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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.





an ex­hi­bi­tion.




The NGV has a bronze sculp­ture from 1887

was, This has got to be where King ‘

from’ ,’’

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.’’



So ‘‘


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.’’

Pic­ture: Michael Pot­ter

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