Another blockbuster of European masterpieces, you say with a sigh. QAGOMA’s European Masterpieces from the Met in New York is, however, the perfect foil for the NGA’s recent Botticelli to Van Gogh from London’s National Gallery. While Canberra’s exhibition was full of excitement – the dazzling yellow in van Gogh’s Sunflowers has to be seen in real life – Brisbane’s is full of quieter, more erudite pleasures, and of marvellous peripheral activities for adults as well as children.
The 65 paintings on show (until October 17) are divided into three historical sections: Devotion and Renaissance, Absolutism and Enlightenment, and Revolution and Art for the People. The titles are self-explanatory, the sequence illuminating. Some of the paintings are quirky, some are well known, others less so and refreshing for not being the obvious examples of a painter’s work. All are thought-provoking well beyond the blockbuster bling.
The Renaissance room begins with Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion (1420–23). It’s a small work, yet striking in both form and content, and a reminder that even atheists among us are still steeped in Christian imagery and symbolism. A beguiling work by Flemish artist Gerard David, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1512–15), shows how perspective was emerging in European painting, and how the northern and southern schools were already influencing each other.
Most of the other pictures in the section are religious – Madonna and child, lamentations for the crucified Christ – and by painters from across Europe. Raphael, Giovanni di Paolo, Fra Filippo Lippi, Dieric Bouts, El Greco and more. It’s quite a roll call. Look out for Carlo Crivelli’s intriguingly composed and coloured Madonna and Child (1480), which looks almost, but not quite, like a Maestà.
The most striking picture of the second section, which includes the counter-enlightenment of the European baroque as well as more individualistic and secular enlightenment imagery, is Caravaggio’s The Musicians (1597). The homoerotic overtones – the young men’s perfect alabaster skin, the two central figures’ direct gaze with hooded eyes and parted lips – are highlighted by Caravaggio’s famously intense chiaroscuro. Another famous work, Georges de La Tour’s The Fortune-teller (1630s), in which an old woman tells a sceptical-looking young man’s fortune while a trio of accomplices calmly picks his pockets, is another example of the new, dynamic secularism. Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith (1670–72) is a different kind of religious painting: a triumphant blend of Christianity and the rise of European imperialism. The richly dressed bourgeois woman, a typical Vermeer figure, has a foot casually resting on a world globe.
The last section contains some surprises, as well as the usual sickly renditions of naked and half-naked women by Courbet and Renoir. Degas’ penchant for ballerinas, depicted here in Dancers, Pink and Green (1890), has a depth of colour unusual for him, including dark green tutus. Van Gogh’s The Flowering Orchard (1888) is a quiet, pared-down rural scene belied on approach by the frenzy in each small brushstroke.
Unique, perhaps, is the way the massive hall leading to the exhibition contains an activities space. When I was there, a model, dressed to match one of the visiting paintings, was surrounded by amateur artists busily sketching her, with empty seats inviting others to join in. Interactive historical timelines and videos were a cut above the usual offerings and, within the show itself, linking passages were designed architecturally: a sequence of arches at one point, for example, displaying the emergence of perspective.
This is an exhibition to visit and revisit for what it teaches about the nooks and crannies of art history we may not have noticed before.
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