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What: European Masters: Stadel Museum 19th – 20th Century
Where: National Gallery of Victoria International
When: 19 June to 10 October 2010

The front of the NGV during the
European Masters Exhibition

This may be a Contemporary Art blog, but I am going to review the European Masters exhibition anyway because it tells an amazing (partial) story of the evolution of art from late 19th Century through to early 20th Century, such an important period that marked the beginnings of modernism and the avantgarde.

It is not often that we get a blockbuster exhibition at the NGV that spans several movements in art. Bizarrely, and quite unfortunately, the NGV’s marketing campaign heavily promotes the neo-classic and impressionist paintings (that are a very small part of the exhibition) and plays down the incredibly compelling symbolist and German expressionist works that dominates much of the entire exhibition’s content. I guess it is not that surprising, really. Pretty paintings sell. Not this degenerate expressionist crap.

As I entered the first gallery, I was greeted by the usual pleasantries that attractive and well-executed neo-classical paintings bring. The walls are painted in a deep cherry red that complements the intricate and elaborate golden frames that housed the equally intricate and elaborate paintings, including the alleged star of the show, Tischbein’s painting of Goethe. Plush.

Moving on to the next room, the colour of the walls lighten to a greyish baby blue. My eyes were drawn immediately to a massive Salon-scale early Monet painting. As much as this made me gasp with excitement, I was disappointed because it broke the story. Here I was, coming out of a room full of 18th Century works, I am suddenly confronted by Monet’s ambitious painting of contemporary life of mid 19th Century. Hello! It was like I was reading page 10 of a book and suddenly flicking it over to page 50.

I quickly decided to save this for later and turned around to find the more chronologically appropriate French Romanticism, in particular a painting by my darling Delacroix (oh, Eugene…), followed by works from the Barbizon School such as Corot and Courbet. I followed this route that took me through some very early Cezanne, Sisley and Van Gogh, until I got back to the Monet. This particular gallery was a bit of a confusing mixed bag in terms of the artistic styles from this era, although there was enough to show the slow breaking away from traditional painting styles that informed the works in the first gallery.

The journey to the next room involved walking through a dark corridor lined with heavy black velvet curtains, with the odd Victorian chair, mirror and tables scattered along the way. I loved this strange twilight zone/worm hole experience. It was as if something really amazing lay beyond this corridor. Maybe it symbolised art’s transformation?

I was right. The next section of the exhibition is where the party really starts. I could just sense the excitement building. If you could gather all the willpower and motivation of all the artists in the past who tried to break artistic tradition, siphoned that into a bottle, turned it into liquid and poured it all over me, that’s exactly how I felt. In a flurry of delight, I shuffle across the gallery floor taking in Degas, Bonnard, Renoir, Monet and Manet – the forefathers of modernism who broke away from traditional subject matter, away from the studio, and away from meticulous and technically correct painting.

The next gallery introduced further explorations of subject matter, in particular works from the symbolist movement like Franz von Stuck, where artists explore the power of imagery on human emotion. Stuck’s Pieta, a dark and emotional painting depicting Mother Mary weeping over the dead body of Jesus Christ, almost brought me to tears. Situated close by are the expressive brushtrokes of Lovis Corinth. Looking around the gallery you could see the direction in which painting was headed. Expressionism.

Enter the bridging gallery space dedicated to the works of Max Beckmann, German Expressionist. Ten poignent works surround a space with the walls painted a dark grey. Sinister, chaotic and powerful in its imagery, the works are supplemented by wall texts that inform us of the rise of the Nazis and the downfall of “degenerate” art. Suddenly things got terribly serious and I walked around with furrowed brows, my heart weeping at the thought of all the amazing art that were burnt to nothing by, well, idiots.

I eventually moved on to the last gallery space, the wall colours lightened again and we get a sense of relief, of better times, as if the war was over (although it really wasn’t, because the works there were also made during or prior to the war). Here we are treated to a sampling of cubist (Picasso), Die Blauer Vier (Klee, Feininger) and more German expressionist works (Kirchner, Nolde). This was a pretty lighthearted gallery space that brought the attention back to the art (rather than the war), implying that no matter what stood in the way, artists will always keep innovating and challenging the way we see art and the world around us.

Overall, I loved the fact that this exhibition took us on a journey. Despite not being entirely comprehensive in art history terms (it couldn’t anyway because it was limited to the works they could show), there was just enough to be able to tell part of art’s story and at the same time not too big to lose the engagement and interest of the gallery visitors. So don’t be fooled by the NGV’s somewhat misleading selling of neo-classic and impressionist heavyweights, there’s a lot more interesting work to be viewed here.

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