A moveable feast
On a Friday morning in late October I met Adam Worrall in the National Gallery of Australia’s members lounge, a quiet, low-ceilinged room on the Level 2 mezzanine of Colin Madigan’s brutalist masterpiece. The view before us reached across the sculpture garden’s treetops to Lake Burley Griffin and Mount Ainslie beyond.
Worrall, who has worked at the NGA for 15 years and is now an assistant director, was dressed for Casual Friday in a T-shirt, pants and Nikes: a get-up slightly incongruous with his current role as lead exhibition designer on Versailles: Treasures from the Palace. Billed by the gallery as a “once in a lifetime experience”, the exhibition features more than 130 objects drawn from one of the most luxurious, and famous, palace-museums in the world. With the opening just six weeks away, Worrall’s challenge lay in creating a narrative between items as diverse as Marie Antoinette’s elaborate harp, a painted lead sculpture of a monkey riding a goat, major oil paintings, and a tapestry, almost 4 by 6 metres, that in surprisingly meta fashion depicts Louis XIV’s visit to the workshop in which it was created.
“If I can craft these objects into a story with the curator that I can understand, then my mum’s going to come and understand it … Pretty much anyone who doesn’t know about art is going to come and have that experience as well,” Worrall said.
Shadowing it all is the larger-than-life history that still renders Versailles and its inhabitants in such vivid detail. Louis XIII made the site, south-west of Paris, home to his hunting lodge, but it was his heir, Louis XIV, who in 1661 engaged an army of artisans to create the vast gilded compound and elaborate gardens known today. It soon supported a large population: alongside the King and Queen of France, thousands of nobles, consorts, mistresses and servants all lived and died in its overwrought grounds. By the time the seeds of the French Revolution had taken root, Versailles, then the domain of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, had in its lavish excess become emblematic of the monarchy’s disconnect from the people.
Worrall knows it’s an impossibly big story to fit into the NGA’s temporary exhibitions galleries, especially without the framing context of the palace and its grounds.
“How do you take a sculpture from the top of the main fountain in Versailles, bring it to Australia, and communicate a sense of its importance?” he asked me in illustration of the kind of question that had recently kept his mind ticking over at night.
He was referring to what he sees as the exhibition’s narrative heart: the 1.5-tonne marble sculpture of the goddess Latona that usually rises above the Latona fountain. In 2009, it was removed for extensive conservation (“She’s had a lot of work done,” Worrall said), and a replica installed in its place. In a coup for the NGA, the original was recently disassembled into eight pieces and, accompanied by Versailles’ sculpture conservator, flown to Canberra. It’s the first time Latona has left France in 350 years.
In the exhibition Worrall has surrounded the imposing figure with a multimedia representation of the fountain’s flowing waters. Nearby, a section of synthetic hedging intends to recall the palace’s hedge mazes. The most theatrical touch, however, is a scent developed especially for Versailles by world-renowned perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, whose clients have included Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior and the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, for whom he synthesised her 2003 work The Smell of Money. Based on an archival recipe for Louis XIV’s own especially commissioned perfume (undertones of citrus), it will be piped gently into the foyer to prime waiting crowds for the spectacle beyond.
If it sounds elaborate, that’s because it is. It also comes with an element of risk. “By the time we sell the first ticket we’ve already invested millions of dollars in a project like this,” Gerard Vaughan, the NGA’s director, explained to me later over a lunch of cut sandwiches in his office.
Vaughan, who was director of the National Gallery of Victoria for 13 years and took up his current role in 2014, knows that Australian audiences can be fickle. Although the NGA attracts a significant core of supporters for all of its major exhibitions, a “blockbuster” like Versailles needs to reach far further. In the lead-up to our interview, Vaughan’s appearance with 2GB’s Alan Jones was immediately followed by one with ABC Classic FM’s Margaret Throsby.
The gold standard in Australia is Masterpieces from Paris, a collection of post-Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay that the NGA staged in 2009–10. Audiences flocked from around the country: at a time when Canberra’s population was just over 350,000, the exhibition recorded ticket sales