Stepping into the final room of the Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia is an overwhelming experience. There’s Degas’s Ballet Dancers, Renoir’s At the Theatre (1876–77), a Monet, Pissarro, Gauguin and not one but two Cézannes!
And then you reach Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888). Countless libraries’ worth of books and essays have been written on this painting, but I had yet to see it in person and I must admit to having wondered: is it really worth all the fuss?
The room is near empty when I approach it, providing a unique opportunity to have a quiet moment with this 133-year-old painting.
And you know what? It is worth all the fuss.
I try to count the different shades of yellow the Dutch post-impressionist painter used to explore these most idiosyncratic of flowers but am too mesmerised by the depth and texture of the work. Standing before a painting of this magnitude would be moving in normal times, but while the majority of exhibition spaces around the world remain shuttered, and with Australians only just venturing back out into theatres and galleries, the chance to see not one but 61 paintings by Europe’s most revered artists is momentous.
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces From the National Gallery, London – a glorious journey spanning 500 years of European painting – almost didn’t happen. The project was initiated in early 2018 by former NGA director Gerard Vaughan, but no one could have predicted the world would be in lockdown in November 2020, when it was due to open.
With much delicate negotiating and a lot of moving parts, the current director Nick Mitzevich was able to delay the exhibition, and because it was on display in Japan in 2020, its transportation was much easier. And now it’s here, opening on March 5 and on exhibition until June.
“The artistic merit of this exhibition was too important not to do everything we could to bring it to Australia. Many of these works have never come to Australia before, and never will [again],” Mitzevich tells Broadsheet.
The 61 works would usually be on permanent display in London’s National Gallery but were available for tour because it’s being renovated. “These opportunities only happen once every 50 years or so,” says Mitzevich.
In fact, it is the first time in the NGL’s near 200-year history it has toured an exhibition of works internationally.
Mitzevich and NGA coordinating curator Sally Foster say the show is arranged into seven defining periods, including the Italian Renaissance, Dutch painting of the Golden Age, landscape and the picturesque and, of course, France and the rise of modern art. We wander from Botticelli’s Four Scenes From the Early Life of Saint Zenobius, almost four paintings in one, to Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 (1640) to Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (1670).
“When we come into this room, do we go Vermeer or do we go Rembrandt? What a question to ask yourselves,” says Mitzevich with delight.
“This is one of the most important paintings in the NGL,” Foster says of the confident Rembrandt self-portrait. “He’s aware he’s an incredibly important artist, that he’s going to go down in art history as one of the greats.”
With only 34 acknowledged works to his name, Vermeer’s diminutive painting shows why he is one of the most revered 17th-century Dutch painters.
We pass the Spanish greats – Giordano, El Greco, Velázquez and “an extraordinary de Goya”, The Duke of Wellington, before moving into landscapes and one of this writer’s favourite artists, Turner. “In your wildest dreams you never thought you’d see Turner with Van Gogh and then Claude,” says Mitzevich.
We then finish with the rise of modern art, where new technologies of portable paint tubes enabled an adventurousness of colour. Finally we are before Sunflowers, one of the most loved and visited paintings in the world.
“Why is this particular bunch of sunflowers so compelling – what is it that draws people in?” ponders Foster. “It’s hard to articulate, but you can’t help but lean in and be fascinated. There’s something in there about the emotional intensity with which he painted it.”
As much as the exhibition’s delay and massive logistical juggle was a headache, there may just be a silver lining, given the Covid learnings.
“You can look at a screen or have the most beautifully produced coffee-table book, but there’s nothing like standing in front of a work of art and really looking at it. I think that’s what this show really represents,” says Foster. “Being in the space, being in front of a real work of art – there’s no substitute.”
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces From the National Gallery, London has an exclusive Canberra season at the National Gallery of Australia, March 5 to June 14. Tickets include entry to Know My Name, Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now.