Seeing the ‘Big Picture’ – Roberts blockbuster for the NGA

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IN announcing a radical departure of the National Gallery of Australia’s usual approach to summer-time blockbusters, a major show of works by Australian artist Tom Roberts, its director, Gerard Vaughan, said the gallery would be paying a debt to “one of Australia’s greatest artists.”

Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901 painted Melbourne 1901–02, finished in London, 1903 oil on canvas, Royal Collection, presented by the Commonwealth in 1904, on permanent loan to Parliament House, Canberra.
Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (later H.M. King George V), May 9, 1901 painted Melbourne 1901–02, finished in London, 1903 oil on canvas, Royal Collection, presented by the Commonwealth in 1904, on permanent loan to Parliament House, Canberra.

On hand for the announcement was the Federal Arts Minister George Brandis, who quipped that it was a greater pleasure that he could convey to be away from Parliament House.

In that respect he was just the same as the coming exhibition’s highlight, the portrayal by Roberts of the opening of the Australian Parliament.

The ‘Big Picture’, as the painting is affectionately known, is the property of Queen Elizabeth, but on advice from Sir Robert Menzies it was permanently loaned to the Australian people and moved from St James’s Palace to old Parliament House. Although it had been relocated to the present Australian Parliament house in 1988, it was positioned in rather an obscure spot, Senator Brandis said.

Dr Vaughan and senator Brandis at the announcement
Dr Vaughan and senator Brandis at the announcement
Gallery staff installing a Roberts work
Gallery staff install a Roberts work

In his view, the planned move of the painting down the hill would allow people to see the Big Picture in all its detail, a reference to the fact that the 3 by 5 metre work includes recognisable portraits of 265 dignitaries at the Federation of Australia ceremony in May of 1901.

“It will be good to have it properly displayed,” he said.

When in 1903 Roberts told Alfred Deakin how he was proud to put his little bit into Australian history, he was speaking no less that the truth, Senator Brandis said, noting the way he captured the Australian colonial spirit.

“Gerard’s a great director,” Senator Brandis said as he also praised Dr Vaughan’s program to rehang the gallery, transferring the Australian collection downstairs to level I with the idea of enabling the public to enjoy seminal Australian works of art like “Bailed up” and “A break away!” which, like their international counterparts, would be hung thematically rather than chronologically.

For his part, Dr Vaughan expressed his excitement that this substantial exhibition, featuring over 130 paintings, pastels, drawings, prints and sculpture, would open up the twin themes of superb portraiture and great Australian narratives. He surprised those present by describing Tom Roberts as “a kind of cultural warrior” prepared publicly to take on the arts establishment when it criticised moves by younger ‘plein air’ painters to convey the familiar beauty of our country.

Dr Vaughan said he hoped that the authoritative catalogue produced under the watchful eye of curator Anna Gray, would be distributed into every school in Australia.

Regarding flagged changes at the gallery he said, “Every time you visit the gallery there will be new discoveries as we constantly revitalise the galleries dedicated to the permanent collection.” While many favourites and highlights would remain, there would also be new works to see. International artworks, including Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” (1952), would move upstairs.

“Tom Roberts” opens at the NGA on December 4 and runs until March 28. Bookings to Ticketek.com.au

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