ELISABETH WYNHAUSEN meets TED GOTT CURATOR
THE National Gallery of Victoria was closed for renovation and its works of art temporarily stored at the Public Records Office in North Melbourne when curator Ted Gott had a revelation. The NGV’ s extensive collections of paintings and sculptures, prints and drawings were being appraised to see what would go on show when the gallery reopened. He was struck by the scope of the NGV’ s collections of British art.
That revelation was the impetus behind Modern Britain 1900- 1960, showing at the NGV until February 24.
The exhibition takes people on a romp through 20th- century art in Britain, swinging its focus from movements such as the Bloomsbury and Camden Town circles to paintings organised thematically into the classic genres, the portrait, the nude and the landscape, says Gott, the NGV’ s senior curator of international art.
While some admiring acquaintances describe the calmly assured Gott as a man who prefers to stay out of the limelight, he is one of the top curators in the country. That makes him preeminent in a role that demands not only scholarship and showmanship but the sort of tact and organisational ability involved in dealing with clamorous competing institutions and private lenders.
The NGV has the best collection of ‘‘ European art in Australia,’’ says Sebastian Smee, this newspaper’ s national art critic. That
‘‘ means that he’ s got to have his head across the whole thing.’’ Gott says the field is so vast that one of the
‘‘ great things about this job is that you learn something new every day’’ . Like most curators he eats, sleeps and breathes art.
Sometimes you see so much art, it’s like ‘‘ overeating fruit cake. But you never lose your taste for it.’’
Gott is an internationally recognised expert on French symbolist painter Odilon Redon, the subject of his doctorate, but his intellectual curiosity leads him down more unexpected paths. The great thing about being a curator is
‘‘ you can be researching gorillas one day and British paintings the next and Napoleonic battles the day after that,’’ he says.
The story about the gorillas is typical in its way because it starts with Gott falling in love with a work of art, then discovering what he can called Gorilla Carrying off a Woman. My first
Despite his phlegmatic- seeming exterior, Gott has what an acquaintance describes as a
hopping enthusiasm just under the surface’’ , a s ‘‘ if he can’ t wait to share one or other artistic discovery. The same engaging enthusiasm emerges as he tells of incidents in his life that intersect with his love of a work of art.
The NGV has a bronze sculpture from 1887
was, This has got to be where King ‘
In trying to track it down, Gott found out what he could about the sculptor, Emmanuel Fremiet. I discovered that he had been trained
‘‘ at the Natural History Museum in Paris and was there working as a commercial illustrator at the time the very first gorilla remains were brought into France.’’
became obsessed with figuring out how this could have been the case.’’
Fremiet’s first version of the gorilla bronze had been shown at the Paris Salon in 1859.
Gott talked it over with Kathryn Weir, head of cinema at at the Queensland Art Gallery, and the two collaborated on Kiss of the Beast: Paris Salon to King Kong, a show for the Queensland gallery that looked at the cultural history of the gorilla in art, literature and film.
He was born in north Queensland. His father was an insurance salesman who later sold real estate and his mother a nurse who would take him, his three brothers and their sister to the art gallery when they moved to Melbourne in 1967. The old Victorian art gallery was still in the State Library in Swanston Street. It had the stuffed Phar Lap, but as a seven- year- old kid, Gott recalls, he especially loved the mummy.
By the time he was in his late teens, studying fine arts and classics at the University of Melbourne, he was sufficiently intrigued by a small exhibition of Redon at the gallery to choose the painter as the topic of his PhD, one way of finding out more about him.
He had no sooner finished his doctorate than he waltzed into a job at the gallery.
I was lucky enough to get a job as the ‘‘ curator of prints and drawings,’’ he says, making light of his precocity. Then I was very lucky
‘‘ because I got a number of scholarships.’’
The first, a Harold Wright scholarship, took him to the British Museum to continue studying the history of prints.
The next, a Harkness fellowship, took him to Chicago to do postdoctoral research on Redon at the Art Institute of Chicago, which had bought Redon’s studio.
To this day, two decades later, Gott’s voice lifts as he talks about his time in Chicago, a city he adores. He says his love of film noir, another of his passions, comes from that period of his life because the films are set in a time and place that remind him of the thrill of living in Chicago in the late 1980s.
For much of the following decade, Gott was a curator at the National Gallery of Australia.
He spent a few years as a senior curator at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, then went home to the National Gallery of Victoria, the St Kilda Road institution he had first visited in 1968, the day it opened.
In 2004, The Impressionists, his first big show for the gallery, broke all box- office records, with 380,000 visitors thronging to see the masterpieces borrowed from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In contrast, all 260 works in Modern Britain have been borrowed from collections in Australia and New Zealand.
In preparing for the exhibition, Gott says he and co- curators Laurie Benson and Sophie Matthiesson looked at thousands of works of
‘‘ art . . . then we drew up a list of what works struck us as being the most outstanding in any collection. It didn’ t matter to us if the painter was completely famous or someone we hadn’ t heard of.’’
There are no fewer than 27 works by Stanley Spencer. But by the same token when Gott and Benson were across the Tasman, in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, they came across a knockout wartime painting by Louis Duffy of four air- raid wardens pulling a body out of the rubble.
They’ d never heard of Duffy, Gott says. That didn’t matter. We thought it has to be in the
‘‘ show, it’ s such a cracker painting.’’
Soon after they returned, another powerful wartime painting by Duffy came up for auction. The painting, Christ Evicting the Money Changers , is set in a graveyard. The money changers are arms dealers dressed in the baggy trousers worn in 1940. Christ is a muscular fellow in an undershirt, wielding a truncheon.
We thought, We have to have it for our ‘‘ ‘ collection,’ Gott says. NGV director Gerard
’’ Vaughn agreed.
The painting ended up on the cover of the terrific catalogue for Modern Britain.
One of the great joys of being a curator is the ‘‘ excitement of the detective work involved in reconstructing what those paintings meant in that moment in time,’’ Gott says.
The Louis Duffy is another picture that has ‘‘ picked me up and transported me across the world and back in time, and that’ s the magic of the job for me.’’