Australian Galleries – The Art Gallery of New South Wales

EntranceIt is never a good idea to rush when you are visiting an art gallery because you never truly get the sense of wonder when you hurry, however I tend to have a real bad habit of putting time limits on my visits, which meant that on this visit I really did not get to experience all there is to offer. Maybe I should slow down a bit, but a part of me simply wants to cram so much into my days that I find it really difficult to metaphorically ‘smell the roses’. I’ve been here before, however the Art Gallery of New South Wales does have a lot of offer. I would divide it into three areas – Asian Art, Modern Australian Art, and the European and Australian Galleries. I’ve visited the Modern Australian Gallery, though I haven’t yet stepped foot into the Asian Gallery (though for some reason Asian Art doesn’t capture my imagination the way the art of the Western world does) and this time I spent wandering through the galleries containing the art from Australia’s colonial period as well as exploring the history of European Art.

On my most recent visit they had a display of all of the entrants for the Archibald Prize (though you had to pay to get in), which is an annual prize awarded to the best portrait painted that year. Actually, there were a couple of other prizes up for grabs, but the only one that I had ever heard of was the Archibald Prize (maybe there is something about portraits, not that I particularly like them – they tend to be boring). Okay, anybody can paint a portrait of anybody, but there is a bit of a catch – the person has to be important. Well, they have to be important in a specific sort of way, namely they need to be an intellectual (meaning that most politicians probably don’t make the cut). Sure, there are an awful lot of intellectuals out there, but I suspect that this particular person needs to have some semblance of fame (which probably means a painting of myself probably wouldn’t make the grade – not that I’m an intellectual).  I would post a picture of one of the paintings (and I probably should note that these portraits are not portraits in the traditional sense) but unfortunately the gallery copyrights all it’s images (unlike the Queensland Art Gallery). Instead I’ll post of portrait that I suspect won’t be in the running for the Archibald Prize:

Cosimo Medici Portrait
A little too old to be a contender

I should also mention that as I was walking around the outside of the gallery I noticed that there were plaques along the top of the wall which contained the names of famous artists. Unfortunately not all of these artists are represented inside the gallery (namely because all the other galleries around the world want a slice of the action as well). However, there was this really cool bronze statue (was it bronze? I’m not really sure – I probably should stop making such statements that end up proving my ignorance) out the front. Unfortunately I didn’t make of note of who the bronze statue represented, but instead just took a picture of it.

Bronze Statue
If you know who it is, please tell me – I don’t have time to go back to Sydney.

I probably should mention that this time when I visited the art gallery I decided to take my trusty note book with me. I did that because I became sick of taking all these pictures and then having little to no clue afterwards what the photos were of (okay, I know, a painting, but I would have liked to have remembered the artist and the name of the painting as opposed to simply saying – painting of some dude). Well, I did realise afterwards that I had another problem – I can’t read my own handwriting. Anyway, just to prove a point, and sticking with the Archibald portraits, here is a painting of some dude:

Some Dude
As I said, I can’t read my own handwriting.

Art of the Colonies

So, the first room I entered contained a heap of paintings from the early colonial period here in Australia (though there were a couple of pictures of New Zealand as well, though the painters were technically Australian; still some people consider New Zealand to be technically Australia). One thing that I noticed was that the artists seem to really like painting pictures of landscapes. In fact were were quite a few landscapes hanging on the walls, but then again whenever I have visited a display of colonial Australian art the landscape has pretty much been the dominant painting (in fact Hans Heysen, a South Australian painter, is quite famous for his landscape paintings of the Adelaide Hills and Flinders Ranges).

Kosiosko Nature on Owen

Okay, I’d hardly call myself an art expert, let alone an art historian (and I can’t be bothered doing any more research into this beyond glancing over my notes) but maybe the reason people painted a lot of Australian landscapes was so they could flog them off for a tidy profit back in England. I’m sure people wanted to know what Australia looked like, and really didn’t want to make the voyage (since living in Australia was hardly considered to be comfortable). Mind you, a lot of these landscapes seem to speak about the untouched nature of the environment, as if we were catching a glimpse of nature in all it’s beauty.

Another thing that I have noticed about Australian landscapes is that you get a lot of dry and dusty images, though not necessarily the ones on display here. No doubt that has a lot to do with Australia being a very dry and arid land, which is why this aspect has been captured in a lot of its artwork. Okay, if you spend all your time on the Eastern Seaboard you won’t experience this dry aspect of Australia (and since it is so huge a two week holiday simply isn’t going to cut it). However, as I mentioned, you don’t seem to get much of that dry and dusty art in this gallery (or at least what I ended up photographing).

Potterdale Farm Upper Nepean

(Paintings aren’t the easiest things to photograph, but then again it probably has a lot more to do with my non-existent photography skills).

A Word About Paintings


I thought I might throw down a few thoughts about what I noticed as I was wandering through the galleries, and that are the different styles, or should I say categories, of paintings. I’ve already mentioned the portraits, which are basically paintings of people, and the landscapes which are paintings of, well, landscapes. It’s interesting how the term now describes whether we hold a camera vertically (for a portrait) or horizontally (for a landscape). That probably has more to do with the fact that people are tall and thus you need a vertical picture to capture their image, while landscapes sit along the horizon (which is why the are horizontal).

As I’ve mentioned I sort of find portraits quite boring because they are basically paintings of people, and there are only so many paintings of people that you can look at (or at least I can look at) until I scream out ‘enough already’. Hey, I ended up going to the National Portrait Gallery in London and while looking at paintings of monarchs did have some interest, there were only so many ‘portraits of a man’ that you can look at. I guess for your portrait to actually have any meaning you have to has some semblance of fame (like Napoleon) otherwise people forget who you are (and it doesn’t help if the artist doesn’t label his or her work). Mind you I have yet to see a painting in an Art Gallery with the title ‘portrait of some dude’ underneath it.

Some Dude and his Family
Portrait of Some Dude and his Family


I’m a little miffed that I didn’t take any photos of the paintings the last time I was in the Art Gallery, but then again the last time I was here I wasn’t writing blog posts or reviews on websites like Yelp and Tripadvisor (as well as  Truelocal, but that is more focused on business than places to visit just for the sake of saying that you have visited the place), which is probably why I can’t find any photos. However, as I have discovered, it can be pretty difficult actually taking photos of paintings because you need to spend some time getting the picture absolutely right, which makes me wonder how it is that they managed to digitise the art work – do they like take the painting down from the wall, remove the frame, and then run it through a scanner? I can just see them doing that with the Mona Lisa.

Anyway, the second type of painting is the Landscape which, as you can probably guess, is a painting of a landscape, and it tends to sit horizontally. I have to say that I much prefer landscapes to portraits because there is only so many paintings of people that I can look at, especially if there isn’t much else in the painting expect for the fact that it is of a random person (no matter how famous that person is). Landscapes tend to have much more character because they tend to be of nature (though sometimes they have artificial structures thrown in because, well, they happen to be in the way). Another thing about landscapes is that they capture the scene frozen in time, before the developers move in and destroy everything. Thus, especially in the Australian galleries, you get to see these regions as they existed before the housing development came along.

Launceston on the Tamar
Sometimes the Painting is just a little out of reach

Okay, I could post some better pictures from the internet, however the Art Gallery has indicated that all of their images are copyright (despite the fact that the copyright over the 19th century artwork has long since expired, but than doesn’t stop people from claiming copyright over the digital images). Anyway, what I can do is post pictures of the paintings that I took, but then again I suspect you are probably already familiar with landscapes.

Flood on the Darling
The is called The Darling in Flood (or something like that).

Still Lifes

The third type of painting is known as a still life (and with the exception of the portrait of Cosimo Medici, all of the paintings in this post are by Australian artists, keeping with the theme of the post). The still life differs from the other two types that I have mentioned because that are paintings of things. In a way they are paintings of things that are not people nor landscapes. There is another form of painting that I shall get to in a minute, but in a way the three categories that I have mentioned are of things that the artist can actually see (you know when he stands behind the easel and occasionally looks out and sticks his thumb in the air). Still lifes are basically paintings of objects, though not moving objects – stationary objects (and while you may get a still life of an animal, the animal is usually dead).

Dead Cockie
It probably wouldn’t be considered art if it was just a photo.

I have to say that once again I’m not really a big fan of still lifes, even though there may be more meaning in them than say a person or a landscape (though to say that a landscape is devoid of meaning is probably missing the point of the landscape). However, still lifes don’t tell a story, which is one of the things that I look of in art. It is not the picture that I like, especially if the painting is trying to be as realistic as possible, but rather it is the story behind the painting. Mind you, things start to get interesting when you start looking at the impressionists and the cubists, but that is another story for another time.

A Study of Grapes
This painter really liked grapes

Narrative Paintings

The final style of painting I want to mention is the narrative painting (which is a term that I came up with myself). The reason I call them narratives is because they tell the story, and unlike the three mentioned above, many of them come straight out of the artist’s imagination. Okay, they may be a real scene, but the artist sees that scene, paints a picture, and when somebody comes and looks at it a story begins to form in their mind. In fact narrative paintings can be the most interesting because they draw you in to look at every intricate detail as even the most obscure image may give an important hint as to what the artist is trying to convey. Take this one for instance:

From a distant land
This painting is called ‘From a Distant Land’

Here we have some guy, reasonably well dressed, sitting at a desk reading a letter. If you look out the door you can see what looks like the bush with a guy on a horse riding away. Obviously this guy has just received a letter and the guy on the horse wandering away is the mail man. Anyway, what this picture captures is the tyranny of distance, but also the harsh nature of the Australian climate. This guy isn’t your typical working class bloke – he looks reasonably professional – but he isn’t surrounded by the luxury he would have in England. Here his house is dusty, empty, and the table quite rickety. Yet he has received a letter, no doubt from somebody he knows in England, and he appears to be thinking back to his time there and the luxury that he has sacrificed to come here.

Or let us consider this one:

It’s called “Weary”

Okay, I’ll be honest and say that I actually cheated when I took this photo because I also took a photo of the description beside it so I know what it is about. Anyway, as you can probably tell, this is a painting of a girl, but it’s not a portrait, not just because this girl isn’t famous and doesn’t come from a well-to-do family, but because it tells the story of poverty in Australia in the 19th Century. Okay, this isn’t a huge breakthrough in the 19th century because lots of people painted pictures of poverty in England, but what this painting does is that is shows the viewer that the poverty also exists here in Australia. The posters behind her are from Melbourne’s docklands, and show how the focus on commerce acts to create two classes within society, and that it works to increase poverty among the unfortunate. No doubt this girl is an orphan, since such children in those days would have had a very tough time surviving.

19th Century Impressionists

There happened to be another gallery of Australian art, but this time it differed from the others as the art work seemed to be what you would have expected to have come out of Europe. By this time Australia had developed a character of its own (even though it had yet to federate) but there were a number of artists that saw Australian art as being a little behind the times, or simply trying to retain a European flavour. Take this one for instance:

Descent from the Cross
Descent from the Cross

This is religious art (which is a completely different category to what I have mentioned about, but since Australia is not known for it’s religious art, I haven’t included it) pure and simple. However, as I have said, Australia simply isn’t known for its religious art, so no doubt the artist his trying to break the traditional boundaries by creating a religious scene, but with an Australian flavour.

Then there is this one:

Pixie Dance
Lets call this ‘The Pixie Dance’

Here we have a group of fauns dancing around in the forest at midnight – something that you might expect to come out of Europe, but in reality is Australian. While the Australian Aboriginals have their own spiritual myths, what is happening here is the mythology of Europe is being brought halfway around the world and being transplanted here in Australia. In a way what is happening is the cultural subversion of another land.

There was another interesting painting, but I won’t post that because it contains nudity (and Google doesn’t like nudity, even if you could argue that it is art – hold it, this is WordPress, I’ve got my blogging platforms mixed up – anyway, I don’t post nude pictures anyway because I know that nudity does have a habit of offending, even if it is art). Anyway, what we have is a bunch of English people lying around stripped down to their waste because it is so damn hot. Unlike the painting above, where the European mythology is taking over Australia, with this one we have the Australian climate overriding the conservative European culture. In a way, what is happening, is that Australia is developing an identity of its own.

So, I will finish this post of with a couple of Australian impressionist paints, however I will continue my post on the art gallery where I explore the European collection.

Australian ImpressionistAustralian Impressionist

Unlike the Art Gallery of NSW, the content, and images (if I’m allowed to, but then again they are in the public domain) are licensed under:

Creative Commons LicenseAustralian Galleries – The Art Gallery of New South Wales by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

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