DES­TI­NA­TION AUS­TRALIA Paint the town

Bris­bane is the per­fect venue for in­ter­na­tional art ex­hi­bi­tions, writes Ju­dith Elen

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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