Wandering around the Art Gallery of New South Wales was weirdly disorienting. It was a new building to me, but it was filled with familiar artists: Australians like John Brack and Grace Cossington Smith in addition to the usual Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters. Obviously, the individual works were different to those in the NGV or anywhere else I’ve visited, so everything was there, the same and not.
I hadn’t really slept the night before, and after seeing the Lady and the Unicorn, I made my slow way through the galleries, lost and at home at the same time. After a sunny morning, every time I found a window in this place, I was startled by the grey clouds and impending rain. It felt very Melbourne.
I like the sandstone edifice of this gallery more than the monolithic, and bleakly imposing facade of the NGV, but like doesn’t mean much. Both speak a language and are trying to convey something. However, I was too fatigued to tease apart my reactions and thoughts. More places to sit and a wider array of price points for souvenirs were my main ideas.
I would like to go back, when the opportunity presents itself. I missed enough to indicate there is much more to see and consider at the Art Gallery of NSW than the afternoon I had there allowed.
I lingered over the painting of Chaucer delivering his address to the court of Edward III. It struck me how many women are present in this depiction by Ford Madox Brown, and how active it is. As a painting, it felt alive, more so than the stylised tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. The tapestries were like religious icons, static, even given the material they were created from. The PRB hearkened to a Medieval approach to art, but brought their post-Enlightenment ideas and modern perspectives. I felt the contrast between them.
While the face the gallery puts to the world is one of old world colonialism, there is a duality at work. Inside there are traditional galleries, with crowded walls full of oil paintings, right alongside newer parts of the building, with concrete floors instead of polished timber. Both served a purpose, but I thought it significant that the larger than life steel statue of Captain Cook by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai was located in the updated section of the gallery. Cook’s steely eyed, yet vacant stare seized on the (grey) harbour he never explored. I thought perhaps he would be more comfortable in the traditional galleries, but it is probably right he is alone in his own space, neither especially traditional, nor exactly cutting edge. The statue is solid and factual, like Cook’s own history, but it has a cold, reflective surface, thus, we see what we want to see in him, but warped by contours. Just like those Australians who don’t understand that Cook didn’t arrive with the First Fleet to found the city of sandstone, Sydney.