UA1-WA:P2-p1 Visit to an art gallery – National Gallery of Victoria

This task asks for a visit to an art gallery, focusing on the gallery itself. I chose to fly down to Melbourne for a few days to visit the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

To address two slightly confusing aspects of the name: The NGV was established in 1861, forty years before the Federation of Australia, so the “National” part refers to the self-governing colony of Victoria. Secondly, “the Gallery” is actually two buildings separated by the Yarra River.

ngv_01On the southern side is NGV International. Designed by Sir Roy Grounds in 1968, between 1999 amd 2003 the building was redeveloped and designed by Mario Bellini. There was a further renewal for NGV’s 150th birthday in 2011, with a series of new and redesigned spaces opened.

ngv_02Standing at the entrance to NGV International one can’t quite see The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, which is the other side of the road and the other side of the river, at the edge of the CBD.

ngv_3NGV Australia is in one of a cluster of buildings in Federation Square. Opened in 2002, it was designed by architects Lab Architecture Studio in association with Bates Smart Melbourne.

Before moving inside, I need to thank NGV staff in the Publications department for providing images of some of the artworks and also taking the time to vet some of my own photos for use on this blog. Although visitors can take photos for their own use in non-restricted areas generally these can’t be displayed on a personal website. The photos I’m showing are general views and don’t include any copyright works, so NGV has very kindly approved their use.

ngv_planA rough and simplified plan of NGV International. I think there are four levels at least partly open to the public. The red square in the middle is a full height void. The red at the back is a Hall with a beautiful stained glass ceiling by Leonard French (a small photo of one of his windows at the National Library in Canberra is in a post from 13-April-2013). Grey at the front is a mix of services, escalators etc. The blue is gallery space and the green also galleries, but at half levels reached by ramps (which had me very confused at first). I hardly ventured into the left half of the building. There was a special Monet exhibition in part and also the 19th century and later. My focus was fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, on the right.

ngv_03ngv_interior_5The walk beside the water along that long, undecorated wall starts to build a sense of anticipation, then at last you are through the arch and into the dark interior looking back at a wall of water.

ngv_interior_1The space closes in, then opens out again in the bright central void with those lovely shadows. This photo is actually quite misleading. There were crowds of people around, and the floor of the void was almost filled by clinamen by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (see http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/celeste-boursier-mougenot-clinamen). In this work white porcelain bowls of various sizes float around in a shallow round pool of intense aqua blue. The bowls strike against each other, sounding like small gongs. Given its proximity to the Monet’s Garden exhibition, thoughts of serene musical lily ponds were inevitable.

ngv_interior_7I resisted the siren call of the Garden and went up an escalator, enjoying the lines and shapes created by the architecture. What could have been a simple balcony with the focus on the void below on the left became much more interesting, its own space – although by this stage I was becoming impatient to reach the artworks I had come to see.

ngv_interior_4Below is one of three rooms in one of those mezzanine levels (green on my little diagram above). The room is large, the art works given space and consideration. Lighting overall was very good – no works in dark corners and very few annoying reflections even in works framed behind glass. In this room directional lighting created some lovely shadows around the central sculpture. One thing missing here was seating. There was some in one of the adjoining rooms, but overall seating was sparse.

NGV International is generally organised by period. The room above holds sixteenth to seventeenth century art and design. Within that framework thought has clearly been given to the grouping of individual works.

Perino del Vaga The Holy Family  (c. 1545-1546) Image provided by NGV

Perino del Vaga
The Holy Family
(c. 1545-1546)
Image provided by NGV
www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4429

Annibale Carracci The Holy Family  (c. 1589)

Annibale Carracci
The Holy Family
(c. 1589)
Image provided by NGV
www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/3835

For example to the left in the far corner of the room is The Holy Family by Perino del Vaga.

On the right of the corner is the same subject by Carracci.

I found each painting interesting in its own right, but being able to compare the two – the same subject, both by Italian painters, both in oils (the del Vaga on wood panel, the Carracci on canvas), painted less than fifty years apart – really enhanced the experience.

Vaga_line_sketchI find the composition by Perino del Vaga very dynamic. There are lots of diagonal lines repeating across the image, the Child is clambering up Mary, the cloth around His lower body flipping up in the energy of the movement. The flesh is rounded, modelled using chiaroscuro, and I love the little touch of reflected light on the underside of the Child’s right thigh. The figure of Joseph is interesting. Although clearly subsidiary to the main triangle focus of Mother and Child, Joseph is involved, part of the family, his face turned towards them as he observes their shared gaze. Joseph’s hands holding his staff look capable, and I think I can see lines that echo those diagonals of the main image. This is quite different to another Perino del Vaga Holy Family painting I found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see http://www.metmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/listings/2011/perino-del-vaga). There Joseph is looking away to the side, his hands look more closed. In the audio file at that link curator Andrea Bayer mentions how separate and disconnected that Joseph appears.

carracci_line_sketchThe Carracci version is much more solid and stable. The vertical of Mary’s veil and upper arm combines with the strong, stable horizontal of her supporting forearm to create a frame within the frame of the image, both static and excluding Joseph. There is a rhythm of curves in Mother and Child, but they do not create movement. The Child rests his heavy head on Mary’s shoulder, passive.

Both paintings have an view to the outside at the upper right . In del Vaga’s work it is hardly visible. In Carracci’s there is a stormy sky and trees – foreshadowing Gethsemane perhaps? Both works have warm dark tones in the background, lighter tones in the skin. Both have red in Mary’s dress, but del Vaga adds greens in her cloak and Joseph’s garment, while in Carracci’s work the mustard yellow of Joseph’s cloak is repeated in the trees outside. Del Vaga’s Madonna shows a Classical influence in her hair and clothes. The image appears elegant, refined, polished. Carracci’s family seem more robust and solid, more real and less idealised than the earlier work.

Going back to the gallery itself, in the general view above you may be able to see the small plaques of information next to each artwork. These always included the names of the artist and the work, media, date and acquisition credit (bequest etc). For most works there was additional information, some background and context for artist and/or work. Occasionally a work would get extended information, for example a protrait of Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara by Dosso Dossi and Battista Dossi (attributed to) (see http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/3746) gave quite a detailed back-story. In some rooms information highlighting themes or general movements was given. I found the overall amount of information given suited me very well – enough to keep me interested and a little informed, without being overwhelming.

ngv_interior_6Another example of curatorial decisions enhancing the experience can be seen here in one of the 17th to 18th century Art & Design rooms. On the left is Still life with fruit (c. 1640 – 1650) by Jan Davidsz de Heem (see http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/4023). On the right is a cabinet with a display of items similar to those in the still life – fluted glasses, a silver-gilt standing cup and cover, a Ming dynasty porcelain basin. I won’t go into detail here (still life is included in a later assignment), but I enjoyed the combination of actual items and the painted image.

ngv_interior_2You might have noticed in the earlier photos that the walls in those areas of NGV are lightly coloured. A series of very large rooms have much stronger colour on the walls. Given the size of the works on display and the space given to them, I think they can handle it. The largest work shown here, by Poussin, is over two metres wide. Even the “small” work by Gentileschi to its right is about 1.6 metres wide.

On the days I visited the Gallery these rooms always felt quiet and empty, so there were no issues in wandering around, backtracking, or oscillating between close and distant views for twenty or thirty minutes in front of a single work. In part that feeling was probably due to the size of the rooms – there were people around, just it would take hundreds to feel like a crowd.

The situation was different over in the 19th-20th century Art & Design – a lot more people and in the first few rooms white walls and works I think hung a bit closer together. I peeped around a corner and saw a room that was hung more in the Salon style, with paintings hung close together and stacked four or more rows high up the walls, but I didn’t explore – my focus for the trip was the older works.

ngv_interior_3One thing I found slightly strange while navigating NGV International was the Mezzanine levels. They were boxes separated from the main gallery level by the ramp going up and down. At first I didn’t even realise there was anything interesting in that area – it looked like glass doors going to a service area of some kind, no artworks visible to tempt you in to see what you could find. It also interrupted the flow of moving through the rooms, needing you to backtrack along the featureless passage or continue to the next main level breaking your overall progression. The long days of gallery exploration combined with the low level of seat availability had my feet and ankles complaining, and any extra walking was not welcomed. Clearly the designers of the building see advantages to this arrangement that I don’t. It did create a kind of light-well effect in the centre of the building (the ramps are translucent), but not much was made of this in the main gallery areas.

A second gripe is the website http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/. There is a lot of good information there, but I seem to trip over it rather than navigate to it. When I was planning my visit I was interested in works in the fifteenth to seventeenth century, but couldn’t find an advanced search to help me find them. Just now I tried “Channel”, which turns out to mean audio and video files. Maybe I just need to learn the language. It’s just that I end up feeling there is lots there that could help me, if only I knew how to access it.

At the risk of being indelicate, another important issue – for women, a single cubicle in the restrooms isn’t enough. Yes there are more along and around the corner or downstairs, but … who ever thought one was a good idea?

A plus for the gallery that goes beyond the architecture, collection and curating is the staff. I didn’t meet anyone unhelpful, and a few went above and beyond – a security man who obviously has a lot of knowledge about the collection and its stories, and when I showed interest in one work told me of another I’d really like to see then took me to it (he was right that I would find it interesting); staff in the bookshop who searched high and low to find a particular NGV publication I wanted (successfully!); and of course the publications department, who very quick and accommodating in getting images and permissions to me.

It’s interesting to compare NGV with the Art Gallery of South Australia which I visited earlier this year (see 5-May-2013). NGV has a very logical approach – manage the two locations by splitting Australian and International art, then within International organise overall by period with a few takeouts for things like Fashion & Textiles and some Asian areas. For this visit this was great for me – I wanted Western art of a particular period and it was all conveniently grouped. On the other hand South Australia hung part of its collection by theme and on an open exploratory visit that was mind blowing, the juxtapositions and interactions made me see works with new eyes. Very exciting. Different buildings, different collections, different strategies. I like both. I just wish they were closer to Sydney.

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Visit to an art gallery – National Gallery of Victoria
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Topic: Visit to an art gallery

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