Sum­mer treats: Christopher Allen’s picks

Christopher Allen takes a crit­i­cal glance at the best ex­hi­bi­tions in Aus­tralia and over­seas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

Aus­tralians are for­tu­nate that our long hol­i­days are not at the same time as those of the north­ern hemi­sphere. There can be dis­ad­van­tages, of course: the days are shorter, Lon­don and Paris can be gloomy and sea­sonal re­sorts in the Mediter­ranean turn into wind­blown ghost towns in the win­ter months, but th­ese are gen­er­ally out­weighed by the plea­sure of hav­ing cities like Rome al­most to one­self with­out the in­vad­ing tourist hordes.

Mu­se­ums and gal­leries too are much more pleas­ant in the off-sea­son; but best of all is the fact that the low sea­son for tourism co­in­cides with the high sea­son for sig­nif­i­cant ex­hi­bi­tions. So for read­ers who have been saving up their fre­quent flyer points, there is an em­bar­rass­ment of riches in in­ter­na­tional gal­leries over the next few months.

The Re­nais­sance is rep­re­sented by the ec­cen­tric but in­trigu­ing fig­ure of Carlo Crivelli, whose strangely cool Vir­gins and trompe-l’oeil flies al­ways stop mu­seum visi­tors in their tracks, at the Is­abella Ste­wart Gard­ner Mu­seum in Bos­ton. Bot­ti­celli’s re­dis­cov­ery in the 19th cen­tury be­gan with the pre-Raphaelites and this is the sub­ject of The Bot­ti­celli Re­nais­sance at the Ge­maelde­ga­lerie in Berlin, which will later move, as Bot­ti­celli Reimag­ined, to the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert in Lon­don. Since the pre-Raphaelites, Wal­ter Pater’s es­say in Stud­ies in the Re­nais­sance, Mar­cel Proust’s Odette and our own Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock have all helped make Bot­ti­celli’s paint­ings the most ea­gerly vis­ited works in the Uf­fizi Gallery in Florence.

There are im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tions cov­er­ing the baroque pe­riod too. The Mau­rit­shuis in The Hague has an ex­hi­bi­tion of 17th-cen­tury self­por­traits, with the cringe-making sub­ti­tle Self­ies of the Golden Age. Rem­brandt was by far the most pro­lific and im­por­tant of self-por­traitists in this pe­riod, but by no means the only one, and the 17th cen­tury in gen­eral be­came fas­ci­nated with the artist’s self-rep­re­sen­ta­tion. An­other im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion from this cen­tury is Zur­baran: Mas­ter of De­tail at the Kun­st­palast in Dus­sel­dorf, de­voted to the Span­ish artist sec­ond in im­por­tance only to Ve­lazquez him­self.

In a some­what dif­fer­ent vein, di­arist Sa­muel Pepys, wit­ness to the Stu­art restora­tion and the Glo­ri­ous Revo­lu­tion, the plague in Lon­don and the Great Fire that fol­lowed it in 1666 — and chron­i­cler of his own life and erotic ad­ven­tures — is the sub­ject of the con­cisely ti­tled Sa­muel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revo­lu­tion at the Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum at Green­wich.

Art the­ory in the 17th cen­tury was marked by a fa­mous de­bate, be­gin­ning at the re­cently founded Acad­emy in Paris, over the pri­macy of line or colour in the art of paint­ing. The op­pos­ing par­ties ini­tially took Raphael and Ti­tian as their re­spec­tive he­roes, and later up­dated them to Poussin and Rubens. The de­bate was re­newed in the mid-19th cen­tury be­tween the ex­po­nents of neo­clas­si­cism and ro­man­ti­cism, and it hap­pens that the two mod­ern cham­pi­ons of line and colour are each sur­veyed in ex­hi­bi­tions on op­po­site sides of the At­lantic.

In­gres, the mas­ter of line, is the sub­ject of what is de­scribed as the first mono­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion of his work in Spain, at the Prado in Madrid. Mean­while, Delacroix, the hero of Charles Baude­laire, greatly ad­mired by Manet and Whistler and con­sid­ered the cham­pion of younger artists such as those who would later be­come the im­pres­sion­ists, is cel­e­brated at the Min­neapo­lis In­sti­tute of Arts. As the ti­tle of show sug­gests, Delacroix’s In­flu­ence: The Rise of Mod­ern Art from Cezanne to van Gogh, while in­clud­ing 30 of the artist’s paint­ings, also seeks to demon­strate why he was con­sid­ered the leader of the moderns.

This ex­hi­bi­tion will move to the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don in Fe­bru­ary, but in the mean­time the gallery is show­ing an out­stand­ing sur­vey of Goya’s por­traits. As with his great pre­de­ces­sor Ve­lazquez, por­trai­ture rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant part of Goya’s oeu­vre, and of­fi­cial por­traits at that. And yet, like Ve­lazquez, he man­ages to in­fuse a deep and of­ten dis­qui­et­ing sense of real, vul­ner­a­ble and im­per­fect hu­man­ity even into por­traits of the royal fam­ily.

Con­tem­po­rary with Goya, but an ut­terly dif­fer­ent painter, was Elis­a­beth Louise Vigee Le Brun, the most cel­e­brated fe­male artist of the 18th cen­tury and per­sonal painter to French queen Marie An­toinette. Her work is sur­veyed at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Two ex­hi­bi­tions deal with moral am­bi­gu­i­ties of the 18th and 19th cen­turies, the first draw­ing its ti­tle from Choder­los de La­c­los’s grip­ping and seem­ingly amoral epis­to­lary novel Les Li­aisons dan­gereuses (1782), best known to English­s­peak­ing au­di­ences to­day from its stage adap­ta­tion and a film with John Malkovitch and Glenn Close (1988). Dan­ger­ous Li­aisons, at the Liebieghaus in Frank­furt, will fo­cus on new ideas and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of sen­ti­men­tal love in the sec­ond half of the 18th cen­tury.

The other ex­hi­bi­tion also draws its ti­tle from a fa­mous novel, Balzac’s Splen­deurs et mis­eres des cour­tisanes (1838-47), one of the main pil­lars of the im­mensely long se­ries known as La Co- me­die hu­maine. The ex­hi­bi­tion, at the Musee d’Or­say, is ti­tled Splen­deurs et Mis­eres and sub­ti­tled Im­ages of Pros­ti­tu­tion, 1850-1910. Manet’s Olympia is in­cluded, as well as many works by the artists best known for their in­ter­est in the sub­ject, De­gas and Toulouse-Lautrec.

In the field of an­cient art, the Na­tional Gallery in Wash­ing­ton has Power and Pathos, a sur­vey of bronze sculp­ture in the Hel­lenis­tic world, which was pre­vi­ously shown at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and then the Getty in Mal­ibu, from tomorrow to March. The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum in New York has an ex­hi­bi­tion called An­cient Egypt Trans­formed: The Mid­dle King­dom, cov­er­ing the pe­riod from about 2000 to 1700BC, which was one of im­por­tant changes, as the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ti­tle sug­gests, in­clud­ing an im­plicit open­ing of the af­ter­life to the broader pop­u­la­tion and not only the aris­toc­racy.

Three other ex­hi­bi­tions con­sider less fa­mil­iar his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods: the Museo Thyssen-Borne­misza in Madrid is show­ing The Il­lu­sion of the Amer­i­can Fron­tier, which looks at the way the west­ward ex­pan­sion of the US was imag­ined, in­clud­ing the ro­man­ti­ci­sa­tion of pi­o­neers and cow­boys and mixed at­ti­tudes to­wards Na­tive Amer­i­cans. The en­counter with tribal peo­ples and ex­otic cul­tures is also the sub­ject of an im­por­tant ex­hi­bi­tion at the Tate: Artist and Em­pire, de­scribed by The Guardian as “awe-in­spir­ing”, presents art, arte­facts and doc­u­ments from the 16th cen­tury to the present day.

In Aus­tralia, the most im­por­tant show of great paint­ings and draw­ings is un­doubt­edly the Art Gallery of NSW’s Mas­ter­pieces from the Na­tional Gal­leries of Scot­land, even if it has been rather in­eptly mar­keted un­der the ti­tle of The Greats. It will be a pity if the gallery fails to achieve the num­bers the ex­hi­bi­tion de­serves, be­cause it con­tains both paint­ings and draw­ings of a qual­ity sel­dom found in the usual run of block­busters.

In the field of Aus­tralian art, by far the most sig­nif­i­cant ex­hi­bi­tion is the new sur­vey of Tom Roberts, the leader of the Hei­del­berg school, which con­ceived a new im­age of the na­tional land­scape in the decades be­fore Fed­er­a­tion, and who was also a tal­ented painter of fig­ure sub­jects — Shear­ing the Rams be­ing his most cel­e­brated can­vas — and the best Aus­tralian por­traitist of his time. This tal­ent led to the com­mis­sion to paint a mon­u­men­tal com­mem­o­ra­tive group por­trait of the dig­ni­taries who at­tended the open­ing of the first Aus­tralian par­lia­ment af­ter Fed­er­a­tion. The pic­ture, which usu­ally hangs at Par­lia­ment House, has been dis­man­tled and moved with some dif­fi­culty, and, though not the best ex­am­ple of Roberts’s work, will nonethe­less be a high­light of the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia.

In the in­ter­na­tional field, the mas­sively hyped dou­ble ex­hi­bi­tion of Andy Warhol and Ai Wei­wei at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria will be an in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­nity to see whether there is a real affin­ity, and not merely an op­por­tunis­tic meet­ing of brands, be­tween th­ese two artists. Gil­bert & Ge­orge, at the Mu­seum of Old and New Art in Ho­bart, mean­while, also of­fers an ex­am­ple of how much the con­tem­po­rary art busi­ness can make from very lit­tle, as long as one per­sists, and keeps a straight face.

There are, how­ever, some less heav­ily pro­moted but per­haps more in­ter­est­ing ex­hi­bi­tions through­out the sum­mer. Next week I will be discussing The En­clave, Richard Mosse’s har­row­ing vi­sion of the hell that is Congo to­day, loosely in­spired by Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness.

Charles Wi­mar’s El ras­tro per­dido from The Il­lu­sion of the Amer­i­can Fron­tier in Madrid

A Cor­nelis Biss­chop self-por­trait, part of

Dutch Self-por­traits at the Mau­rit­shuis in The Hague, left; a work from Bot­ti­celli Reimag­ined at Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, above

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