A move­able feast

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - QUENTIN SPRAGUE

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

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