100 years, before moving to its current, stylish home on St Kilda Road, in 1968.

Foundation funds, and works, were contributed by Melbourne's newly wealthy, of which the city had plenty in the post gold rush boom. This enabled the gallery's curators to establish a formidable collection of early Australian art, which formed the backbone of the original collection. 

International artworks would be added in the 20th century. 

Alfred Fenton, a wealthy local businessman, left a sizable inheritance (the 'Fenton Bequest') to the gallery when he died in 1904, which was used to expand the collection. With the acquisition of European and American works, modern and classical, the gallery soon established a reputation of having one of the finest collections in the Southern Hemisphere.

Oddly, the NGV currently does not have a published catalogue for its permanent collection. So the following is a personal selection of favourite works from our fine gallery. The order of the listed items reflects is in no real order, but reflects my own path one afternoon, wandering from room to room...


David Hockney

David Hockney was a British painter who came to prominence in, and helped to personify, the turbulent art scene of the early 1960s. Openly gay, at a time when this was still illegal in many Western countries, Hockney used his art to comment on sexual identity, and to analyse traditional ideas of love and relationships. 

This piece from 1963 offers a critical view of the standard idea of marriage. The man - usually taken to be a self portrait - sits alongside his otherworldly wife, who Hockney based on an Egyptian statue he saw at the British museum. This unlikely pairing reflects the artists belief that traditional marriage was, or could be, ridiculous, a concept backed up by the paintings many unusual touches. The unique shape of the frame, the unexplained numbers attached to the couple, and the man's missing legs all contribute to the air of absurdity that surrounds the scene. 

Marriage was, very obviously, not for this artist.


Pablo Picasso

No review of the NGV would be complete without touching on this work by Picasso, a man who stands tall over the art of the early twentieth century. However, I have written about this work, and its spectacular theft, more extensively already. Check it out here.


Mark Rothko

Abstract painting appeared in the early 20th century, as contemporary artists chafed at the restrictions imposed on them by having to depict objects (people, landscapes etc). What the abstractionists wanted to provide was not a copy of reality in paint, but a gateway to a world of pure emotion.

The 'objects' had to go.

In this vein came New York artist Mark Rothko, who confirmed in an interview in the 1950's: 'It was with the utmost reluctance that I found that the figure could not serve my purposes.' This piece, from 1958, is representative of his work, and also of the high ambitions he set for his output. Likening painting to a religious experience, Rothko sought to provide this for his audience as well. To heighten the mood, his works are on a large scale, and show little to no trace of the artist's hand. They are simply large, floating slabs of colour, designed to draw you in, and carry you away.


Claude Monet

Impressionism arose in Paris in the 1870s, as artists experimented by moving away from defined boundaries and unbroken lines. They departed from these stable foundations in an attempt to create a more vivid depiction of the world around them, a subjective snapshot of their own, individual experience.

Foremost among this movement was Claude Monet, a gentle man whose bright, shimmering landscapes are among the most discussed of all artworks. Was  he simply a clever populist, painting pretty pictures that could be appreciated by the masses? Or did his hazy, layered paintings hint at something deeper?

This painting, from 1878, captures his technique while still under development. The small farm village of Vetheuil, where Monet lived for four years, is depicted in a largely conventional way, while the interplay of light on the water gives a hint of how his technique would develop.


Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet's place in art history was secured by his most famous painting; Luncheon on the Grass (1863), where a naked woman casually picnics with two clothed men, and so scandalises polite Parisian society. This reaction was not unexpected. The artist had designed the painting with the intention of causing an uproar, displeased with the hypocrisy he detected in how the female form was utlilised in art (ok in religious paintings, obscene in every other context).

And this was merely one, from a list of outrages the painter conceived in his heyday.

In later life, Manet's passions cooled and he moved to the countryside, seeking a simpler life. His later works demonstrate a mastery of technique, which had been sometimes obscured by the provocative subject matter of his youth. The house depicted above is his house, and the rustic charms of a humble life in the country are warmly displayed. Sadly, this pleasant period did not last very long; Manet died from gangrene the following year.


Camille Pissarro

Born in 1830, Camille Pissarro's long career encompassed a variety of artistic periods and styles. A friend of Monet, in the 1870's Pisarro was also among the leading Impressionists but, by the following decade, began to feel that the approach was exhausted.

His subsequent work, broadly categorised as Post Impressionist, harvested ideas from different artistic schools, reflecting the artist's lifelong interest in innovation. Boulevarde Monmarte captures another fascination; that of the rapidly modernising city of Paris.

Paris had been remade in the second half of the 19th century, with new buildings and wider streets replacing their medieval predecessors. One of these new boulevardes was the street Pissarro lived on in Monmarte, and the artist set about recording the changing view through his apartment window in a series of 14 paintings.


Artist unknown

Until 2006, this was the NGV's prize possession; a rare, early van Gogh, one of only two works by the artist in a public gallery in Australia. Purchased from a travelling art show in 1939, for 2000 pounds, this portrait of an unknown European man reached a peak valuation of $20 million dollars. 

And then... the NGV loaned it to The Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, for an international van Gogh exhibition.

Frank Whitford, reviewing the exhibition in the Sunday Times, stated: 'This picture cannot be by van Gogh. The brushwork is assured and conventional. It's of a size van Gogh never used. Finally, suspiciously, nobody has any idea where the picture was before it came on the market in 1928.'

Other reviewers concurred and, after initially defending the authenticity of the work, the NGV directors submitted the portrait to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Their analysis took two years but, finally, they reached the same conclusion. Head of a Man, while not a forgery, was the work of an unknown contemporary, rather than van Gogh himself. 

But before this news had been fully absorbed, another dramatic twist unfolded.

Lawyers representing the estate of Richard Semmel, a German Jew and onetime wealthy industrialist, came forward to claim that the painting had been owned by Semmel and taken from him by the Nazi's. His heirs now wished to claim it and have it returned to them.

Once the veracity of this claim had been established, the NGV offered to return the painting. But while ownership of the piece shifted, the Semmel family were then happy to leave it on indefinite loan with the NGV. It is still on display now; while no longer the most valuable item in the gallery, it has become, perhaps, the one with the most fascinating backstory.


Auguste Rodin

Rodin's 'The Thinker' is the artist's most famous work, and one of the most well known created by... well, anyone. It is a figure from popular culture as much as from art, recognisable, at least on some level, by nearly everyone. Started when Rodin was still largely unknown, the sculpture was commissioned by the French Government to form part of the entryway for a new museum of decorative art.

This bronze casting, the first of several, was to serve as a model for larger versions to come, and shows evidence that Rodin was still fine tuning his design. The figure here wears a cap, which is absent from all subsequent versions, and the finished work (now on display at the Rodin museum in Paris). Gifted by Rodin to his friend and patron Constantine Alexander Ionides, the item was acquired by the NGV in 1921.



When the irascible J.M.W.Turner, often considered England's finest painter, died, he left his entire body of work to the English nation. He had only one condition; that his work be kept as one body, and displayed together. So, it is fortunate (for us) that Turner's heirs ignored this request and, undoubtedly motivated by the proximity of large quantities cash, split off portions of his portfolio for sale. 

This work, one of two Turner's at the NGV, is reflective of the artist's later career, where the importance of form has been overwhelmed by an urge to stir the emotions. Depicting a waterfall at Schauffhausen in Northern Switzerland, a spot Turner visited many times, the object here is to convey the misty power of the river wild, rather than to show what it may actually look like. 

These later works of Turner's were derided in their day - too abstract and obtuse - but today they convey a simple theme that cuts across the generations; the awesome might of nature, and our meek place before it.


John Constable

Turner's great rival as a landscape painter was John Constable, a man who he differed from in every meaningful way. Where Turner was loud and boisterous, Constable was quiet and insular; where Turner traveled widely and set many of his famous paintings in Europe, Constable lived his whole life in Sussex, and set most of his works in the fields where he grew up; and where Turner showed the unpredictable might of nature, and its often destructive consequences, Constable showed a natural world tamed by man, and put to work to serve our ends.

This painting is typical of Constable's work generally, in that it shows an everyday scene from the rural paradise in the artists mind; a lock keeper allows a boat to pass along a canal, part of the regular clockwork of the countryside. More distinctive of his later works are the storm clouds in the background. By 1826 the Industrial Revolution was upending every facet of British life, and Constable rightly felt the pleasant orderliness of life on the farm was under threat. But, on this day, the storms are still some way off, and everyone is content with their place in the sun.

REMBRANDT (c. 1660)

Studio of Rembrandt

With his upturned collar, dark eyes, and peakless cap, Dutch master Rembrandt cuts a surprisingly dashing figure in paint. At the time this work was produced, he was also the most famous artist in Europe, and ran a large studio in Amsterdam where he taught students, between compositions.

One of the exercises Rembrandt used on his students was to have them copy his own works, mimicking the technique he had perfected himself. This piece, originally taken to be a self portrait, was determined in the 1970s to be one of these; one of about 90 portraits of Rembrandt completed by one of his students, with (perhaps) a few touches added by the man himself.

These student copies were of a high quality (many of Rembrandt's pupils became distinguished artists in their own right), and Rembrandt was not above signing them and selling them as his own, if he were sufficiently pleased with the outcome.

BEAR JUG (c. 1740)

Unknown artist

This cute stoneware jug has a suprisingly bloody history. In 18th century Europe, bear baiting was a popular past time, and bears were common sights in public, as well as objects of popular fascination. A whole range of bear themed wares was produced, everything from jugs, to vases, to plates, to statues. Bears were big business, and the suffering of the animals was entirely unconsidered.

This item was produced in Nottinghamshire, at the time the centre of English pottery. By coincidence, both bear baiting and English potting declined at the same time; in the 19th century the cruelty of bear baiting was finally accepted, and the practice banned. Meanwhile, domestic taste moved from English made goods to cheaper, more exotic items from continental Europe.


Artist unknown

Merevale Abbey in Warwickshire was built in 1148, a time when Gothic design was popular across Europe. A key feature of Gothic Cathedrals was their elaborate stained glass windows, of which Merevale was well decorated. And while the abbey was only small, it played its part in British history; Edward III was born there in 1312.

The Abbey was decommissioned by Henry VIII in 1538, and shortly fell into ruin. The above example of a stained glass window was salvaged from the site, and depicts the 14th century lord, John de Hardreshull, and his wife. It was common at this time for important  persons to add a panel of themselves to the local church, and so the stained glass became a kind of historical document, recording important events.


Artist unknown

A finial is a small, ornate roof decoration, often sitting atop a pinnacle, or at the topmost part of a roof. In Thailand, it is thought that they provide protection, and are also placed above doorways, to safeguard people as they enter and exit a building.

This ornate finial depicts the mythical 'Makara', a creature with the head of a lion, the horns of a deer, and the body of a serpent. The good luck the Makara brings is based on a traditional belief of the Khmer people, from the Asian mainland.

GUARDIAN SPIRIT (c. 700 - 800)

Artist unknown

Looking like a slimmed down version of the Cheshire Cat, this earthenware figure from 8th century China is probably a depiction of  a lion. The Asiatic lion was once common throughout South East Asia (the species is long extinct), and its image was used in China as a status symbol; the mark of the wealthy and powerful.

This lion served a specific purpose, in that it was entombed with its owner as a 'guardian spirit', to watch over the deceased in the afterlife. Chinese nobles from this period were buried with many such icons, along with clothes, jewels, and effigies of their friends and family. The guardian lions were usually paired - representative of yin and yang - so that they too would not get lonely during the long stretch of eternity.


Artist unknown

Similar in concept, although differing in detail, to the Chinese guardian lion is this hollow ceramic figure from the Nayarit region, in Western Mexico. The people that left this figure behind are not well known to history; thought to have flourished around three thousand years ago, they left very little evidence of their civilisation, habits, or fate. Even the three thousand year timeframe is in dispute.

But one tangible feature of their culture has been uncovered. They had a very distinctive burial method, which involved digging a hole about twenty metres deep, straight down, and then branching a few burial chambers off at the bottom. These 'shaft tombs' are unique to the region, and many examples have been examined.

Similar to the contemporary Chinese, and many other cultures, the Nayarit people filled their vertical tombs with figures, valuables and icons, to keep the departed safe in the afterlife. This figure is thought to be representative of masculinity, and so probably came from the tomb of a powerful king, or lord. The large feet, and tiny arms, are designed to help the item balanced upright.


Artist unknown

Built on the shores of the Mediterranean, in present day Tunisia, the ancient city of Carthage was the the centre of a thriving empire. At its peak, around 250 BC, the Carthaginians ruled a large swathe of North Africa, stretching around to encompass the southern part of Spain. The cultural achievements of Carthage rivaled that of ancient Rome; with well developed Government and public service, famous philosophers and warriors, and a flourishing art scene.

But the Carthaginian's success would lead them into conflict with the Romans, and the latter would eventually overwhelm their smaller rival. Carthage was sacked in 146 BC, and then rebuilt as a Roman colony. This mosaic, made of many differently coloured stones, was typical of the decoration found in a grand Roman residence, and dates from 400 AD, when Carthage was just another city in the Roman empire. 


Orrefors Glassworks

Founded in 1898, the Swedish Orrefors Glassworks company originally produced commercial and industrial items like window panes and bottles. But after the First World War, the company changed hands and expanded into domestic items; glasses, bowls and vases, of ever more complex design.

Influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, in the 1920's and 30's the company conceived innovative methods to produce highly stylised glassware. Their signature designs trapped air, and sometimes liquid, between layers of glass, to stunning effect. Orrefors continues to operate today, and its classic design items are now highly prized, and very valuable, collectors pieces.


Fernando and Humberto Cambana

The Cambana brothers hail from Sao Paulo, and have parlayed an architectural background into a career that combines conventional design with artistic flair. Their best known works use everyday objects to construct highly stylised versions of... other everyday objects, especially furniture. 

Chief among these are a series of chairs made from unlikely building blocks; parasols, and dolls, and rubber bands, and, in the above example, a bunch of fluffy toys. The toys are mostly taken from vending machines, and the idea is as old as the found art of Marcel Duchamp; take a cheap, common item, re-purpose it in an artistic way, and instantly create something of exponentially greater value.


While the brothers chairs are intended to be used as furniture, their relative scarcity, and the uniqueness of each item, has made them enormously valuable. This is a recent acquisition by the NGV, purchased earlier in 2015, reflecting the Camabana's cultural currency.


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