The menacing, black, prison-like bars installed in the National Gallery of Australia are imposing. But such is the immeasurable value of the 100 artworks on display at the Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate exhibition that this level of security is necessary.

The NGA has just unveiled the most significant collection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks ever seen in Australia, 43 of them loaned from UK’s Tate collections. They include two of that gallery’s most-visited paintings, Ophelia and The Lady of Shalott. They have never before been lent at the same time, such is their star power, and they have never been seen in Australia.

Ophelia is probably one of the most important works in the Tate’s collection, some would say the most important, [and] one of the first works that inspired the creation of the Tate,” says Carol Jacobi, Love and Desire’s co-curator.

Such is the respect for the NGA’s recently appointed director Nick Mitzevich, and the depth of the relationship between the Canberra and London-based institutions, that 17 other lenders in Britain and Australia were prepared to loan their Pre-Raphaelite works for this show.

“That’s what makes this exhibition so special – you can’t just go to the Tate to see it, we’ve borrowed from key collections in Britain and Australia to assemble the most unrivalled display of Pre-Raphaelite 19th-century work,” Mitzevich says.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1848, a group of rebellious young British art students from the Royal Academy in London who rejected the continued reverence shown towards the old masters and sought a radical new approach to painting that bore more relevance to contemporary life, painting directly from life using brilliant, clear colours.

They eschewed depictions of traditional feminine beauty and tackled subjects such as modern love and marriage, heartbreak, death, religion and myth in a direct and controversial way. The group also became the self-promoters and celebrities of their day, mass-producing their works so their paintings and tapestries remain more well known today than the artists themselves. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and John William Waterhouse may no longer be household names, but their seminal works including Ophelia, The Lady, The Beloved (The Bride) and La Belle Iseult are universally known, and have been reproduced countless times on posters, tea towels, gift cards and calendars.

Just as the Pre-Raphaelites sought to make their art accessible and relevant to a broader audience, Mitzevich too is looking to break down boundaries.

“We want to provide as many opportunities as possible to connect people and art,” he says. “We have some pop culture elements to the exhibition, a summer of love with … [singer-songwriter] Sarah Blasko. The Pre-Raphaelites were inspired by music, poetry and literature so it’s a great fit to have Sarah.”

The director has invited the multi Aria award-winning singer-songwriter to perform Songs of Love and Desire, an intimate one-off performance among the paintings in February next year.

Blasko sits in a peaceful corner of the exhibition and explains her connection with the beautiful but desperately sad portrait Ophelia, which is hung on a nearby wall. The painting relates the story of Shakespeare’s eponymous heroine and Hamlet’s lover, who can’t bear to live after Hamlet murders her father, so she takes her life.

In 2008 Blasko composed the score for the Bell Shakespeare theatre production of Hamlet, which includes the haunting song Ophelia sings before she drowns. It was also during the season of Hamlet that Blasko wrote her third album As Day Follows Night, the title inspired by a line spoken by Polonius in Shakespeare’s play.

For her NGA performance Blasko will sing songs from that record and its companion album, I Awake, rearranged for harp, double bass, percussion and an additional vocalist.

“It’s very intimate, only 60 people, an immersive experience I hope heightens and is sympathetic towards the artworks,” Blasko says. The concert will begin in the foyer before moving to a couple of the exhibition’s eight rooms, culminating in the portrait of Ophelia.

As Day Follows Night was my ‘hopeful heartbreak’ album, there’s a lot of romance in the sound of the record yet it’s actually quite sad and there’s a lot of heartbreak and desire and questioning I feel as I walk around the exhibition.”

Just as the Pre-Raphaelites looked to various artforms for inspiration, Blasko believes a synergy exists between them all. “[Australian artist] Brett Whiteley used to talk about how much music he listened to when he was painting, and musicians often read poetry or watch films – you’re looking for inspiration however you can find it. Music and visual art sit so beautifully together – each influences the other – and if you’re looking at a painting the music affects the way you see it. I love that intangible quality in all the arts, the way they can work together powerfully.”

Blasko’s February performance at the NGA will be followed by a national tour of her sixth studio album, Depth of Field, written and recorded in two weeks during a residency at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.

Love and Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate opens Friday December 14 at the National Gallery of Australia until April 28, 2019. Sarah Blasko will perform Songs of Love and Desire on February 8. Entry is by ballot.

nga.gov.au