A moveable feast
What does it take to transform the National Gallery of Australia into the Palace of Versailles?
By December 2016
On a Friday morning in late October I met Adam Worrall in the National Gallery of Australia’s members lounge, a quiet, low-ceilinged room on the Level 2 mezzanine of Colin Madigan’s brutalist masterpiece. The view before us reached across the sculpture garden’s treetops to Lake Burley Griffin and Mount Ainslie beyond.
Worrall, who has worked at the NGA for 15 years and is now an assistant director, was dressed for Casual Friday in a T-shirt, pants and Nikes: a get-up slightly incongruous with his current role as lead exhibition designer on Versailles: Treasures from the Palace. Billed by the gallery as a “once in a lifetime experience”, the exhibition features more than 130 objects drawn from one of the most luxurious, and famous, palace-museums in the world. With the opening just six weeks away, Worrall’s challenge lay in creating a narrative between items as diverse as Marie Antoinette’s elaborate harp, a painted lead sculpture of a monkey riding a goat, major oil paintings, and a tapestry, almost 4 by 6 metres, that in surprisingly meta fashion depicts Louis XIV’s visit to the workshop in which it was created.
“If I can craft these objects into a story with the curator that I can understand, then my mum’s going to come and understand it … Pretty much anyone who doesn’t know about art is going to come and have that experience as well,” Worrall said.
Shadowing it all is the larger-than-life history that still renders Versailles and its inhabitants in such vivid detail. Louis XIII made the site, south-west of Paris, home to his hunting lodge, but it was his heir, Louis XIV, who in 1661 engaged an army of artisans to create the vast gilded compound and elaborate gardens known today. It soon supported a large population: alongside the King and Queen of France, thousands of nobles, consorts, mistresses and servants all lived and died in its overwrought grounds. By the time the seeds of the French Revolution had taken root, Versailles, then the domain of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, had in its lavish excess become emblematic of the monarchy’s disconnect from the people.
Worrall knows it’s an impossibly big story to fit into the NGA’s temporary exhibitions galleries, especially without the framing context of the palace and its grounds.
“How do you take a sculpture from the top of the main fountain in Versailles, bring it to Australia, and communicate a sense of its importance?” he asked me in illustration of the kind of question that had recently kept his mind ticking over at night.
He was referring to what he sees as the exhibition’s narrative heart: the 1.5-tonne marble sculpture of the goddess Latona that usually rises above the Latona fountain. In 2009, it was removed for extensive conservation (“She’s had a lot of work done,” Worrall said), and a replica installed in its place. In a coup for the NGA, the original was recently disassembled into eight pieces and, accompanied by Versailles’ sculpture conservator, flown to Canberra. It’s the first time Latona has left France in 350 years.
In the exhibition Worrall has surrounded the imposing figure with a multimedia representation of the fountain’s flowing waters. Nearby, a section of synthetic hedging intends to recall the palace’s hedge mazes. The most theatrical touch, however, is a scent developed especially for Versailles by world-renowned perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, whose clients have included Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior and the conceptual artist Sophie Calle, for whom he synthesised her 2003 work The Smell of Money. Based on an archival recipe for Louis XIV’s own especially commissioned perfume (undertones of citrus), it will be piped gently into the foyer to prime waiting crowds for the spectacle beyond.
If it sounds elaborate, that’s because it is. It also comes with an element of risk. “By the time we sell the first ticket we’ve already invested millions of dollars in a project like this,” Gerard Vaughan, the NGA’s director, explained to me later over a lunch of cut sandwiches in his office.
Vaughan, who was director of the National Gallery of Victoria for 13 years and took up his current role in 2014, knows that Australian audiences can be fickle. Although the NGA attracts a significant core of supporters for all of its major exhibitions, a “blockbuster” like Versailles needs to reach far further. In the lead-up to our interview, Vaughan’s appearance with 2GB’s Alan Jones was immediately followed by one with ABC Classic FM’s Margaret Throsby.
The gold standard in Australia is Masterpieces from Paris, a collection of post-Impressionism from the Musée d’Orsay that the NGA staged in 2009–10. Audiences flocked from around the country: at a time when Canberra’s population was just over 350,000, the exhibition recorded ticket sales of over 476,000. Although a repeat would be welcome, it’s a matter of chance as much as design.
“It was the perfect storm,” recalled Worrall, who worked on the Masterpieces exhibition. “There were no natural disasters, there were no major exhibitions on in any other state gallery, and Australia was actually doing really well financially.”
All this speaks to the complex mechanics of the museum blockbuster, a populist mix of culture, marketing and international diplomacy that traces its invention to a 1960s United States still trying to establish its cultural bona fides under Europe’s long shadow. It was the National Gallery of Art’s J Carter Brown, working with the visionary exhibition designer Gil Ravenel, who first proved the worth of repackaging international collections for American audiences. Treasures of Tutankhamun, which Brown secured for the gallery in 1975, is widely seen as key among the genre’s first expressions. The exhibition went on to attract some eight million visitors over a national tour co-ordinated by Brown’s rival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving.
Although other curator–directors – most prominently Alfred H Barr Jr at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – had previously imported exhibitions as a means to spark interest in the European avant-garde (and thus establish deeper local audiences for the American modernism that was developing in counter-response), the blockbuster was ultimately defined by economic imperatives. The downside was soon clear. Major exhibitions were increasingly guided not by curators and art historians but (as a 1986 editorial in the Art Bulletin put it) by “the complex social and economic interests and dependencies of trustees, corporations and museum management”.
In Australia, similar criticism is often heard. For many, the term “blockbuster” has long carried the negative connotations that attend that most cynical of museum exercises: a numbers game that recycles culture from afar. It’s understandable, then, that Vaughan is hesitant to employ the term to describe Versailles. “We’re not interested in that so much anymore,” he said. “We’ve moved on.”
Yet although clearly passionate about the material at hand (like Worrall, Vaughan has worked closely on the exhibition with the Versailles museum’s chief curator, Béatrix Saule), he is also pragmatic about Versailles’ function within the broader program. “There are many different audiences. And I think that a public institution, funded by the taxpayers, also has to be popular. And that’s the trick – that’s the balance.”
Vaughan knows better than most that an art museum is a machine of interdependent parts: if it all runs smoothly, an exhibition like Versailles allows an institution to justify harder, less audience-friendly fare. “We still want to do the edgy things that perhaps won’t be so popular, but need to be done,” he assured me.
As a case in point, Versailles follows a brilliantly curated career survey of the Australian performance artist Mike Parr. Far from audience-pleasing (at least not by Versailles’ measure), it opened with video documentation of Parr’s earliest projects, including cringe-inducing footage of an assistant brusquely carving a circle around the artist’s thigh with a scalpel. Generous space has also recently been given over to major projects by local contemporary sculptors Heather B Swann and Ramesh Nithiyendran: both of them not only engaging but also significant within their field. Seen against the revolving permanent collection, it’s these kinds of exhibitions that collectively fulfil the gallery’s core remit: capturing something of how Australia constitutes itself through visual culture.
For the majority of Versailles’ audience, this will largely be beside the point. Most will be drawn by the aura of another age, others by an enduring fascination with the palace’s most famous figures (a motivation that can’t help but resonate in our own celebrity-drenched times).
Vaughan sees in the exhibition a history of politics – a shift from monarchy to parliamentary democracy – but it’s hard not to sense the lure of excess at the centre of its charms. Versailles, although underpinned by the wonders of beauty and craftsmanship, is also an exhibition of status objects par excellence: wealth, and the absolute power it accretes, rendered in tangible form.