Revealed: 500 years of making masterpieces

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Installation view: Vincent van Gogh “Sunflowers”, 1888. Image courtesy The National Gallery, London

THE National Gallery of Australia is onto a sure thing with its coming blockbuster, “Botticelli to van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London”.

Exclusive to Canberra, the exhibition postponed from late last year because of COVID-19 will now open to the public from March 5, spanning 500 years of art-making with works by 57 of Europe’s most revered artists, now set in “the safe and pristine surroundings of the national capital” – what’s not to like?

Sally Foster, the NGA’s coordinating curator for the show and curator, international prints, drawings and books, is run off her feet when I catch up with her.

“The marketing people, registration, design – everyone here on the team is working hard – it feels like a cast of thousands, although it’s not, literally,” she says during a quick lunch break.

It’s been five years since London’s National Gallery started on the project, originally designed as a handshake of diplomacy with Japan during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Despite covid, it did show in Tokyo and Osaka, to limited audiences.

The director of the National Gallery, London, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, says, “To walk through the National Gallery is to journey through the history of picture-making in Western Europe”, noting that it’s the largest group of works to travel outside the UK in the gallery’s history and that “Sunflowers” has only been lent outside the British capital on two occasions since its acquisition.

Vincent van Gogh, “Sunflowers”, 1888. The National Gallery, London.

The NGA’s Nick Mitzevich says there’s never been a better time to bring the joy and inspiration of a work like “Sunflowers” to Australian audiences.

The paintings won’t all be flown at once – that’s impossible because of insurance – and will be staggered over a period but as Foster says, “it’s such a professional operation at the National Gallery in London, which has moved logically through this enormous task, that there is no possibility there’d be damage to such precious works – it’s a special art how to pace them.”

The main drawcard, she says, is obvious.

“This is a collection from London of some of the world’s most famous artworks… it is exclusive to Canberra and it’s an option for Australians who normally can’t get to London to see the real masterpieces you see in all the books, and in a time when people who normally do go to London can’t go either.”

National Gallery, London. Image courtesy The National Gallery, London.

Foster is well aware that the setting for the exhibition is very different from that in the venerable English gallery, which holds works up to the end of the 19th century, when the Tate Gallery takes over.

“Here at the NGA, we have a modernist gallery, so our exhibition will be simple, elegant and refined… the labels will be written to be clear for Australian viewers rather than English people,” she says.

But the look of the exhibition is a well-kept secret, so there are no hints as to what colour palette senior exhibitions officer Daryl West-Moore and NGA director Nick Mitzevich have gone for, though they’ve been putting up swatches all over the place.

Paul Cézanne, “Hillside in Provence”, c1890–92. The National Gallery, London.

We do know, however, the scope of the exhibition will include works by Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, Goya, Turner, Renoir, Cézanne and Gauguin, explored in seven rooms under the headings: the Italian Renaissance; Dutch Painting of the Golden Age; Van Dyck and British Portraiture; the Grand Tour; Spanish Art from the 17th Century; Landscape and the Picturesque; and the Birth of Modern Art.

Installation view: Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self Portrait at the Age of 34”, 1640 © The National Gallery, London. Image courtesy The National Gallery, London.

Highlights will include Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait at the Age of 34” 1640, Vermeer’s “A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” c.1670 and van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, 1888.

In other words, as Foster puts it, “This is art history 101… all curators have studied this history and now it’s all on display for visitors to see”.

It definitely won’t be going anywhere else in the region and the NGA has refined its expertise in creating a covid-safe exhibition, with timed ticketing meaning, Foster says, that “visitors will be fortunate enough to be able to see the paintings clearly, not the way it is when the big blockbusters are so crowded”.

Every travelling exhibition has a local coordinating curator and she considers herself “very privileged to have been chosen”.

“I will be the overseer, but I’m also responsible for the writing of the very beautiful catalogue, choosing the writers from Australia has been my job,” says Foster.

She’s also been responsible for any writing to do with the show, liaising with the curatorial team and marketing to ensure that information is correct while preparing to do a lot of talking in the public programs associated with this show.

As for whether she has a favourite painting, Foster says, “I know it will change as we open the crates and see the paintings, but it’s the self-portrait of Rembrandt aged 34 I’m really excited to see – and there’s also a beautiful, tiny, early Renaissance painting by Paolo Uccello.”

“Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London”, National Gallery of Australia, March 5-June 14. To book timed tickets, visit nga.gov.au

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