Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Birthday National Gallery of Victoria

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was opened 150 years ago, in May 1861.  Happy birthday, NGV.

I've penned a column for today's Age, 'Familiarity breeds content for grand old gallery's loyal patrons'.  I'm suggesting how we can best celebrate this grand event.  Here's the text:
The National Gallery of Victoria turns 150 this year. What gift for the dignified sesquicentenarian? Money? More always helps, but she's no pauper. A late night out with booze and nibblies? She hosts these regularly. A facelift? She's already had one. Instead, give the gift that keeps on giving: your continuing attention. 
One of the trends in contemporary galleries is the blockbuster show. Big-name international artworks are shipped from one gallery to another, along with plenty of publicity and a hefty insurance bill. There are catalogues, key rings, blow-up dolls. It's not an exhibition, it's an ''event''. Spend a king's ransom on marketing, insurance and logistics, and hope it brings in more booty than it costs. 
I've nothing against blockbusters. They're great publicity and can revitalise a gallery's image. There's a reasonable fear that quieter exhibitions, without the glow of international prestige and historical rarity, will keep galleries in the dark. And blockbusters can give us opportunities to see masterworks usually kept in Europe, the US or Asia. As with the 1939 Herald Exhibition of modern art, they can be revolutionary. 
But in the blockbuster mindset, we can easily forgo close relationships with our own national collections, here and interstate. Galleries become busy venues for big events, and we often leave confused or inconvenienced. We notice the long queues, pricey food, abstract plaques, chattering school tours. These can be misperceptions - but they stand out. It's like noticing a stranger's loud clothes and eccentric gestures, before we really get to know them. And precisely because of this, we often don't come back - until the next blockbuster. 
This is a shame, because great artworks are valuable life companions. At their best, they offer more subtle, vivid or sophisticated impressions of life. They can intensify emotion, provoke thought and sharpen perception. This is not something best enjoyed as a series of facts, or pre-packaged professional ideas. Good relationships with artworks begin with our own experience, and require practice and familiarity. To really ''get'' an artwork, we need to look more closely, and often more than once. 
It works like this. Something grabs us, perhaps Brack's popular Collins St, 5pm (pictured). It starts with an emotion: we realise that we feel uneasy, melancholy or maybe smug. Some see a regimented, mechanical work day. Others see lives they've happily given up for a sea change. 
Then comes acute perception. We note the drab sepia palette, colourless and slightly queasy. We note the sharp lines: the stifling up-and-down of the crowd and buildings, and the sharp lines on workers' faces. 
There is no softness here. And the eyes: all have hundred-yard stares, as if wearing blinkers. Emotion returns: feelings of desperation or stoic resolve. Then perception, perhaps of the weary lady to the right, with her white earrings and fragile smile. 
It's a very modern painting, which requires little commentary to fire the mind of today's Victorians. As mortgage payments bite and overtime bleeds, Brack's vision of work is surprisingly contemporary. 
Of course, scholarship can illuminate more of 1950s Melbourne. We can learn more about the painter's era or psychology. And there are undoubtedly fascinating details of paint and brushwork to discover. 
But, like all artworks, Collins St, 5pm is first and foremost an offering: a keen, vibrant, nuanced experience of life. And to best enjoy this, we needn't bow to expert essays or plug in earphones. We can simply spotlight the work with our gaze, and allow our emotions and perceptions to buzz together. Then the painting or sculpture can work on memory and imagination. It can illuminate unfamiliar ideas, or unearth buried desires. 
And it can do this over the decades. As a father of two, with a ''sent messages'' folder full of unpaid invoices, Brack's work has changed for me since I was a bristling undergraduate. As with all relationships, aesthetic experience deepens and broadens as we mature. 
So, in the gallery's grand birthday year, celebrate with an impromptu visit. While you wait for the next blockbuster, give yourself a spontaneous gift: an hour of quiet meditation, with a new friend on the wall.
(Image: courtesy of the NGV)

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