Today I went with my mother to the Alexander The Great: 2000 Years of Treasures exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Mum brought us to this museum pretty much every school holiday when we were young. We’d be set up with a clipboard and fact sheet to fill in, then mum would go off to do her research (something geological presumably) while we explored. There was a beautiful minerals collection and dinosaur skeletons and a mummy in a sarcophagus and lots more wonders, plus high ceilings, tiled floors, polished wood and a huge staircase – I loved it. After a few hours of fun and interest we’d go up to the cafeteria to meet mum for lunch. It was only in the last few years I learned mum’s “research” involved going straight to the cafeteria, a cup of tea, a good book, feet up and some peace from the five of us!
This part of the complex didn’t exist in those days. Stonework from various phases of building from the 1840s to 1910 is seen here next to a 1980s addition (the sections from 1963 and 2008 aren’t in shot).
The Alexander exhibition is from the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg – around 350 items dating from before 500 BCE to the 1840s. To be honest I was overwhelmed. I don’t have a mental frame of reference to understand what I was looking at, I’m not familiar with the sweep of history. I tried to read everything, watch the videos, concentrate on the lines of each piece – and I got lost. After maybe 90 minutes we stopped for lunch (the cafeteria has moved in the last 30 to 40 years 🙂 ).
After lunch I took a different approach. I dug out a little sketchbook and a biro, then wandered through the exhibition just looking. If something took my eye I’d try a quick sketch, take a couple of notes. Some were things I thought could be translated into motifs in a textile. I was also attracted to lines of drapery (lots to choose from in that category).
Paintings on vases, amphora etc were interesting. Most of the large statues seemed to be warriors, philosophers or gods in idealised, heroic poses. It was refreshing to find on a vase a woman, resplendent in jewels, leaning languidly on a pillar.
There were a number of textiles, quite a few small woven tapestries in linen and wool from the 4th and 5th centuries AD. There was also a massive tapestry from the late 1600s, Alexander the Great and the family of Darius, which was one of three interpretations in the exhibition of the same painting – the others being an engraving and an enamelled wine goblet. A major irritation was caused by the labelling of a woven panel that was block printed. The accompanying sign called it a tapestry (many exclamation marks of horror!) (note: just checked the catalogue and it’s OK).
I’m planning to take Understanding Art 1: Western Art as my next OCA course, and today’s experience has made me even more keen to complete my current project. Alexander is on until late April and I would love to see it again with a bit more knowledge and understanding.