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A Funny Thing Happened At 'The Greats' Exhibition

21/12/2015 4:20 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Source: NSW Art Gallery

I've just returned from a dash to Sydney, where I managed to fit in a visit to 'The Greats: masterpieces from the national Galleries of Scotland' exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery. While standing almost nose-to-nose with the lady in 'A woman in bed' by Rembrandt, I realised I've never before experienced intimacy with masterworks. For a masterwork-virgin like me, with only about 70 works, the standing/staring/looking interested fatigue at this exhibition didn't have time to set in. And although it was nicely busy, I could be alone for minutes at a time with my favourites. And favourites there were.

How could I have foreseen that I would fall in love with Botticelli's 'The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child' (c1485)? The serenity, love and absorption on the Virgin Mary's face wrapped me in a blanket of oxytocin gooey-ness. How does a painter, sorry, a 'Great', do that? And I wondered, was Jesus a good baby? Did he sleep through the night? Go through the 'terrible twos'?

I'm not particularly given over to biblical themes, but 'Christ in the house of Martha and Mary', by Johannes Vermeer (c1654-55), which depicts Jesus slumped on a wooden chair as if just come inside on one of our heatwave days, appealed. A woman kneels at his feet while another places a platter of bread on the table beside him. According to the painting's notes, she's a little testy because she's doing all the domesticity stuff while Jesus and the kneeled woman are engaged in spiritual communion. I empathised with the testy one, until I read that Jesus ticks her off for being too concerned with worldly matters and less with the divine. The notes don't say, though, if Jesus, after his sermonising, partook of the bread -- thus reducing, in my book, the weightiness of the spray he gave the testy one.

It was while standing in front of a Monet that it registered; these Greats are masters of light.

In fact, rather than the paintings absorbing light from their surrounds, they appeared to generate it. If I'd stood long enough in front of 'Venus rising from the sea' by Titan (c1520-25) I think I would've walked out with sunburn. I do burn easily though -- English-Celt ancestry. However, I didn't observe any occupational health and safety warnings about this unusual hazard.

The light emanation quality was emphasised for me when I sat on the bench seat in front of a ceiling-high 'Niagara Falls, from the American side' by Frederic Edwin Church (1867), almost a power plant in itself. Beside me were a young woman and her boyfriend. She was glowing, almost radioactively, her bare limbs showing this off to good effect. Her boyfriend was less radioactive, his bearded-hipster-cool presumably soaking up handfuls of the painting's photonic emissions.

The Scottish Greats were set off to the side in a room of their own, away from the multi-national intruders, showing that the 'in-group, out-group' thing has been around at least as long as the Greats were of shaving age. The Scottish paintings were of two kinds: lordly looking men in kilts holding staffs or other unnecessary items and gazing into the distance at who-knows-what, and landscapes with shaggy cattle plodding hillside paths.

If these paintings are something to go by, nothing much happened in Scotland until the Bay City Rollers.

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Source: NSW Art Gallery

The ticket entry included the use of an audio device, providing commentary. The rich male voice, with restrained excitement, told us gossipy details of each Great after giving the obligatory blurb on their painting. He was most breathy when telling us of the high society beauty; 27-year-old 'Lady Agnew of Lochnaw' painted by John Singer Sargent (1892). After this painting was unveiled, he told us, both she and the painter became celebrities -- she accorded party invitations for the rest of her days, and he was endorsed as a favoured portraitist of high society.

Right then, I thought: Instagram's not new, it's just been sped up in recent times.

The audio commentary became redundant, or overridden more correctly, when a bespectacled, filmy-scarfed woman, presumably a gallery staffer, entered. Trailing behind her was a sizable entourage of admirers.

She moved with atomic swiftness from one favoured pic to another. With gushing authority, she shared intimate details of her favoured Greats, as if she had known them personally, her 'sotto voce' remarks on these occasions bringing forth chesty chuckles from the all-sorts.

What I noticed most, though, was her exclamation, "We've only five minutes left, but I must show you..." which she repeated several times over as she departed from one painting for the next. It appeared common space-time laws didn't apply in this gallery universe. The five minutes dictum eventually morphed into, 'We've no time left but you must see...' Thankfully, time did expire, and with that, she and her entourage vaporised through the exit, leaving those of us with more tortoise-like sensibilities to resume our reveries.

My summary of The Greats: you bet!

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