With international travel off the cards, the National Gallery of Australia is hoping Australians will make a cultural pilgrimage to Canberra this autumn to see the new blockbuster Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London.
An occasion four years in the making, it’s the first time the National Gallery, London has put an exhibition on the road containing their collection as usually they would lend only an item or two at a time.
Open Friday 5 March until Monday 14 June, Botticelli to Van Gogh is a display of 61 masterpieces from 56 artists covering over 500 years of Western European art.
The body of work coming to Canberra coincides with a once-in-50-years occurrence that these paintings aren’t hanging at the National Gallery, London.
“We took the opportunity to be able to borrow the works during their own renovation period, so it’s a once in 50-years time that these would come off the permanent walls,” NGA director Nick Mitzevich told Canberra Weekly.
“One of our guiding principles is to bring the best art to Australia … These artists are on the walls because they changed art history.”
Coming together amidst the disruption COVID has had on international travel, Mitzevich said the Gallery has “worked very closely to define and orchestrate every step of the movement to the work going onto the wall” with their colleagues in London.
“At the heart of it was making sure that we could move the works safely,” he said.
“Every step of the way from the work coming off the walls at the National Gallery [London] to being put into a commissioned crate that transports the work, to making sure that every element of that work doesn’t vibrate or move.”
The exquisite paintings are expertly illuminated by new lighting installed into the Gallery’s temporary exhibition space as part of a $5 million renovation.
“We thought if it was appropriate to bring an exhibition of this magnitude to Australia, we ourselves needed to be able to present them in the best way possible,” Mitzevich said.
Botticelli to Van Gogh a story, narrative and masterclass
Botticelli to Van Gogh takes visitors on a journey through the history of Western European art through seven themed rooms.
“Each work leads to the next, it’s a story and a narrative but also a masterclass defining time and place,” Mitzevich said.
“When you visit this exhibition, you don’t need to have an art history knowledge, we hopefully step you through the major points in history and time.”
The first room is a showcase of early Italian Renaissance painting, where the innovation and metamorphosis of that era is visible.
Following that is the Dutch paintings room. Featuring portraiture, still life and landscape paintings, it includes one of the most recognisable works of Western European art, Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Age of 34.
“I feel like I’m looking into the eyes of the artist,” coordinating curator Sally Foster said of the work.
“You see the power of the subject, how paint and canvas can come to life in three dimensions. This portrait is unsurpassed in art history.”
Following that is a room of British portraiture. It is through these commissioned works, Foster says, that the British aristocracy built an image of prestige and status they still hold in the eyes of many to this day.
In that time, circa the 17th and 18th centuries, the British aristocracy would take a “grand tour” of Italy, often bringing back an exquisite painting of themselves on location.
“People wanted to come back with beautiful souvenirs; they’re not postcards, that’s for sure,” Foster smiled.
The next room features their collection of Spanish art. Described as “an acquired taste”, both Foster and Mitzevich emphasised the influence of Spanish art on the neighbouring French artists of the impressionist and post-impressionist era.
Landscapes follows, featuring grand, gorgeous paintings masterfully depicting vistas spanning in subject from Roman harbours to the northern European countryside.
“This room is a revelation,” said Foster. “I love these big beautiful European landscapes.”
Botticelli to Van Gogh’s final room, France and Modern Art, includes one of the exhibition’s most well-known and revered works, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers from 1888.
“Sunflowers defines this moment where art has moved on from religious iconography and defining status,” Mitzevich said.
Hung and presented in a way where the painting appears backlit, the actual experience of seeing Sunflowers up close was a profound one for the Gallery staff involved in executing the exhibition.
“When we opened the crate, everyone in the room felt moved,” said Foster.
Attendees are asked to pre-book their tickets online for an allotted timeslot via Ticketek.
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London is on display at the NGA 5 March until 14 June; nga.gov.au/masterpieces
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