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