Appreciating Tom Roberts – ‘you don’t have to be a snob’

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“TOM ROBERTS changed the face of painting in Australia,” National Gallery of Australia director Gerard Vaughan told the assembled media this morning when, flanked by ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr and star of the TV show “The Mentalist” Simon Baker, he unveiled the coming summer blockbuster exhibition, “Tom Roberts.”

l ro r, Vaughan, Anna Gray, Baker, Barr
l to r, Gerard Vaughan, Anna Gray, Simon Baker and Andrew Barr

The exhibition includes more than 130 paintings, pastels, drawings, prints and sculpture from Roberts’ 60 year career. His national narratives, the gallery says, show the unique character of the Australian bush and urban life.

Previewing the paintings
Previewing the paintings

Dr Vaughan also invited the media to look around them while they were there and see how Australians art had been brought downstairs to sit alongside indigenous art, while the international collection had been taken upstairs into wide open spaces created by removing some intervening walls.

Chief Minister Barr expressed his pleasure that the ACT Government had been able to partner with the Gallery once again, but reminded a questioner that funding for the construction of the NGA Stage 2 building would be the responsibility of the Federal government.

Describing Canberra as the home of Australian art, he noted that we name streets after artists like Charles Conder and Tom Roberts.

Simon Baker, introduced by Dr Vaughan as the Gallery’s newest ambassador, called himself “just an ordinary punter,” reflecting on his years as a schoolchild in Queensland where he’d seen Roberts’ “Shearing the rams” and many Drysdale paintings in books, only later realising through the influence of his wife just how much better it was to see the real thing.

The exhibition shop, a Roberts-era emporium
The exhibition shop, a Roberts-era emporium

Now an avowed art lover, though not a collector, Baker said that he liked the way there was a story within each picture. To appreciate the exhibition, he said, “You don’t have to be an art historian, you don’t have to be a snob.”

In children's room - tablets ready for action in front of Roberts' 'rocks'
In children’s room – tablets ready for action in front of Roberts’ ‘rocks’

Dr Vaughan said the exhibition would not travel further than Canberra, explaining that the show contained “an enormous collection of paintings, many from the NGA itself but many from elsewhere. Galleries like the National Gallery of Victoria had been generous in lending paintings and curator Anna Gray had been indefatigable in securing loans from private collections, but owners were understandably not keen to have their works away from their own walls for long.

Dr Vaughan said that the gallery had been a pains to ensure that younger visitors, whether part of the many schools’ excursions already booked in, or as individuals, or as members of families, could find Australian narratives to interest them. He pointed to the children’s gallery full of hands-on activities. Gallery staff later pointed out to “Citynews” that entry is free to people under the age of 16 and introduced us to an app where young people could cut-and-paste Roberts’ paintings and see them up on screen.

Asked for his impressions of Canberra, Baker, who denied one questioner’s description of him as “a Hollywood superstar,” said he counted among the national capital’s attractions its closeness to Sydney and the fact that with institutions like the National Film and Sound Archive and the NGA, it was “an artistic and cultural hub”. And yes, he’ll be back, “you can’t see everything in the gallery in one day,” he said.

‘Tom Roberts’ opens to the public at the NGA tomorrow, December 4 and runs until March 28 and tickets are on sale now through

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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