The nation’s galleries are filled with impressive blockbusters for the cloudy days of summer, writes
THE greatest change in our modern experience of time has come with a shift from rural to urban life. For farmers, summer is the busiest period of the year. From time immemorial, the hay was cut for winter feed in early summer, then at midsummer the wheat was ready to be harvested. After drying, it was threshed and stored in barns, in time to prepare for the autumn vintage and gathering of other fruit and nut crops. Wheat was sown in later autumn, to lie in the ground through winter and germinate in spring. Winter was the season of enforced idleness, apart from repairing and maintaining equipment and keeping livestock fed.
All that has been reversed by urban and industrial society. We work in heated offices, schools and factories through the cold months, and the summer, when cities become uncomfortably hot, is devoted to leisure. It is the same in the art world: by late spring, the commercial dealers are holding their last important exhibitions, then they hang the galleries with selections from the stockrooms for the quiet summer months when hardly anyone is buying pictures.
The public museums also take holidays, but this is less apparent because their galleries are filled with blockbusters and big shows that the holiday crowds will visit on those grey days when the beach is unappealing. This year, and during summer, there is as rich a choice as ever.
In Sydney, Monet and the Impressionists continues at the Art Gallery of NSW until January 26; this loan exhibition from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is an exceptional opportunity to revisit an artist we sometimes take for granted and to meditate not only on the meaning of impressionism but on the nature of the art of painting.
Claude Monet was not only the finest of the impressionists in the strict sense of the term but also the one who extended the style far beyond its original interest in subjective and ephemeral experience, his last works expressing a profound understanding of the rhythms of nature, at once ever-changing and eternal. The show also includes very fine works by artists whose aims were fundamentally different, such as Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau.
The gallery also has a survey of the late work of a relatively little-known and eccentric South Australian painter, Horace Trenerry ( 1899-1958), to March 15, and Half Light, a survey of Aboriginal photographers, until February 22. The good works in this show are those that are simple, direct and honest; the outstanding figure is Mervyn Bishop, followed by Michael Riley and Ricky Maynard. Unfortunately the show is marred by various postmodern conceits, the inevitable tub-thumping of some pieces and by the self-indulgent crudeness of Destiny Deacon.
About as far from such qualities as possible will be the sophistication and refinement of Genji: The World of the Shining Prince, an exhibition of illustrations to the famous Japanese novel, the Genji Monogatari or The Tale of Genji , composed 1000 years ago by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu; it opens at the AGNSW on December 12 and runs until February 22. The gallery will present the photographic and installation work of Colombian Oscar Munoz from to June 14.
Another show already reviewed here is Modern Times, at the Powerhouse Museum until February 15. It is full of interesting artefacts relating to the history of modern design in Australia, though rather poorly organised as an exhibition. The S. H. Ervin Gallery at Observatory Hill has a group exhibition of contemporary landscape painters, On the Heysen Trail ( to December 21), to coincide with the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Hans Heysen, which was discussed in this column last week. From January 10 to February 22, S. H. Ervin will be holding a retrospective of Cressida Campbell, whose commercial show at Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane has just closed, and whose sumptuous book was published recently.
In Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria has a survey of the vast and minutely detailed photographs of contemporary German Andreas Gursky to February 22, as well as the retrospective of Rosalie Gascoigne, which runs from December 19 to March 15 at the Ian Potter Centre. Also there are Aboriginal batiks from Central Australia to February 1, and photographs of night life and low life by Rennie Ellis to February 22. From February 27 to July 26, The Satirical Eye: Comedy and Critique from Hogarth to Daumier, will deal with the emergence of social and political caricature in England and France from 1730 to 1870. Another significant show to follow in the autumn will be John Brack, from April 24 to August 9. The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art will be showing The Water Hole, by Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger, from December 23 to March 1.
Of particular interest at the NGV is the fine 16th-century oval painting purchased in 1965 and formerly thought to be the portrait of an unknown young man by an anonymous north
19 Italian. This double puzzle apparently has been solved. The picture has been identified as a likeness of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, and attributed to Ferrarese painter Dosso Dossi, author of a number of beautiful but often iconographically obscure mythological paintings.
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has the very absorbing exhibition of Pacific Arts reviewed here last month, Gods, Ghosts and Men, until January 11. The NGA is also about to open what looks like an impressive loan exhibition on the work of Degas, a complex individual and one of the best painters of the 19th century. Like Monet, he is a great painter whose real qualities can be obscured by his popularity; the ballerinas that hang in reproduction in dance studios and suburban houses are not sentimental pictures of nice little girls but reflections on the miracle by which very ordinary and even vulgar creatures are made beautiful by the arts of choreography and music. Degas: Master of French Art opens on December 12 and runs until March 22. It will be complemented by Degas’ World: The Rage for Change, a selection of prints of the era from the NGA collection, from January 24 to May 3. Later in the summer, the NGA will also have Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1910-1950, on tour from the Art Gallery of South Australia and reviewed here recently.
The other big news in Canberra is the opening of the new National Portrait Gallery last week, which has finally moved from its temporary home in Old Parliament House to an ambitious new building on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. The exhibition Open Air: Portraits in the Landscape runs until March 1.
In Brisbane, Contemporary Australia: Optimism opened at the Gallery of Modern Art few weeks ago and runs until February 22. At the older Queensland Art Gallery building there is Someone’s Universe: The Art of Eugene Carchesio to February 1 and the interesting Namatjira to Now, unfortunately without a catalogue, to February 15. As the title suggests, this exhibition contains works by Albert Namatjira, as well as by his extended family and examples of the work of contemporary Aboriginal painters who have gone back to his style for inspiration.
From March, GoMA will have a group of exhibitions devoted to Chinese art, including Three Decades: The Contemporary Chinese Collection ( drawn largely from the QAG’s holdings), a show of the work of Zhang Xiaogang and Life Lines, by Chinese-Australian photographer William Yang. From late May to September, there will be an important loan exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, American Impressionism and Realism. We are so used to the dominance of US art in the past half-century that we often forget how little we know about the work produced there in the 19th and early 20th century when, indeed, America’s role in the development of the mainstream of modern art was hardly greater than Australia’s. The survey will include James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer, as well as less familiar figures such as Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase.
The Art Gallery of South Australia has its important Hans Heysen exhibition until February 8, before it sets off on an extensive tour to the Mornington Peninsula, Ballarat, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the NGA and, finally, the QAG. AGSA’s most important project in the autumn will be The Golden Journey: Japanese Art from Australian Collections, which will run from March 6 to May 31. The show will include 260 works from prehistoric times to the Meiji period, in a range of media including ceramics and lacquer as well as painting.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has The Tilted Stage, a survey of Mike Parr’s work, until March 1; and Anne Ferran: The Ground, the Air, a collection of work made in Tasmania, dealing with the landscape and the memory of convict life, from December 12 to February 22. TMAG also has rich holdings of settler and early colonial art, including works by John Glover and Benjamin Duterrau.
The Art Gallery of Western Australia has the Western Australian Premier’s Indigenous Art Awards exhibition until January 11, as well as a travelling show of Gordon Bennett’s work from December 20 to March 22.
Much more intriguing, and eloquently reviewed for this newspaper by Nicolas Rothwell, is Husi Bei Ala Timor Sira Nia Liman ( From the Hands of our Ancestors), an exhibition of the traditional arts of East Timor drawn from the important collection in Darwin and from the national collection in Dili, or at least from what survived the looting by Indonesian army thugs and their local allies, and the subsequent damage caused by weather and neglect. The show, at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, runs until July 12.
There will be many smaller exhibitions during a holiday period whose boundlessness prompts a final reflection on time. The reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere means not only that we have Christmas in the heat but that we celebrate