Many people I know have had good things to say about the Tom Roberts Exhibition currently on at the National Gallery of Australia, and after finding that it is only on until 28 March, we made the snap (– well, snap for us-) decision to come up to Canberra for a couple of days.
Tom Roberts was well worth seeing. There’s the iconic pictures of course- Shearing the Rams; The Breakaway; the big Federation picture- but I hadn’t really appreciated Roberts’ versatility until I saw the portraits, narrative pictures, Impressionist pictures all together in one exhibition.
I was surprised by this portrait, executed in 1900, which had quite a Bill-Hensonesque feel about it.
The exhibition was at pains, I thought, to distance itself from any mention of ‘Heidelberg School’, making only slight reference to ‘Eaglemont’ where it had to, and highlighting that Roberts, Streeton, Conder et al painted at ‘camps’ in various locations in Victoria and New South Wales. But, as a Heidelberg girl, I instantly recognized the Darebin Creek in this small painting which featured in the exhibition and also appeared as a prop on an artist’s easel outside the entrance to the exhibition.
The Australian art section has been relocated in the gallery and now is prominently displayed as soon as you come up the escalator. On the ground floor there is a sobering display of 200 painted traditional burial poles to mark the bicentenary and there are several rooms of indigenous artwork.
Remember Erik von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and how he tried to convince us that indigenous artists were really painting astronauts? Haven’t heard much of that hypothesis since….
The Australian art exhibition is beautifully done, with interesting themes and a really broad exhibition of major Australian artists. It did, however, reinforce my awareness of how rich the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection is, too.
In the gardens outside was a striking sculpture Skyspace Within without. Externally it was a grass covered dome, but inside was a stone stupa suspended on a sheet of water, open to the sky. It reminded us of the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, but instead of a swirling, chaotic mass of people surrounding the monolith, it stood silently with the water falling over the edges of an infinity pool. You could then enter the stupa itself, a cool, round, resonant room with a hole in the ceiling through which you could see the sky. I wish my pictures did it justice, but they don’t. You’ll just have to come see it for yourself.
Here’s a video walk-through
Then off to the War Memorial. As you might have gathered from other blog posts, I am rather ambivalent about the commemoration of war and its tendency to tip into celebration. The War Memorial is absolutely brimming with expensively mounted displays- it must be the best funded museum in the country, I think- but almost to the point of overwhelming you. The memorial is divided into First and Second World War wings, and the World War I section is excellent, as you might expect in these centenary years.
Our main reason for going was to find the works done by Steve’s grandfather, Charles Web Gilbert, who worked as a War Artist immediately after WWI. He created some of the dioramas that are displayed to such good effect, now supplemented by sound effects and multimedia photographs and film clips. The names of the war artists are not displayed on the dioramas, but we did find a small named sculpture of stretcher-bearers.
We were surprised to find that the large sculpture, previously called ‘The Memorial to the Light Horse’ had been shifted from its position close to the War Memorial to further down ANZAC avenue. This is not its only shift: the original was erected in Port Said in 1932 (several years after C.Web Gilbert died) and was severely damaged during World War II. The remnants were brought back to Australia and reconstituted in the statue that now stands along ANZAC avenue. Not a whisper of the artist for this one, either.
I very much liked the Hall of Memory, with its beautiful Waller stained glass windows. Looking out across the commemorative flame, I noticed that all of the tablets naming the wars that Australia has been involved in have now been filled on every surface of the rectangular space at the heart of the Memorial.
Oh that it could stop now.