The NGV celebrates its 50th birthday by stepping back in time.
ON AUGUST 21, 1968, the new St Kilda Road premises of the National Gallery of Victoria opened their doors to the public for the first time. The imposing, Brutalist construction had taken six years and $14 million to complete and was now the largest art gallery in the country. But the inaugural show in the NGV’S temporary exhibitions hall seemed, at first glance, to shirk this grandeur. A blockbusting showcase of a megastar or a survey of trueblue Australiana might have been a more obvious curtain-raiser. But instead, curators John Stringer and Brian Finemore elected to champion 40 emerging Australian artists working in bold, contemporary practices, largely influenced by the hard-edged, postpainterly movements thriving in America at the time. The contentious show was titled
The Field. “Many of the artists, nearly half of them, were under 30; Robert Hunter was the youngest at 21. And very few of them had ever had solo exhibitions, let alone had their work hung at a national institution,” explains Beckett Rozentals, curator of contemporary Australian painting, sculpture and decorative arts at the NGV. “The exhibition was quite divisive, and its reception was varied.” Some attacked the work for its childlike simplicity, while others waxed lyrical about its defiant rejection of predictable potboilers. Ironically, it’s precisely this friction, and the generations of artists inspired by it, that has proven The
Field to be a watershed event. Five decades on, as the NGV’S St Kilda home celebrates its half-century, art lovers will be able to experience this landmark show first hand. But bringing The Field back to the gallery after 50 years has been no easy task. As the remount’s co-curator, working alongside NGV director Tony Ellwood, Rozentals has had to channel her inner detective to discover the fate of the 74 artworks exhibited in 1968. “We began by looking at our own collection; we had three. So it was three down, 71 to go. We’ve found them as close as St Kilda Road, right next door to the NGV, and as far away as Perth. It’s taken four years of searching, but the importance of this exhibition really can’t be overstated.” ■ ÀNGV Australia, Federation Square, Melbourne 3000. 03 8620 2222. www.ngv.vic.gov.au. Daily 10am-5pm. Free. Apr 27-Aug 26.
Thefield in 1968