Seeing the Greats at the AGNSW

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Sybil M. Jack, former Dean of Arts at Sydney University, offers us an insider’s view into the Art Gallery New South Wales’ new exhibition on masterpieces of art from the National Galleries of Scotland.

Those of us who have the advantage of visiting Edinburgh from time to time and so can visit its galleries may have seen some of these painting before but even so The Greats: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland currently on exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery is a remarkable experience. The individual works link together in a variety of ways that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. No-one taking the time to examine the works carefully could fail to come away without a more nuanced appreciation of the four hundred years of European art it encapsulates.

The exhibition was first displayed in the USA but additional works not included in the original exhibition make this a virtually new presentation. Richard Johnson, the architect who designed the layout, has created an impression of the Edinburgh Gallery’s own primarily octagonal room structure to house the works. The pictures hang against fabric walls or are set at an angle or rest on easels. The walls shift from white in the first room to deep red in the third and sixth.  The forty-one paintings and thirty-three drawings are all of them key examples of the artistic excellence of iconic painters from Italy, France, the Low Countries, Britain and finally the USA. They are deliberately arranged so that the mind does not readily move from one to the next but are hung so that each can be appreciated separately. As only two of them have ever been seen in Australia before this enables the viewer to concentrate on those that interest them most and the categories that they prefer although some things like space and time are present in nearly all the works.

The collection covers the whole period from Botticelli to Braque and gives a sharp impression of developments over that time. They provide a valuable insight into the way from the Renaissance to the present day European artists both adopted and adapted traditional forms and different methods of putting colour in its many forms on various surfaces. Subtly, the European works also illuminate the way in which the talent of the Scottish artists on display was shaped as a distinctive but integral part of European culture.

Each of the paintings has its own sense of place and time, its own way of representing the experience of light and the mystery of texture and touch. Deciphering their meaning, perhaps impossible, will differ from viewer to viewer and the face-to-face experience creates an indelible and very personal impression.

The collection starts with a highlight. The chronologically earliest work, Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin adoring the sleeping Christ Child, here seen for the first time in 169 years outside Britain, marks the epitome of the mimetic tradition of the ideal, heavenly Madonna in medieval art with the delicate representation of the symbolic rose without a thorn. There are one or two other religious works that are very different from this medieval template. Domenichino’s Adoration of the Shepherds develops a much more human image with many bodies pressing near the crib, one of them a dog. The scene is full of movement: Joseph collecting hay and one of the shepherds playing the bagpipes. Van Dyck’s work on the same subject is more restrained, an image of the urgent night.

These contrast in style and approach with the numerous and rarely displayed Leonardo da Vinci sketches, Studies of a Dog’s Paw that are interspersed with the more formal studies.

Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea with the paint applied as much with his fingers as with the brush is a work of poïesis using contrasting colour and light to shape an idealised but all too human form. This can be viewed against El Greco’s very different management of light and shadow in The Allegory and the contrast gives a sudden insight into the ongoing debate as to whether — and if so how —the painters aim should be reproduction of the actual sights around them.

Realism, or the illusion of reality, is represented by Diego Velazquez’s work An Old Woman Cooking Eggs that exploits differing textures to imply an untold story of tension and sadness. Rembrandt’s A Woman In Bed employs similar techniques to a very different effect while Vermeer’s mastery of light and shade in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, uses a different perspective.

Topography is a major preoccupation of some of the artists and cannot be necessarily assumed in all cases to be simple representation, taken from life, and not imbued with a sense of identity or a particular purpose. François Boucher’s Pastoral Scenes are rococo presentations of romantic unreality far from the more conscious depiction of Dutch landscapes.  If one compares the Gainsborough River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village with John Constable’s The Vale of Dedham where one’s eyes are constant drawn away from the river to the almost changing clouds above, not only are the different means of creating in impression of luminosity clear, there is a marked difference in the sense of landscape. Seventy years later Claude Monet’s Poplars on the Epte belongs to a different perception of landscape and a fascination with trees and woods as planted by humans and shaped to a rural purpose. Cezanne’s Les Grands Arbres is less a landscape and more an attempt to invent an image that embodies the creation of the essence of a tree as a dynamic structure through the use of particular painting media and techniques.

Another theme that can be followed throughout the exhibition is the portrait in its multiple different forms and intentions. Most are people of good birth, but Frans Hals’ Verdonck, is remarkable because it portrays a man of low birth but strong religious convictions. Gerrit Dou’s An Interior With A Young Viola Player shows the player through his surroundings as does Degas’s 1879 portrait of Florentine critic Diego Martelli in his Paris apartment.  Most impressive perhaps is Jan Lievens’s Young Man in Yellow that stuns by its remarkable use of colour. Other portraits such as Joshua Reynolds’s triple portrait of The Ladies Waldegrave and John Singer Sargent’s enigmatic Lady Agnew of Lochnaw reflect the expectations of society in the time they were painted.

One room collects the works of the major Scottish artists. Showing their perception of portraiture we have Henry Raeburn’s Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry (1771 – 1828) and Allan Ramsay, The Artist’s Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, alongside David Wilkie’s semi-historical genre works.

My personal passion for images of water was overwhelmed by the final image which is in a space of its own. American Frederic Edwin Church’s gigantic Niagara Falls, from the American Side is water on the move. The angle of view seems to draw the eyes — and after them surely the body — into the maelstrom that is the Falls where the water seems to shift in the image.

For those unable to visit there is a fully-illustrated publication produced by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, available for purchase from the Gallery Shop for $39.95.

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