New Year’s Eve and what to do?
We had our prawns, a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and our evening planned, but we had a dead space in the afternoon.
So rather than mooch and read we went to the Tom Roberts exhibition at the NGA.
Tom Roberts was a seminal nineteenth century Australian artist who knew everybody, mentored Streeton and others of the Heidelberg school. Nowadays he’s mostly known for his portrait of Parkes and his quite remarkable beard and the massive painting of the Duke of York opening the first Parliament of the newly minted Commonwealth in 1901.
But there’s more to the man that that – portraits of great and the good, landscapes, and perhaps most interesting impressionist (with a small i admittedly) paintings done on cigar box lids for the Melbourne 9 by 5 exhibition – Australia’s own analogue of the Vienna Secession movement.
Added up you get a complete picture of the man and his work – society portraits painted to pay the rent, consequently very conventional as the sitter go what the sitter wanted, his own more innovative experiments, including some quasi impressionist oil sketches for the opening of Parliament painting – Roberts was clearly using what he’d learned in his impressionist moments to try out combinations of colour to get the light and the atmosphere right.
Previous summer exhibitions at the NGA have involved collections from overseas. This one is different, but no less interesting – the NGA curators have not only borrowed paintings from the big state art galleries such as the AGNSW and NGV, but have also scoured the smaller regional galleries to track down less well known examples of Roberts’ work and melded them to tell a story of Roberts and his work. Outwardly a respectable society painter, and a safe pair of hands for major works, but behind closed doors a raffish innovative painter not afraid to try new things.
[and if you’re there over lunch, skip the gallery restaurant and try the Vietnamese street food cafe outside – pork banh mih, grilled chicken skewers and excellent coffee]