Monday, June 24, 2013

Art Gallery of New South Wales

24 June 2013

The weather is still grey and alternately foggy, drizzly, and rainy.  There's a big storm system hovering offshore and threatening to drench the area.  But it hasn't arrived in full yet, just a day or two of rain - we're still expecting more rain and gale force winds.

So I went to the Art Gallery.  If it started to rain, I'd be inside.  Makes sense, right?

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is in the middle of the Botanic Gardens, which is a lovely setting for an art museum.  (For some reason, they aren't called museums here in Australia - a museum seems to be maritime, science, natural history, something.  Art is in an art gallery, not a museum.  Just an interesting thing we've noticed.)  

Their website:

And Botanic Gardens are actually quite nice in the midst of wintery rain - still incredibly green and lush, and full of birds: ibis (who like wetlands anyway); cockatoos; green and red parrots; even a kookaburra flew by!

And a gorgeous fountain in nearby Hyde Park!

All of this is near some government buildings, smack in the middle of Sydney - almost like the Central Park of the city. 

Anyway, there were some wonderful pieces in the Art Gallery.  European art, Australian art, Aboriginal art, Asian art.  Sculpture, painting, ceramics, ritual objects.  Traditional art forms.  Modern versions of traditional art forms.  And untraditional and modern takes on art.

It was wonderful.

Part of what was wonderful was that there were paintings by Australian artists, or artists from other parts of the world who either visited or emigrated to Australia.  These paintings showed the development of Australia - landscapes with the occasional wallaby hopping through, or an Aboriginal family living in the bush of the Outback.  Landscapes with the beginnings of the mining industry, or a town becoming a city, or the railroad being built.  Or the landscape after rainy season, when the seasonal deluge creates the wetlands and all the shore birds migrate through the billabongs. 

It was just artists doing what they do, painting what they see, recording what was going on during that place and time.  

But now, the artwork provides a first-hand account of the development of this country, which is fascinating.  (It's so easy to forget how young the countries New Zealand and Australia are, because they seem so British, and that's such an old country.)

And of course, there were some well-knowns among the artists - Reynolds; Gainsborough; Leighton; Constable; Burke-Jones; Tissot; Rubens; Tiepolo - you get the idea.

One of the most interesting aspects of the artists from the 1800s onward is that some of their works were purchased directly from the artist, or at the Paris Salon exhibitions - and then sent directly to Australia.  Before Australia was even a nation.  When it was still a colony.  Somehow I found that amazing, and unexpected.  I mean, how many art galleries did we have in frontier USA or Canada?  Art, famous art, art by master artists, is a luxury - and a developing country, even when a colony of another country, doesn't always have room or money or inclination for luxuries.  At least, that would be my viewpoint.  So I found it very surprising to read that this work or that was purchased at the the Paris Salon exhibition of 1884 or whatever.  

A number of Australian artists went abroad and studied in Europe, and this influenced their artwork.  One such artist was Rupert Bunny, who painted in the late 1800-early 1900s.  (Remember Bunny Road in Wellington?  Or was it Auckland?  I'm not sure if this is the same Bunny - but the name makes me laugh.  Some of his work was displayed next to an artist named Fox.  How funny is that?  The Fox next to the Bunny!)

Anyway, Rupert Bunny was definitely influenced by the French Impressionists, but also James Whistler - several of his pieces were studies of white on white - a woman in a white dress, with white gloves, sitting on a white sofa - each white slightly different, with tints and shades and tones to set each section of white apart.  Reminiscent of Whistler's "Symphony in White #1 - The White Girl" as well as his other "Symphony(ies) in White."  

Among the Aboriginal artworks, there was a fabulous didgeridoo forest - didgeridoos are the traditional musical instrument, sort of a huge reverberating kazoo, made from a tree trunk hollowed out by termites - so the forest-type display made perfect sense.  The hollowed out trunk is intricately painted in traditional designs of tiny, finely wrought dots or lines creating patterns - the meanings are unclear to those of us who are the uninitiated, but some look like maps, or almost like landscapes.  

There were also huge canvases with the same tiny lines or dots, filling the 2 meter square canvases, creating their own rhythm or design, repeating in patterns that intertwine and turn into other patterns.  There's a sense of meaning in there, but I don't speak this language.  And so I'm clueless, trying to understand a foreign tongue with my westernized eyes and brain.  All I can do is appreciate the design, the pattern, as well as the artist's work and patience.

I obviously didn't take any photos of the artworks in the gallery - if you are interested, you can look around their website and view some of the works.  I'd recommend looking at the painting of Milford Sound, NZ - it looks like a photograph from our cruise through Doubtful Sound.  Gorgeous!

There were several modern pieces on the top floor as part of an exhibit called "The Space Between Us."  They all used video as part of the artwork - one was a huge hexagonal box with different colored screens lit from within, with a repeating image of the artist breaking and leaping through a sheet of colored glass.

But my favorite was by Laresa Kosloff - it was a video of people viewing the artwork in the gallery, almost from the point of view of the paintings and sculptures - with Whitney Houston singing "I'm Nothing Without You" as the accompaniment.  Have you ever watched people in an art gallery or art museum?  So many people don't look, or look at labels, or pose next to a piece, or just take a photo to be looked at later.  If you stop and watch, you'll see how many people don't LOOK at the art, don't stop and try to see what's going on, what the artist might be saying.  That's what this video is about - the artworks almost seem to be pleading with the viewers to stop and look.  "Look at me," they implore.  "I don't exist if you don't see me."  "I'm nothing without a viewer."  "I'm nothing without you understanding who I am, what I did, what I represent."

This angst, this non-existence, is best represented by the painting "Helen" by Sir Edward John Poynter - the role of Helen is played by Lillie Langtry, famous actress.  Her Helen, Poynter's Helen, is appalled by all the death and destruction - and is a fictional character, portrayed by a real woman - painted by a real person - all dead, all but forgotten.  Her face tells us her story.  But if we don't stop and look at that face, full of emotion and longing to change her story, we have no idea who she is.  And she disappears.

Interesting concept, this video "Eternal Situation" - humourous, and not.  Insightful.  Something that most of us don't stop and think about.

Of course, if we think about the movie "Night at the Museum," maybe the paintings come to life every night.  

And laugh at us.


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