DESTINATION AUSTRALIA Paint the town
Brisbane is the perfect venue for international art exhibitions, writes Judith Elen
ROM my hotel room overlooking the Brisbane River, with the city skyline out of sight, the Queensland capital looks alluringly foreign. If this were a painting, the Story Bridge would be the focus, its vertical endpoints contrasting with the horizontal ribbon of water. But my eye wanders along the river’s meandering length, watching small city ferries plough doggedly from bank to bank, the pushy CityCats leaving them way behind and lone sailors making for shore in endof-day dinghies, their yachts secured midstream. As evening falls, the bridge is transmuted into a diadem laced with light and the river becomes a velvet backdrop for the night’s abstract lightshow.
I’m here to witness yet another of the city’s now regular high points. A one-off exhibition of American impressionist paintings is visiting the Queensland Art Gallery from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brisbane has netted some momentous exclusives in recent times, brokered by the 21/ year-old Gallery of Modern Art and its older sibling, the QAG next door:
and now which brings 71 paintings, previously unseen as an ensemble, from the MoMA.
The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Victoria all have their moments of glory with must-see imported exhibitions (until October 4, the last-mentioned is hosting the country’s first comprehensive Salvador Dali retrospective in its Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series). But this does seem to be Brisbane’s special time in the sun. demolishes old boundaries. Thinking of impressionism, the adjective French might seem redundant. But this exhibition is evidence of the flexibility of real life. The startling light of impressionism penetrated far and wide. These painters, born in the US, Australia, Scotland, England, Uruguay, New Zealand, Canada and Poland, settled in the US or Australia, were influenced and lured by Paris and often kept moving.
A timeline painted on the wall at the exhibition’s entrance lists Australian dates within a series of global moments that shape our lives today. Thomas Edison’s production of a working light bulb, the Wright brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk, votes for Australian women and the US stockmarket crash are lined up next to Coca-Cola’s first appearance and the invention of crayons. Ned Kelly was captured less than 20 years after the US Civil War, which began the same year the NGV was established. Some of the statistics give pause for thought. In 1930, when the residents of New York numbered close to seven million, Australia’s total population was 6.5 million.
These paintings, Australian and American, from the end of the 19th century into the 1920s, are visual evidence of the way ideas and events cast an influence way beyond their original borders. Another frontier focus of this exhibition is the dialogue the curators have staged between the artists, the Americans on three walls of each room and the Australians facing them in response.
Tasting things side by side is always revealing, whether it’s wine or artworks, and this mute conversation opens my eyes afresh on some familiar Australian works. I am amazed to see Charles Conder’s confident, individual vision next to some of the Americans. His luminous takes on a fresh significance, as does his deeply sombre
The beach scenes from both sides of the Pacific are further eye-openers.
American John Singer Sargent’s mesmerising portraits are at the eyecatching centre. The tall, rose-velvet clad Mrs Hugh Hammersley, wife of a London banker, inclining eagerly towards the viewer, her vitality seeming only just to be contained within the frame, is strategically placed, as if waiting at the end of a corridor as viewers walk between galleries. Sargent’s other strikingly vertical, narrow painting in the same room is of Mr and Mrs I. N. Phelps Stokes. In her long walking skirt and big-shouldered, mannish jacket, bow tie at her throat and straw boater held swaggeringly on her hip, she is the quintessential modern American woman of 1897. Mr Phelps Stokes lurks in the shadows at her back.
Sargent sums up the cross-border nature of these painters. A son of American parents, he was born in Italy, studied art in Paris, travelled around Europe and settled in London while still in his 30s. As does Australian Hugh Ramsay: born in Glasgow, he grew up in Melbourne, studied there and then in Paris (where he kept expatriates supplied with Australian novels), and moved to London in his 20s. Ramsay’s
is a painting full of rich detail and hidden story.
The Met curator Barbara Weinberg, co-curator of this exhibition, pleaded,
Please put that wonderful Ramsay next to the Sargent’’, when the layouts were first being discussed, she said at the opening. They have ended up on facing walls, but near the Ramsay is another mesmerising painting, American John White Alexander’s sinuous, reclining figure of a woman enveloped in voluminous white silk, a sleek black ribbon running from waist to hem. A solidly human figure, at the same time it forms a striking pattern of elegant abstract shapes. The sumptuously whitegowned women of the two paintings, by Ramsay and Alexander, speak to each other just as the curators wanted.
Broad brushstrokes: Sweeping view of the Queensland capital from a suite in the Stamford Plaza Brisbane
By the river: Stamford Plaza Brisbane STAMFORD Plaza Brisbane, fresh from a $10 million contemporary facelift, has managed, with its dark wood, rich fabrics and attentive service, to keep a comfortable gentlemen’s club feel. The refurbishment nevertheless includes up-to-the-minute touches, with wireless internet access, flat-screen LCD television, iPod connection and mini LCD TVs in bathrooms. The hotel is on the edge of the Brisbane River, above the Botanic Gardens and the Story Bridge, and its corridors run parallel to the city at its back, affording river views from all 252 guestrooms.
Dining is a feature, especially at Siggi’s in the hotel’s historic Post Office building; alfresco breakfast on the Brasserie’s riverside terrace is another high point. Rates start at $245 a night, plus GST. The Met Art Lover’s Package, valid to September 20, is $329 for two and includes overnight accommodation, buffet breakfast, parking and two tickets to
Friday, Saturday or Sunday night bookings include an upgrade to a deluxe room and bottle of Australian bubbly. More: www.stamford.com.au/spb. Judith Elen
The timeline that so intrigues me at the exhibition entrance sends echoes through a host of bonus activities for adults and children. At the edge of the exhibition rooms, an armchair resource centre has rare magazines and newspapers of the period, related art books and screening rooms showing New York documentaries.
Next door, in the Children’s Gallery, transfixed little ones drape themselves around floor and furniture, gazing at black-and-white screens showing Betty Boop, Felix the Cat and Popeye the Sailor. A special children’s timeline here lists the first animated appearance of Felix the Cat, created by Australian Pat Sullivan in the 1919
The era influence extends to the gallery’s extracurricular after-hours programs. The glamorous jazz era is a strong thread running through talks, music and films in The Met Up Late program, with live performers such as Paul Grabowsky and DJs playing Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald (Fridays, 5.30pm-9.30pm, until September 18).
Gatsby, the Godfathers and other movie characters appear in The Met Film Program’s The Age of Innocence series. There is also a free series of 1920s and 30s silent films, accompanied by live organ music, under the heading Hollywood on the Hudson (until September 20). And a themed Age of Innocence High Tea is on offer in the Foyer Bistro ($35; bookings necessary).
The two galleries are part of the Brisbane Cultural Centre, an enclave on the Brisbane River’s South Bank that includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the gleaming, modern state library and the Queensland Museum.
This morning I took one of those small city ferries I saw from my hotel window, to South Bank 1 & 2, a few minutes’ walk along the riverside and up some steps to the gallery. Now, back at the river and in Huckleberry Finn mood, I decide to walk back to my hotel above the Botanic Gardens. This involves strolling the length of the South Bank Parklands that run beside the water, crossing the river by footbridge to the Botanic Gardens Path, and then walking up through the greenery to heritage-packed Alice Street.
I skirt the river bank along a walkway through mangroves where waterbirds are busy in the foliage. Brisbane’s riverscape is a territory full of surprises just waiting to be explored. Judith Elen was a guest of Tourism Queensland and Stamford Plaza Brisbane. www.experiencebrisbane.com www.qag.qld.gov.au www.queenslandholidays.com.au