The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland, The Art Gallery of NSW

 

Gabriella and Claudette discuss The Greats an exhibitionThe Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c.1485), Sandro Botticelli, tempera and gold on canvas

By Gabriella Edelstein and Claudette Palomares

Contents

A Tale of Two Galleries by Claudette Palomares

The Conversation

What’s in a name?: The Idea of Greatness at the AGNSW by Gabriella Edelstein

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A Tale of Two Galleries

By Claudette Palomares

In 1874, the city of Sydney was at a cultural quandary. The one hundred years since the First Fleet first tipped the shores of Port Jackson had seen unprecedented economic growth for the city, but not the similar flowering of artistic capital. Twenty-five years before the country’s federation, the rivalry between the cities of Melbourne and Sydney too was at its zenith, and the fact that Melbourne had successfully built their own gallery in 1861in the space that we now know as the National Gallery of Victoriahad been a particularly painful thorn in the side of the Sydney elite. Building a permanent art-space in Sydney would become the primary purpose of the the newly-formed Academy of Art of NSW, yet it would take almost twenty years before the Academy would find an architect who could meet their exacting demands.

Like his failed predecessor, John Horbury Hunt, the architect Walter Liberty Vernon would find it difficult accommodating the whims of the Academy. By 1896, Vernon was enamoured with what he saw as the splendours of the Gothic style, and his first attempts at a design for the new art gallery displayed a distinctly Neo-Gothic air. Yet the Academy of Art was unmoved by Vernon’s enthusiasm. The truth of the matter was, the Academy wanted a building that explicated NSW’s place in the Western – and therefore, dominant – cultural sphere, establishing NSW as a place that honoured and echoed the Western Platonic ideals of Art and Beauty, rather than developing its own distinctive, proto-national identity. Instead of Vernon’s Neo-Gothic vision, the Academy demanded that the building reflect a classical aesthetic, the highlight of which would be the facade of the building, which they insisted resemble that of a Ancient Greek temple with the uncompromising grace of an Ionic collonade. In fact the Academy had a specific building in mind from which they took inspiration. Why couldn’t (they suggested) Vernon use William Playfair’s fine gallery in Edinburghknown today as the Scottish National Galleryas the template for their own?*

Art_Gallery_of_New_South_Wales_at_night National_Gallery_of_Scotland_restitch1_2005-08-07T: The Art Gallery of NSW at night (Flickr CC: jasoncstarr) ; B: Scottish National Gallery (Wikicommons: Klaus with K)

As we see when we saunter along Art Gallery Road, past the Domain, and towards the gallery todaydespite his own preferencesVernon gave in to the exactions of the Academy and built their temple to Western Art in the likeness of Playfair’s own design. With such origins, it feels more than co-incidental that The National Galleries of Scotland should choose the Art Gallery of NSW as the temporary home for some of their most treasured works: the antipodean analogue made quite literally in its own image. For until mid-February 2016, Sydneysiders will have the chance to see works from the Scottish gallery that the Academy of NSW so much admired- most notably those from Old Masters as Rembrandt, Titian and da Vinci – in a special exhibition titled The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland.

Over the years I have been a frequent visitor of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). It houses one of the loveliestif not the loveliestcollection of nineteenth century and Victorian art this side of the Pacific andto Vernon’s creditthe building itself is a poem to the beauty of the Neo-classical form. And yet I have always found the facade of the galleryso desired by the Academy slightly ridiculous with its incomplete array of bronze panels featuring ancient myth and fable. Facing the building from the side of the Domain, you will notice that left hand panels at the front of gallery are conspicuously empty, as if Vernon had changed his mind, or found that the project too expensive to complete. Yet even more incongruous than these incomplete panels are the inscriptions where the names of the Old Masters can be found: Giotto, Titian, Raphael, and Rembrandt. It has always seemed odd to me that these names are so prominently displayed on the front of a gallery that does not actually hold any works of such artists within its own walls. Yet this was reflective of the Academy and their hopes for the Art Gallery of NSW as a cultural entity.

Fábula_(El_Greco,_c._1600)An Allegory (Fàbula) (c. 1580 – 1585), El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), oil on canvas

In her essay below, Gabriella questions and challenges the exhibition’s name: “The Greats”, and the way the exhibition asks us to take this title prima facie, so I won’t write in too much detail about that subject or what “great” things you will see in this exhibition. In regards to the the former, Gabriella will write with much more eloquence than I, and the latter should be explored and discovered for yourself. Suffice to say you will see some wonderful rarities, such as Botticelli’s exquisite Wemyss Madonna, Titian’s lithesome Venus, a transfixing El Greco and a brilliant glimpse of ordinary life from the eye of the nineteen-year-old Velazquez. Yet, if your artistic preferences are at all like ours, so too will you experience some disappointments: a tiny 4 inch etching of a dog’s foot that is all the da Vinci on offer, as well as a Vermeer so far removed from his domestic masterpieces that it is almost unrecognisable as the hand of that great artist. A haunting watercolour by William Blake is obscured from view and uncommented upon (much like Blake’s own life), while (bizarrely) an unprepossessing view of Niagara Falls is placed pride of place as the climax of the exhibition.

Yet the one aspect I found most intriguingand perplexingwas undoubtedly the “Scottish” component of the exhibition. The theme encompasses the subtitle of the exhibition: “Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland”, yet I have a distinct suspicion that such a subtitle has much less appeal to modern audiences than the sheer jingoistic power of “The Greats”. Nevertheless, the AGNSW takes pains to locate the exhibition within the framework of the National Gallery of Scotland’s historical and cultural origins, with varying degrees of success.

In 1838, the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) was established, the chief goal of which was to create a national art collection of distinction. In 1859, The Scottish National Gallery first opened to the public, its highly admired collection supplied from the archives of the RSA and via aristocratic patronage. The Greats tries to encapsulate this history through a lavish octagonal room painted scarlet-red, a room solely devoted to Scottish art. Gabriella and I felt that this room was a mishmash of nineteenth century imagery that gave little to no sense of a unified concept of what Scottish art might be. Here monumental portraits of Scottish aristocrats are hung alongside a farrago of other works, including The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton and William Dyce’s Neo-renaissance piece, Francesca da Rimini. The most compelling image in this room is Sir Edwin Landseer’s Rent-day in the wilderness, an unusual work that combines a realist style and historical genre painting with heavy symbolism and a strong streak of surrealism. Beautiful as these works are as individual entities, together as a whole they seem to account to much ado about nothing. Forwith the exception to Landseer’s Jacobite sympathist rent collectorthe works of the “Red Room” are wanting in dramatic or political momentum, and seem to fall short of the exhibition’s lofty assertions of The Greats. Both Gabriella and I understood the practical reasons why the Art Gallery of NSW included this “Red Room” in the exhibition, but felt that its place as an organic and thematically resonant addition to the rest of exhibition seemed much less palpable.

Yet I believe the “Red Room” is merely symptomatic of a larger problem that is the exhibition, which both Gabriella and I felt had possessed a number of genuinely exquisite moments, but was less successful as a compelling, synthesised whole. In this exhibition you will see Monet and Gauguin represented, but you will also see their contemporary, Frederic Edwin Church posited as one of The Greats. Part of this problem extends to both galleriesthe National Galleries of Scotland and the Art Gallery of NSWand their origins as the physical embodiment of the Academies of Art. These institutions were not so much dedicated to the cultivation of art itself, than what they thought art ought to be: faithful to Platonic ideals, classically beautiful and morally improving. As one of the most prominent of the NSW Academy of Art trusteesthe Barbados-born businessman Eliezer Montefiorewould write to his fellow members:

“the public should be afforded every facility to avail themselves of the educational and civilising influence engendered by an exhibition of works of art.”**

Let’s not forget that these were the institutions that rejected so much of what we consider as essential to our modern conception of art, and that it was the rejection from such institutions from which much of what we see as “great” modern art emerged, disavowals of all the Academy stood for. These Academies had little tolerance for any initiativeartistic or otherwisethat undermined their beliefs of how the world should be conducted, or how it should be represented. It was the dogmatic force of the Academy of Art NSW that ordered Vernon to create a Greek temple and, to a certain extent, it is this same force that drives this exhibition. The Greats feels disjointed because its portrait of what constitutes as “great” feels in some ways outdated, incomplete and entirely rooted in the nineteenth century. In many ways what we are seeing and what we are consuming are not genuine explorations of “great art”, but rather art as perceived by the Academy of Art of NSW in 1874: a “civilising influence”, driven by genius that was, above all, genteel and cultivated in the salons and drawing rooms of one’s betters, rather than from where modern art would actually emerge (the ones kicking and screaming).

Claudette Palomares, January 2016

Sources:
*Art Gallery of New South Wales: The Building”. nsw.gov.au. Accessed 10 January 2016.
**Russell, Roslyn (2008). “Eliezer Montefiore – From Barbados to Sydney” (PDF). National Library of Australia news. December 2008 (p.13): 11–14. Retrieved 10 January 2016.

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The Conversation

30mins

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What’s in a name?: The Idea of Greatness at the AGNSW

By Gabriella Edelstein

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Knight, the hapless Malvolio aspires towards upward social mobility through a dream marriage to the rich Olivia. In his letter of attempted seduction, he writes, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’. Walking through the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, I couldn’t help but recalling this line. Whilst the show is somewhat a manifestation of Malvolio’s presumption and hubris, it also reveals a larger desire we all fall prey to: our need to elevate those things that fall into line with what we perceive as “great”. What makes these artists and artworks great, I wondered, gazing upon a Botticelli and then a Velazquez? Who decided that this group of dead white men from before the twentieth century are the height of human aesthetic achievement? Not to deny the skill of these painters, but the exhibition felt like an uncoordinated grouping of famous names with little thematic link to hold them together. The Greats, Claudette and I found, is an unquestioning projection of the canon (that strangely enough doesn’t have many canonistic artworks). This, we believe, comes down to the question of what is in a name.

This essay will not be about whether or not you should see The Greats (it’s a good opportunity to see some beautiful and interesting pieces that are finally on this side of the Pacific ocean), but instead it shall consider  what the curators of the exhibition are tapping into by prostrating themselves before the authority of the Western canon by calling the exhibition “The Greats”.

If you’ve read Erratic Dialogues before, you may have noticed Claudette and I railing against the Canon. Why do we hate beautiful things, you ask? We don’t. We instead find problematic our culture’s tendency to amalgamate artists and artworks along a seemingly arbitrary list of aesthetic rules dictated by critics in the nineteenth century. Lists of what is the definitive best are reliant on the views of figures of perceived authority (Coleridge and T. S. Eliot’s writings, for example, defined much of the literary canon) and have the effect of creating other figures of authority in turn, excluding other valuable and interesting texts. The Canon is based on exclusion: no women, no people of colour, nothing that doesn’t question the story of continuous Western development. If anything, The Greats reinforces just how much our culture holds onto the idea of Old Masters, Genius, and Greatness, without questioning how those categories have shaped our culture and continue to frame considerations of who can be an artist and what art even is. This show includes no women, no voices of women (even on the audio guide) and no women’s stories in the historical anecdotes. Even the exhibition’s curator, Richard Beresford, is a man. The Greats is no place for women, it is a place where they are seen and never heard. The somewhat backwards politics of this show is especially strange considering that AGNSW holds some very interesting and radical postmodern art; the artwork in the downstairs part of the gallery become lost in the purported timeline that this exhibition presents. Essentially, The Greats promotes the idea that the only artwork worth looking at is that of the Old Masters’.

In her essay, Claudette comments upon how bemusing we both found that the exhibition was titled The Greats. After some digging on the internet, Claudette found that this is a travelling exhibition that went under the name of ‘Botticelli to Braque’ at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas. Whilst definitely not as sellable as The Greats, we thought that the exhibition’s earlier incarnation is truer to the story that the collection presents. We ultimately concluded that AGNSW chose the title for marketing purposes: all over the city are posters with artists’ names, and no images of the artworks themselves.

This campaign begs poststructuralist deconstruction: as an audience we are given a series of signifiers without representations of what is supposed to be signified. The curators seem to be aware of the power of names, and maybe also the audience’s potential disappointment that they won’t see Primavera or the Mona Lisa. Perhaps this was a rather cynical strategy to draw audiences, seeing as banners around Sydney of Vermeer’s Christ in the house of Martha and Mary probably wouldn’t draw many people. As Claudette said during our post-show conversation, ‘Underlying this seemingly high art exhibition is a very commercialised impulse’. If anything, the show’s advertising campaign reveals something about the position of these artists within a market economy: their artworks are no longer worth as much as the artists’ names. This reveals that in our approach to culture what’s more important is a signifier, rather than the text itself. In a way, all the artists in this exhibition become interchangeable, they are homogenised because of their status. And just in case you didn’t know who the great artists of the Western canon are, you can buy a tea towel with a list of names in dinky fonts.

The Greats in store

The great irony of The Greats is that whilst the paintings are great, and by great artists, they’re not exactly their greatest works. And moreover, there are artists that you most likely haven’t heard of if this is your first foray into art (Jan Lievens, anyone?). As an introduction to Western Art, the exhibition can leave you a bit deflated and confused. The Greats wasn’t like the sprawling 2011-12 Picasso show, which truly left you feeling like you understood a monumental artist. The Greats is relatively short – it took Claudette and me 45 minutes to inspect most of the art in detail – and quite random in its design. You begin in Renaissance Italy and suddenly you’re in the Baroque period mixed with the Rococo and there’s no explanation about how concepts or aesthetics developed.

We had the distinct feeling that the audience receives two different visions of what the show aspired to be: on the one hand, the story of Scottish culture (which Claudie examines in her cogent essay), and the other, that of Western artistic development. I cannot help but think that The Greats would have a greater impact if the curators committed to a single line of thought. The curatorship relies on the impact of names alone – we are not told why these artists are important, the influence they had, or how they had a hand in changing art. Many of the artworks are beautiful and affecting, but they come to us out of context. As an example: the exhibition does not tell the audience about the relationship between Titian and Veronese, despite their paintings been hung in the same room. The exhibition also fails to explain how some artists were for a long time rejected from the canon. The final room displays works by the Impressionists, and whilst we might now consider this the height of good taste, in their time, Monet and Gauguin were the height of gouache (pun of the year?). These artists are given pride of place, yet another exiled artist, William Blake, is unceremoniously delegated into a corner. Even if Blake is universally esteemed in art circles, why is he shoved to the side? Simply because you, a layperson, cannot possibly care about him or think his work is very nice to look at.

I understand why AGNSW named this exhibition “The Greats” – simply because if they went with the subtitle, “Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland”, audiences would not be thronging. If this is the case, they could have at least problematised the canon for those looking bemusedly at a four-inch etching of a dog’s paw by da Vinci.

Gabriella Edelstein, January 2016

The Greats: masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW 25 October 2015 – 14 February 2016.

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