Though anticipating a backlash to his postmodernist designs for a new National Gallery of Victoria in conservative Melbourne in the mid-1960’s, architect Sir Roy Grounds proved to his critics just why he was later to be considered one of the great architects of the 20th century.
Grounds' innovative approach in designing the National Gallery of Victoria not only defied expectations but also contributed significantly to the evolution of modern architecture in Australia.
His ability to balance progressive design with the cultural context of Melbourne showcased his architectural prowess, earning him acclaim as a visionary who could navigate the delicate balance between tradition and modernity.
But why does this monolithic building with its Renaissance exterior and artful cascading waterfall lined entrance hold so firm a place in the hearts of so many? Particularly, why is its 19th century styled salon, reminiscent of the great museum halls of Europe, with its eclectic arrangement of masterful paintings from floor to ceiling and intricately cast classical sculptures spread throughout, oddly so popular with visitors today?
Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria
In my view the answer is no surprise. It is the neoclassical nature, the contrasting archetypes of this building that offers a truly personalised experience - underscoring the enduring impact of Grounds' architectural vision, creating spaces that ‘resonate with each individual on a profound level’.
Every visitor to the National Gallery of Victoria today likely has walking in, and most certainly by the time they leave, a favourite room or space, and undoubtably therein a favourite painting or sculpture. And thanks to the benevolence of the home-grown philanthropist Alfred Felton, the NGV’s vast collection today has much to choose from.
The diverse NGV art collection has long echoed the utilitarian nature of Grounds’ building – with the old and the new contrasted within, but without the social revisionism and political rancour that today so often accompanies such displays or controversially drives the rehang of galleries’ collections.
My favourite painting in the NGV’s permanent collection is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 'October' (Saison d’octobre) (1878). After a recent rehang, I am pleased this masterful painting and is still on the wall of the popular Melbourne art gallery.
Jules Bastien-Lepage, "October' ('Saison d'octobre) (1878) Photo: NGV
'October' was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1879, one of a pair of harvest scenes that marked a new direction in Bastien-Lepage’s career as a painter.
Though considered by Emile Zola in that year as the “grandson of Courbet and Millet” and one of the tenors of naturalism, Bastien Lepage had however failed in 1875 and 1876 to win a prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship. In disgust, Bastien-Lepage turned away from realism by adopting the technique of his contemporaries, borrowing their light tones and vibrant touch.
While lesser public art galleries are instructing art lovers what to think when it comes to interpreting the works of the likes of Bastien-Lepage in their collections, the NGV in contrast is presenting the old and the new together in this year’s NGV Triennial as one cohesive exhibition without any populist commentary.
While the breadth of the NGV collection itself is the envy of the art world, one thing is certain, though: a collection built up on the wealth of colonialism, and with a low proportion of women artists on show, does need a fresh story to tell.
NGV Triennial. Photo: NGV
Installation view of Freda Ali, Freda All Wayartja, Maureen Ali, Cecille Baker, Michelle Baker, Bonnie Burangarra, Gabriella Garrimara, Doreen Jinggarrabarra, Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja, Indra Prudence, Jennifer Prudence, Zoe Prudence, Anthea Stewart, 'Mun-dirra (Maningrida fish fence)' on display in NGV Triennial
So now, while Bastien-Lepage’s 'October' depicting a poor woman picking potatoes from the coarse, stony soil is still there, other striking paintings of women toiling in the fields, kitchens and factories or facing peril have joined it in ‘Salon et lumiere’.
With more than 140 paintings and a dozen sculptures on display, this exhibition aims to 'transport audiences back in time to an era when jostling crowds thronged the great Salon and Royal Academy exhibitions with wonder, excitement and hunger for information'.
The NGV boasts "Salon et lumière seeks to recreate the exhilaration experienced by nineteenth-century audiences in a twenty-first-century context, utilising modern illumination and projection techniques and an immersive soundscape to capture for today’s audiences the immersive thrill felt by their forebears more than a century and a half ago. This salon embodies the clamorous power of these great exhibitions."
But putting aside the publicist’s hyperbole, there is something highly laudable going on here.
NGV Triennial: Salon et lumière. Photo: NGV
Politics is always in the texture of art, whether overtly or in the choice of subject and style. But showcasing artists with something blatantly political to say and placing their works alongside the masterful works of an earlier time is now often being preferred to those with more oblique attitudes - particularly, in those of our regional galleries with dare I say, limited imaginations.
And while commendable perhaps in many respects, such art is not ground-breaking and rarely any good.
In my observation, the presentation of old and new art in the NGV's Salon and other galleries refreshingly focuses the viewer on simple concepts or commonalities – for example, observing the views in various paintings as their artists invariably once did, by simply ‘looking upon the view’.
By selectively illuminating an assortment of stories drawn from the many narratives on display in the Salon gallery – animalia, love and loss, music, punishment, clouds, horses, and the colour pink – the Salon et lumière succeeds in shedding light on a relationship between old and new art in an innovative way.
Melbourne based artist Prudent Flint's stunning paintings at NGV Triennial Photo: NGV
There are no long descriptive labels and no route for visitors to follow, the display is all about looking, where people will find different kinds of rapport and different meanings for themselves.
Sir Roy Grounds' legacy endures just as the beloved National Gallery of Victoria stands as a testament to his forward-thinking designs, challenging conventions, balancing tradition and modernity, and enriching the cultural landscape of Melbourne.
The successful pairing of the old and the new in art from the gallery's collection and beyond has contributed much to the present-day advancement of those defining ideals.
Other public galleries would do well to take note.
Sir Roy Grounds
NGV Triennial runs until 7 April 2024 at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Main Photo: NGV Triennial: Salon et lumière Photo: Pamela Reid
Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia