In my piece on the Australian galleries I had a look at the different types of paintings, however I have never seen much in the way of historical development when it comes to Australia. While Australia does have it’s unique identity (and it’s truly bizarre historical events, such as the Great Emu War), in many ways Australia has moved in lock step with England and America. However, when we cross into the European galleries we walk into a culture that has developed over centuries (or even a millenia). What we see, as we walk through the European galleries, is the evolution of art through the ages.
The art contained within the gallery goes from the 15th century through to the 19th and 20th centuries. However we have the art of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries crammed into two galleries, the 18th century into another two galleries, and the 19th century across three whole galleries (with some 20th century art in the third gallery, though there isn’t a huge amount). As such in this post I’ll be looking at how art in Europe has changed over this period.
Mind you, when I first stepped in here, not surprisingly I found myself looking at a portrait:
and a still life:
However, while we do have these basic forms of art, which generally doesn’t impress me all that much, there is a character of European art that simply seems to outshine what I see in many Australian collections.
15th to 17th Centuries
It is probably during this period that we begin to see a much greater emphasis on realism in art. Okay, this had been going on since the renaissance, however unlike the NGV International collection, there wasn’t much in the way of earlier pieces. However, despite the movement towards a rational society, and more lifelike paintings, Europe was still a deeply religious continent (though at this time the Reformation had taken hold and we begin to see a movement towards the Enlightenment and the rise of science as a discipline), and much of its focus was still on works coming out of Christianity. In fact the most popular painting that you will encounter when you look at European art, especially during this period, is the Madonna and Child. The art gallery has two works on this theme, a painting and a stone carving:
While most (if not all) evangelical Christians view Christ’s death and resurrection as the defining aspect of Christianity, it appears that many of the artists during this period and earlier saw Christ’s birth as being the defining moment. Do doubt this had a lot to do with God entering the world, and in entering the world his work of redeeming humanity could begin. However it is not just Jesus that is the focus of these paintings, it is in fact Mary. Without fail, the focus of all of these Madonna and Childs is on the Madonna. Mary held the supreme position above all of the saints, including the Apostles, as she was the vessel through which Christ entered the world. In fact her role in nurturing and protecting the baby Jesus worked to add further to this status. If you look closely at the carving, you will notice how the baby Jesus reaches out towards Mary as a defenceless child reaches out towards his mother.
This is not the only topic of religious art – there were many scenes from the Bible that made their way onto the canvas and other means of producing art, such as this painting from Acts of when the Angel released Peter from prison.
What was interesting was that the religious (or should I say Christian) art wasn’t confined to stories from the Bible, as is attested by this painting of the anointing of Constantine, the first emperor of Rome:
However, as I have mentioned, art was beginning to move away from the strictly Christian works and began to embrace the stories from classical Greece and Rome. This had been happening for a while, but once again I am limiting myself to what was in the gallery. Here we have a painting of Mars (the Roman god of war) meeting with a Vestal Virgin.
One thing that caught my attention were some ceramic dishes that were on display. These were clearly made in the 17th century, and demonstrate that there is more to art than simply painting things on canvas (or carving stuff out of blocks of stone).
You will notice that there is a much greater focus on Rome than there is on Greece, and one of the main reasons for that is that Rome had a much more direct influence on Western European culture than did Greece. As such the Roman names were used in the myths, and many of the myths took the Roman as opposed to the Greek version. With the plates above we have on the right a painting of Hercules capturing the bull, which was one of his twelve tasks, while on the left we have a plate that carries the title ‘An Allegory of the Sack of Rome’.
The sack of Rome has had a significant impact upon the psyche of Western Europe, despite it happening over one and a half millenia ago. The reason I say this is not just because it was so sudden, but it sent what was considered an incredibly advanced and sophisticated culture spiralling into the dark ages, and in that collapse much knowledge was lost (and it was only through the determination of the monks, as well as the slow decay of the Byzantian Empire that what we have today has been retained). However what happened during the Renaissance was that the Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse, so much of the knowledge that was retained was brought over to Europe by the refugees. In a way us Europeans still fear a societal collapse on the scale of the collapse of Rome (and this was no doubt the case back then).
As we move into the 1700s the make up of Europe, and in particular Britain, had changed dramatically. While the absolute monarchs still ruled France and Germany, the rise of the parlaimentary system of government in England had created a class of wealthy merchants. Alongside the merchants were also the scientists and the philosophers (who tended to come from the wealthier classes as they would have more time to devote to such pursuits), however much of this had to do with the protestant revolutions and the stabilisation of England’s political system after a rather tumultuous and bloody 17th century (which saw the English Civil War, the beheading of a king, and a failed republic).
What these revolutions meant was that the nature of art was also changing in that there was a movement away from religious art and a drift towards art not only based on our classical past, but also art that was produced for sale. This is not only seen with landscape paintings, but also with the appearance of ceramic figures and plates. While I have produced similar plates in the previous section, back then much of these were hand made by skilled craftsmen who were commissioned as such. However now we are seeing the beginnings of the industrial revolution where the artisans are moving out of the cottage and into the factory.
For some reason I only took three photos of paintings in this room (though I did take a picture of the room as a whole), however my attention was actually drawn to the little ceramic figures that were in the glass case in the centre. As I looked at this figures I realised how the rise of merchantalism also meant that ordinary people (or should I say the middle class) were starting to decorate their homes in a way that only the aristocracy could in the past. In fact it is during this time that we begin to see the rise of owning animals as pets. Before people only owned animals for a purpose, however now people would purchase animals to actually be a part of the family.
These weren’t the only examples of such objects that began to fill the middle class home (and in many ways you will still see such things in many houses, though there has been a bit of a movement away from that, though I would hardly say that our society is becoming more minimalist – the advertising industry is making sure of that) because on the lower level there was a much larger collection of ceramics which ranged from a huge vase depicting the arrival of William and Mary to England to become monarchs:
To dishes that you would find gracing the dinning room table:
to a huge collection of figurines (that may have been used in a game a chess – though it is unlikely):
This is by far the largest collection of European Art in the gallery, however the thing with such art is that it is hard to put it all into one category as we see the styles changing dramatically as the century progresses, especially with the development of the camera (which meant that realistic art was no longer necessary). This led, at the end of the period, to what is known as impressionist art (though when it was first produced most people looked on it in horror, which is probably why Van Gogh suffered from severe depression – though I doubt he could ever have imagined how popular his art would become – I have to say that the impressionist form is probably one of my favourites). However, I am getting a little ahead of myself as the first gallery I entered was covered from wall to ceiling with paintings.
Many of these paintings depict mythological or religious scenes, though they differed from the traditional art of the earlier centuries. In a way the rise of the romantic movement in literature also saw a similar rise within the artistic community. It was not a time when artists were pushing the boundaries (this would come later) but rather a time when artists were looking back to a more romantic era and capturing this essence in painting. This is no doubt the idea of ‘The Golden Age of Hesiod’:
The golden age that this painting looks back to is a section of Hesiod’s Works and Days where he talks about the five ages of humanity. The golden age parallels the Garden of Eden where humanity is living at peace with nature and work is easy and time is relaxing. In a way many artists like to look back into a past so see a simpler time.
Painting were also political as can be seen with these two:
The painting of the left is called Chaucer in the Court of Edward III and the one of the right is Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Okay, I was going to suggest that it is a representation of philosophy entering the halls of power, but I would hardly call Chaucer at philosopher – rather he is a poet. Yet what it is suggesting is that poetry and politics are not mutually exclusive. As we see with Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which is one of the more famous of the Biblical stories, we have a foreign Queen coming to King Solomon for his wisdom. In both paintings the pageantry of the ruler’s court is on display but the focus is on two people, one is the poet and the king, the other is the wise king and the reluctant queen. Notice though how Sheba is painted as an Egyptian princess.
This is another of those political paintings that I saw where we have a troop of British soldiers brutally suppressing a working class riot. Titled the Garden Riots, no doubt it is based on a real event, however it shows the constant struggle between the lower and the upper classes, and that the soldiers are not necessarily there to simply protect the peace, but rather to protect the interests of the ruling classes. During the 19th century we begin to see a lot of these proletariat revolutions, which culminated in the revolution of 1848 which inevitably came to nothing (with the exception of the second and final overthrow of the French Monarchy).
One could suggest that this is another of those political paintings. Entitled Crown and Sceptre, it shows the picture of a young girl wearing a crown of primroses and holding a reed sceptre. In a way it could be seen as mocking the monarchy, especially with its symbols of power. Is a king a king because he wears a crown and holds a sceptre, and if that is the case can anybody who wears and crown and holds a sceptre, whether it be a crown of gold or a crown of primroses, be a king (or in this case a queen). In many ways this is how we picture nobility, but if we were to take away those symbols does that take away their power?
I wish to finish off with this painting (I know, I haven’t even got to the impressionists, but the gallery had only one Monet anyway) which is titled Diogenes. The painting is of a rather famous, and quite interesting, philosopher named Diogenes the Cynic. While he may not be as famous as Socrates, and rarely makes it into the pages of books about ancient Greece, he is actually quite popular, if only among the intellectuals. Basically this guy quit his job and went to live on the streets to make a point. The fact that he started the philosophical school of Cynicism attests to the fact that he was anything but a beggar. Basically the guy hated the status-quo and the crass materialism and nationalism of the Greeks. As such he refused to see himself as belonging to any city, town, or country, and basically lived on the streets eating what he could scavenge. The fact that this guy had a following suggests that he was up there with many of the other philosophers of the time. On the other hand he may have just been a lazy beggar spouting rubbish in which people seemed to take interest.
The European 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