Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Af­ter some years of go­ing nowhere, the project to ex­pand Syd­ney’s Art Gallery of NSW has fi­nally been granted fund­ing by the NSW govern­ment. But the plans are sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent from the over­sized de­sign lam­pooned by Paul Keat­ing in 2015 as “a gi­gan­tic spoof”, a “megaplex” in­tended for events and con­fer­ences and lack­ing any “con­tained gallery spa­ces”.

In the end, a way for­ward seems to have been found by the gallery’s chair­man, the ubiq­ui­tous and ca­pa­ble David Gon­ski, in con­sul­ta­tion with Keat­ing him­self. The mod­i­fied de­sign is much smaller, no longer abuts the original build­ing or sprawls across the land bridge over the Cahill Ex­press­way, but sits on the other side of the road and over dis­used World War II oil tanks that will be in­cor­po­rated into the ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces.

In the artists’ im­pres­sions that have been re­leased, the oil tank gallery looks much more sug­ges­tive than the glass boxes pro­posed above ground. It re­calls David Walsh’s Mu­seum of Old and New Art in Hobart, eas­ily the most cel­e­brated new mu­seum build­ing in Aus­tralia for many years, and en­tirely built un­der­ground: this was a bold choice at the time, but it is in­her­ent to the ethos of the mu­seum and has proved one of its great­est at­trac­tions for vis­i­tors.

The cafe at MONA is rightly sited above to take ad­van­tage of the mag­nif­i­cent views of wa­ter and moun­tains all around. But ex­hi­bi­tion gal­leries are not view­ing plat­forms; not places to look out­ward but in­ward. They should help us fo­cus our at­ten­tion on the ob­jects dis­played, en­cour­ag­ing us to ad­just to the scale, the mood and even the tempo of par­tic­u­lar works.

As it hap­pens, Peter Rais­sis’s ex­hi­bi­tion of Vic­to­rian wa­ter­colours pro­vides an ob­ject les­son in such prin­ci­ples of ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign, and for­tu­itously at the AGNSW it­self. Two large gal­leries in the so-called Old Courts, the ones usu­ally de­voted to the dis­play of Euro­pean art be­fore 1800, have been re­painted in a deep crim­son, which is far more sym­pa­thetic to the spirit of the ar­chi­tec­ture as well as to the pe­riod of the works dis­played than their pre­vi­ous neu­tral off-white.

At one end is the small room con­tain­ing some of the most pre­cious of the early paint­ings, in­clud­ing works by Rubens and Claude Lor­rain; at the other, enor­mous vel­vet cur­tains drawn back in swags open on to the gallery’s col­lec­tion of late neo­clas­si­cal and Vic­to­rian mar­ble stat­ues of mytho­log­i­cal fig­ures. There is a the­atri­cal qual­ity to this cur­tain that makes the de­sign art­fully neo-tra­di­tional and thus oddly more con­tem­po­rary than the mod­ernist bland­ness of the gal­leries next door.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is de­voted to wa­ter­colours pro­duced in Eng­land in the 19th cen­tury, in­clud­ing a num­ber from the Ge­or­gian pe­riod be­fore the be­gin­ning of Queen Vic­to­ria’s long reign (1837-1901). It is an ab­sorb­ing col­lec­tion that says much about Bri­tish art in the 19th cen­tury, not only in its sub­ject mat­ter but in its choice of medium and in the uses to which that medium is put.

All paints are a mixture of pig­ments with some kind of liq­uid binder that makes it pos­si­ble to ap­ply them, but then dries to leave a durable im­age. In the case of wa­ter­colour, pig­ments are es­sen­tially mixed with glue and can be di­luted Vic­to­rian Wa­ter­colours Art Gallery of NSW, Syd­ney. Un­til December 3 with wa­ter for ap­pli­ca­tion on an ab­sorbent sur­face such as pa­per. Wa­ter read­ily evap­o­rates, leav­ing the dry im­age be­hind. Wa­ter­colour is trans­par­ent, but the ad­di­tion of chalk turns it into the opaque ver­sion known as gouache.

A Seat in St James’s Park (1869) by Ge­orge John Pinwell, left; Bre­ton Peas­ant Girl (c. 1870s) by Jules Trayer, be­low left

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