She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition at the NGV til August

Reading Time: 16 minutes

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism is an exhibition, which is currently showing at the NGV. It contains more than 250 works and is on show until late August.  Sophie Gerhard is the Assistant Curator of Australian Art to 1980 and Assistant Curator on the She-oak and sunlight exhibition. We had a chat to her about her curatorial role, Australian impressionism and the exhibition.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism

 

She-oak and sunlight - Sophie Gerhard
Portrait of Sophie Gerhard,
Assistant Curator of
Australian Painting,
Sculpture and Decorative
Arts, NGV, inside She-Oak
and Sunlight: Australian
Impressionism on display at
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV
Australia from 2 April – 22
August 2021.
Photo: Eugene Hyland

Sophie Gerhard, could you tell us a little bit about your role as the Assistant curator of Australian art to 1980, as well as your curatorial role on the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

I’ve been at the NGV for about two and a half years now and my responsibilities are to assist with the production of exhibitions, but also in the maintenance of the collection.

 

For temporary exhibitions, I’m there really right from the start. I was really fortunate to be given up quite a major role in the exhibition doing a lot of research and writing of labels. I wrote two essays for the exhibition catalogue. It’s a learning opportunity to get my curatorial skills underway and as I said, this show was so big that there was lots to learn.

 

I can imagine. What made you decide to move into a curatorial role?

I tried to do the whole going down the art route. I did a year of studying fine art at university and quickly sort of discovered that it wasn’t for me.

 

So in terms of making art, is that you studying art to make art yourself?

I started studying painting but moved onto study art history. And that’s the bridge to going into curating. Art history is really such a strong passion of mine. And I think that it’s an important love if you are a curator because research is such a big part of the job. I actually have wanted to be a curator from a pretty young age, so I’m fortunate to be where I am.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism
Media preview event for She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Getty

 

Ok, so when you were in school, you knew you wanted to be in this role?

Well, I didn’t really know what a curator was, but certainly like when I was 18, at my first year of university, that was when I discovered that I that was that was sort of when I learned what a curator was. And I think that the profession has changed so much even in the last ten years. It’s become a lot more specialised. Yeah. So, yeah, that’s about that.

 

Become specialised in terms of?

Oh well I think it depends where you work really and how big the institution is. If you’re a curator of a smaller gallery, your role is so far stretched. It comes with researching, but also exhibition management and design and installation, all of those things are encompassed within the curatorial position at a smaller gallery. In State galleries, the role is so specialized, we all have our major topics that we like to talk about. There are seven or eight curatorial departments and within those departments is 3 or 4 curators, each with a sort of specialized fields. And we all kind of know who to talk to about different topics.

 

So, in terms of specialties then, did you choose your specialty of Australian art to 1980 or was that kind of just the position you currently in?

I was really fortunate. It was sort of exactly where I wanted to go. In my undergraduate degree in art history and museum studies. I wrote my thesis on Australian national identity in Australia’s art galleries. And in Masters Art Curating I did my thesis on, again, national identity and so I always knew that I wanted to focus on the sort of Australianness of our collections, the Australian story that the collections try to emit. And so, yeah, when the Assistant Curator job in Australian art came up, it was definitely the right fit for me. And not only that, I wanted to work in historical art as opposed to contemporary art. So, I was really fortunate in that position came up. It was pretty up my alley.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

It was made for you! That leads quite nicely into the She-oak and sunlight exhibition. It shows more than two hundred and fifty artworks drawn both from major public and private collections, including the NGV’s own. How many years is it taken to put an exhibition like this together?

So this exhibition was in the works as I came into my role two and a half years ago. But it was when I started that it really began to gain momentum.  I was working on it consistently for two years before the show started. And I think for about a year before then, there were conversations happening. So, it takes around three years for these big shows to get on their feet.

 

And in regards to the artworks that were drawn from private collections for the She-oak and sunlight exhibition, were they uniquely Australian held private collections or are there Australian impressionist works held overseas?

There are Australian impressionist works overseas, but none within the exhibition. They are all Australian based, which is extremely fortunate in the end with COVID. So, it took about a year just even trying to figure out where all of these works were in the country. You have to go through piece by piece and look back through exhibition records and auction catalogues.

 

She-oak and sunlight
Tom Roberts
Australia 1856 – 1931 She-oak and sunlight 1889
oil on wood panel
30.4 × 30.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Jean Margaret Williams Bequest, K. M. Christensen and A. E. Bond Bequest, Eleanor M. Borrow Bequest, The Thomas Rubie Purcell and Olive Esma Purcell Trust and Warren Clark Bequest, 2019

 

The She-oak and sunlight exhibition shows works from a large number of Australian impressionists, some we’ve obviously heard all along the lines of Tom Roberts, Arthur Street and Charles Conder, John Russell but also some lesser-known artists. Were the Australian Impressionists, kind of a group that hung out together like the French ones were?

They certainly were. They all had their key relationships. But one of the important threads of this exhibition is to interrogate that and to have a look at it. The curator, Anne Gray is very interested in these relationships, and she’s always talking about how none of the impressionists were in the same place at the same time. So three might have been working in Victoria, Tom Roberts would leave and go to Sydney, where he’d meet Condor and he’d be introduced to Julian Ashton. Those 3 would work together for a while.

 

And then, E. Phillips Fox is in Box Hill working with Jane Sutherland and the others, and then the Charterisville School of Art came about. So they all definitely knew each other but actually they were never all together at the same time. A lot of them went to Europe at some point in their career. Another time when relationships were formed and met, a lot of them at art school, at the National Gallery School in Victoria. So, we really were really trying to build these personal relationships and have a look at the kind of map of their friendships as well in the exhibition.

 

You mentioned that they travelled some of them have travelled to Europe. Was that during the impressionistic period? Is that where they go, I guess, caught wind of the impressionist movement?

Yes. So Roberts was the first person to head over to Europe and he was there for five or six years. And he gets back in 1885. So, while he was over there for that half decade, that was when he was introduced to the principles of working en plein air and the quick rough sketches that were happening during the European impressionist phase.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

And it was when he was on a trip to the Alhambra in Spain that he met a couple of Spanish artists, Ramón Casas was one of them. Casas did this really quick portrait of Robert sitting outside of the Alhambra. And that was sort of the first meeting point, I guess, between Roberts and the impressionist movement. He was blown away that this portrait was completed in one sitting outside. And so when Roberts comes back to Australia, he brings back these techniques and principles and teaches his friends, and that’s sort of the birth of the movement across here.

 

From there, many of the Australian impressionists did sojourn in Europe. So we’ve got Iso Rae, for example spent time in France, as did Florence Fuller, May Vale and Violet Teague.

 

We are seeing these European influences come in and out of the whole sort of trajectory of the movement. It was a bit later on when they went across and discovered Whistler, who obviously had an enormous impact on the movement back across here. And John Russell, of course, he was over there for such a long time. So in the show, this international context is so important to extending this narrative of the movement in Australia. So, we have the French influenced room within the show that we see a lot of these influences taking place.

 

So at She-oak and sunlight there’s a French influenced room and there’s also the exploration of the key relationships between the various Australian impressionists. Are they all themed rooms through the exhibition?

It’s a thematic and loosely chronological hang. So, we open up with the precursors, so we have some Buvelots, just to show what it was like in Australia beforehand. And then we move into this portrait section where we have a whole dense mass hang of portraits of the Australian impressionists and by the Australian impressionists. Most of the artists in the show are on this wall. It’s sort of like the introduction to the cast of characters.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

Yes, it’s quite nice to see the faces of the people behind the paintings.

Because friendships and relationships are so important to the curator. It was really nice to start the show off in this way. That room is called Friends and Rivals. So, then we walk through the camps, we’ve Box Hill and Darebin Creek and Mentone and whatnot.

 

Then we have a really small room, that is a sort of thematical recreation in a sense of the 1889 Nine by Five exhibition, which was obviously a pivotal exhibition that was held on Collins Street in Melbourne. One of the other themed rooms in the show is the Charterisville School of Art room, which was a school that was on the Ivanhoe at the turn of the century, and that was a school run by E Philips Fox and David Davies. So we’ve got some fantastic works that were created in that school.

 

We’ve also got a small room devoted to Whistler and his influences. And then the French Impressionism influence room. We’ve got a lot of artists, Australian artists that went overseas to France, but also a lot of French artists so we’ve got a Monet and a Sisley painting within that space too.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

And then the show finishes in another thematic room that sort of has two themes that run along side by side. Firstly, the majority of the room is focused on Australian narratives, and it has these really blockbuster iconographical paintings that were Shearing the Rams, The Pioneer, A break away – all of these works that were created at the time to touch upon a building sense of national identity that was extremely important within non-Indigenous society at the time in Australia. But then alongside those paintings, we have put five works on paper by Wurundjeri artist, William Barak, and he was an artist working at the same time and also in Victoria. The pairing here is to sort of remind our audiences that even though non-Indigenous artists were working towards a sense of national identity within these paintings, there was most definitely a very important national identity that had already been established for over 60,000 years by that point.

Tom Roberts Australia 1856 – 1931 Shearing the rams 1890 oil on canvas on composition board 122.4 x 183.3 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1932

 

And also to these Australian impressionists are so often connected with what it looks like to be Australian, like the sheep shearer, for example, and the pioneer narratives. And so, again, it’s just a reminder for audiences that that is just one aspect of what Australian national identity looks like.

 

And that’s important as well, something that can often kind of get forgotten about in some of the exhibitions. What’s your favourite piece in the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

My favourite pieces in the show would definitely be work from within the French room. There are just some divine works in that space and probably the Charles Conder Hayfields of Giverny. It’s just a wonderful painting. I just love the palette. I love the feel. I love everything about it. Also, Iso Rae’s Young girl, Étaples, which is a really recent acquisition by the NGV from 2020. That’s a really exciting new addition to our collection. That’s fantastic. To have her own show in this room. So probably those two works.

Charles Conder Hayfield, Giverny, France
Medium oil on canvas Dimensions 60.3 x 73.5 cm
Gifted to mark 50 years of giving by M.J.M. Carter AO Collection through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program Signature and date Signed and dated l.r. corner, oil “C. CONDER. 94” credit
Photo: Saul Steed

How would you say that the paintings that are showcased in the She-oak and sunlight exhibition would be different to French impressionist paintings?

It’s a funny thing because so many of the Australian impressionist paintings are not technically impressionist works. I mean, Shearing the Rams – it’s not an impressionist painting, even though it was completed by Tom Roberts within the same decades, you know.

 

What they have in common is portraying a sense of life that was happening at that point in history, and so the French works were outside capturing these wonderful bourgeois society, people promenading, market squares, a lovely way of life. And across here, we had such a different atmosphere and such different lives for the people that were living in Australia at that time. So even though both types of impressionism are outside and capturing the landscape in these quick, painterly gestures, there are so many similarities when it comes to the sort of physicality of the works, but the themes that are captured are completely different. We’ve got McCubbin in dense bushland at the same time that Monet is painting the cliffs at Belle Ile. So, I think that the key differences are the themes, the things, even though they were sort of striving for similar things.

She-oak and sunlight exhibition
Frederick McCubbin Australia 1855-1917 Lost c.1886 Oil on canvas 115.8 x 73.9 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

 

You mentioned that the shearer isn’t technically an impressionist work. Is that because it’s not in the style of or just because the subject matter isn’t typical of impressionist works?

Well when we think of impressionism, we think of capturing an impression of the moment don’t we. Really, there’s a naturalist sort of sense to works like The Pioneer and Shearing the Rams are not they’re not impressions that they’re capturing – I guess the style of them is just not what we think of when we think of impressionism, but we’ve put them into the show because they’re an incredibly important part of the history of these artists. And they’re so loved.

She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism
Frederick McCubbin
Australia 1855-1917 The pioneer 1904 oil on canvas 225.0 x 295.7 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1906

So essentially that they’re included more as part of the completeness of the artist’s story rather than upsetting the impressionist work.

They complete the picture, don’t they?

 

Was there the same kind of use of brush stroke or colour in the Australian works to the French works?

There’s definitely similarities in the execution of the works. And I think that we probably see it more for the artists that went abroad. So people like Ethel Carrick, who worked in both Australia and in Europe, brushwork and palette is extremely similar to that of John Russell and Monet, for example. I think it’s hard because the artists are so different to one another, really.

Ethel Carrick Australia 1872 – 1952 Flower market 1907 oil on wood panel National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by the late Major B. R. F. MacNay, and Mrs D. Mac`Nay, Fellow 1994

In the story of Australian impressionism, Frederick McCubbins’ early impressionist works are so different to that of Charles Conder. So, I probably wouldn’t draw upon their execution as being what ties them together. I think it’s the intent maybe to capture a moment. I think that and that’s sort of like we go back to that court in the 9 by 5 catalogue exhibition that sort of says an effect is only momentary so an impressionist must find his place. And I think that that really captures what the intent of these artists was to capture the moment, even though they really did do it all in very, very different ways.

 

Yeah, so they’ve got quite different styles, even though they were all doing that. The themes are similar in that it’s capturing a moment, even if this styles that they use to capture the theme are different. Exactly.

They’re all also coming away from the same point of academic training. And the conservatism  that predates the Impressionist time in Australia. We think of going out into the landscape with a palette and in one day making a painting that doesn’t sound as revolutionary to us as it was to them but really like they were stepping away from such a conservative period. I think that the head of the National Gallery School said anyone who paints outside is a fool. And this was the thing that they were trying to rebel against in a way. So, it’s really to do with what they were trying to achieve rather than how they achieved it, I think.

 

Given that they were also fighting against conservative opinion, did they come across as much criticism as the French impressionists did with some you know, the critics would just not rate their works at all. It was absolute. It was almost revolutionary and just they couldn’t understand it, get their heads around. Why would you want to use colour in this way? Why would you want to paint these things?

Definitely. So, for the 9 to 5 exhibition in 1889 there were such loathsome reviews out there that the artists actually pasted the reviews to the exhibition door because they were so proud of the controversy that their art was making. Yeah, people couldn’t understand it. People couldn’t understand it.

 

The women were prone to much more much more sort of media negative media attention with their works of. Even though the male artists were being critiqued in harsh ways. I think the women were even more so when they were producing sort of these “unfinished” paintings. Yeah, it was entirely controversial.

Tom Roberts (1856–1931) Opening of the First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia by H.R.H. The Duke of Cornwall and York (Later King George V), May 9, 1901, 1903, oil on canvas. On permanent loan to the Parliament of Australia from the British Royal Collection. Image courtesy of the Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT and the Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

And when did people start appreciating Australian impressionist paintings?

That’s a really good question. I think they did at the time, most of these artists did end up having really successful art careers, in and of themselves. Tom Roberts was commissioned to paint the bigger picture, which was the commemorative painting for the opening of parliament in Australia. That was a huge commission. He had to go to London to to complete that. I mean, they they were successful artists in their own right, but I just think that it took it took time.

 

I asked you what your favourite piece is and you’ve touched on pieces that you couldn’t not include in the exhibition, such as the shearer. What would you say are the highlights of the She-oak and sunlight exhibition?

I think the highlights are the understated moments where we have works and small sections that haven’t been readily exhibited with the impressionists before. We’ve sort of tried to extend the narrative in as many ways as we can.

 

We’ve got a lovely wall of wood samples by May Vale, she is another artist that actually went to Europe and was heavily influenced by Whistler a bit later on at the turn of the century. But while she was studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, she was commissioned to illustrate some timber wood panels for a botanist that was working in Melbourne at the time. And she illustrated them with the flowers of the eucalypt of the wood that she was painting on. So, they’re not Impressionist works at all, but where we’ve included them again, to widen the narrative of these artists, and they’re just such beautiful things in their own right.

She-oak and sunlight
Installation view of May Vale’s Timber Collection on display in She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

 

So we’ve got some really lovely moments like that right next to the May Vale wood samples. We also have two frame designs by Elizabeth Williamson. She was a really prolific frame designer at the time who designed and made a lot of frames for the Impressionists. She actually ended up marrying Tom Roberts. Her frame designs aren’t ever displayed with the impressionist. But again, it’s a really interesting subsection of the story.

Installation view of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Melbourne on display from 2 April – 22 August 2021.
Photo: Tom Ross

 

Something you don’t think about.

Yeah, it’s an interesting point. So, I think that the highlights are those sort of understated surprises in the show.

We thanks Sophie Gerhard for her time and look forward to seeing the She-oak and sunlight exhibition before it closes next month.

 

KEY INFO

WHAT: She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition

WHERE: The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Federation Square, Ground Level, Melbourne

WHEN: until 22 August 2021

HOW: Purchase your tickets via the NGV website https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/she-oak-and-sunlight/

HOW MUCH: Ticket prices for She-Oak and sunlight are as follows:

  • Adult $26
  • Concession card holders $24
  • Child (5-15 years) $8
  • Family (2 adults, 3 children) $55

Tickets are discounted for NGV Members.

OTHER ARTICLES

If you are interested in the She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism exhibition, you may also like our articles about other exhibitions currently on at the NGV:

Camille Henrot: is Today Tomorrow is currently showing at NGV

French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opens in Melbourne

 

For more about impressionism, you may also like our interviews with curators about past impressionist exhibitions in Australia:

INTERVIEW: Paul Perrin about Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay

Did you know there was an Australian French impressionist, named John Russell?

 

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She-oak and sunlight: Australian impressionism

French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opens in Melbourne

Reading Time: 15 minutes

After a delayed opening due to Melbourne’s lockdown, the French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition opened last Friday 25 June 2021. We had a chat to Meg Slater, one of the NGV curators working on this exhibition while the exhibition was being installed. You can find ticket details for French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at the end of the article.

French impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
*See bottom of article for image info and credits

 

About Meg

Portrait of Meg Slater, Curator of International Exhibition Projects, NGV in French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at NGV International, Melbourne from 25 June – 3 October 2021. Photo: Eugene Hyland

Meg Slater, you’re the Assistant Curator of international exhibition projects at the NGV and of the Winter Masterpieces 2021 exhibition French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. What does the role entail?

Well, it’s difficult, actually. Whenever anyone asks me what I do on a day-to-day basis, I find it very hard to answer because it changes so much. My boss is Miranda Wallace, the senior curator within the department, it’s just the two of us and a little bit of an anomaly within the broader curatorial department in that we don’t have a collection area that we focus on. A lot of the other curators at the NGV are responsible for, say, the Indigenous art collection or the Australian art collection or bringing works into the permanent collection and displaying those works.

 

Whereas Miranda and I are a lot more familiar with international collections because we work primarily on the temporary exhibitions that are presented on the NGV’s ground floor.  The Melbourne Winter Masterpieces shows, the big summer exhibitions, we’re usually working on those.

 

We’re constantly across varying subject matter from, for example, the Haring/Basquiat exhibition [Keith Haring / Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines] through to this French Impressionism show to Alexander Calder [the Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor exhibition]. We’re constantly jumping across geographies and between time periods. That is it on a very broad level.

 

On a day to day, I’m supporting Miranda and the department. I could be doing anything from writing an essay for an exhibition publication to compiling an exhibition checklist to writing a loan request to a lender that we want a work from for the upcoming exhibition. It’s really anything really involved in the preparation and development of our major international shows. And at the moment I’m running between my desk and the gallery space where French impressionism will be and is currently being installed. So that’s very exciting.

Image: Tom Ross

 

What drew you to the art world?

In high school, I remember I studied visual art and I wasn’t much good at making it but I always loved the ideas behind how art was made and art history and understanding a little more how different moments in art belong to a much broader history. I think very early on, I decided that I was more interested in the thinking behind and “How can these objects be interpreted and displayed?” It wasn’t even necessarily curating from the outset. I just had an interest in the concepts behind artworks. Then at university, I studied art history in Queensland.

 

Is that where you’re from originally?

Yeah, I’m from Brisbane.  I moved here for the job – I think when I first started studying art galleries seemed like these very abstract things where all of this stuff happens that you didn’t really know how. We were learning a lot about the theory at my university, but not so much about well how do you get from A to B in an art gallery?

 

I ended up putting my hand up for, firstly some internships in Queensland and the Queensland Art Gallery. But then I was really lucky to be able to do a couple of placements, one in London and one in New York. I did a lot of internships, which is really useful to understand what I was interested in and not just in curatorial, I did some in public programs and exhibitions management and curatorial. I think that really helped me a lot to understand that I wanted to work in a bigger institution and I actually interned for my boss, which is often the path for a lot of people who end up working here, and then a job became available and I moved here – I think this is my fourth year at the gallery.

 

So how long were you in London and New York for?

I was in London for about five or six months and I was doing an internship, not full time, whereas in New York, I was doing a study abroad program for my university and I managed to line up an internship at the same time. I did an internship at the Victoria and Albert Museum and then, after I graduated from my undergrad, I applied to a whole bunch of summer cycle internships in New York and I did one at the Brooklyn Museum.

 

So, you’ve definitely seen different art forms and different international museums and how they do things.

Yeah, it is really interesting because everyone does things are differently.

 

Image: Tom Ross

 

Planning an exhibition during COVID-19

How has putting on an exhibition like the French impressionists differed to how it would have been done pre COVID?

I can really only more meaningfully speak to the curatorial role in that process. It’s interesting because since earlier this year, we’ve been able to come back into the office and that has been nice because there was distance between you and the processes that we would usually use to develop these kinds of big shows.

 

It’s as simple as having an exhibition model that is built and small-scale art works that you can move around and even just people being in the same room to think about how artwork should be placed and what kind of connections we want to draw out. What’s the exhibition design going to look like? We had those meetings virtually, but it is actually quite profound how much of a difference it makes when you’re not physically with those people.

 

I think the biggest change I’ve noticed is just the shift from last year to all of us now being back on site again and even just being in the same space with amazing artworks coming in. It was a different process in that it was digital. I honestly think that’s the simplest way to say it. Everything that is usually quite hands on and physically together was managed in a digital way, which is very different for curators working on exhibitions like this one.

Pierre Auguste Renoir
French 1841–1919
Dance at Bougival 1883
oil on canvas
181.9 x 98.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Picture Fund
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

 

Yeah, definitely. And in terms of transporting the works… I imagine there are less flights coming in from the States, for example. From everywhere, but from the States as well.

It’s just extra measures like having people stationed at different points where planes have to land and refuel and having someone there to check that the works are ok and then have to go onto another plane. So, it was just a lot of additional logistical things to think through. And you know what if that plane is cancelled, what’s plan B? I think it was just a lot of additional planning, which our incredible registrars have done and has resulted in all of the works arriving safely.

 

And I imagine that you probably only send like one or two works per plane because you don’t want something to happen to the plane and lose all of the works. I imagine it’s quite complicated.

To be honest, I’m not sure but it is along those lines.  We have three of the wonderful MFA Boston staff out here at the moment, who came out to help us with the install and acting as the carers for those works while they’re out here for the installation period anyway.

 

I did wonder whether without borders being quite closed at the moment, whether that was a possibility.

They all did the quarantine period, which was really generous of them to do. I know it’s a requirement, but still it’s wonderful that they signed up for it and were willing to do it. I know we’d do it if the situations were reversed as well. But it’s just really special because there are a lot of roadblocks that potentially could have gotten in that way. And it’s just really nice to see the show coming together the way that it is, in the circumstances.

 

A little bit more about you and then a little bit more about the exhibition. What’s your favourite art form?

It’s really difficult honestly, because we’re working across so many shows and I also study as well. And I’m constantly reading different things so that can change on a day-to-day basis. It’s just the nature of the job.

 

I think quite broadly, I’m very interested in exhibitions and artists revisiting the narratives that we know in art history and broadening them and telling more stories, stories that may have originally been left out for many reasons. For example, I’m one of the curators working on the Queer exhibition opening at the end of the year, which is a collection exhibition. And it’s been a really interesting opportunity to be able to delve into the collection and apply a queer lens to works that have probably never been viewed that way and to explore these histories that have always been there, that haven’t necessarily been presented to audiences. I’m particularly interested in queer histories at the moment, particularly with that exhibition on the horizon. And it’s a real personal endeavour for myself and for the other four curators working on that show as well. So, I guess that would be my main area of interest.

 

Also, I am fascinated by international exhibitions and how they are presented in big galleries, like this one as well. And I’ve loved every project that my boss, Miranda and I have worked on so, it’s tricky. Right now I’m in love, for example, with Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, two of the female impressionists who we have wonderful works by in this exhibition, because I’ve been doing so much reading into their practice and how they worked. And I think honestly, based on what I’m reading and based on whatever I’m researching, it really influences the people who stand out for me.

Berthe Morisot
French 1841–95
White flowers in a bowl 1885
oil on canvas
46.0 x 55.0 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Bequest of John T. Spaulding
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

 

French impressionism exhibition

So, if we focus more on the French impressionist paintings that you’ve got in the gallery at the moment, do you have a favourite from the exhibition?

Again, it varies and it’s a very tricky question. I feel like anyone who worked on the show, but particularly curators, just because we’ve been writing about all of the works and thinking about them in groupings. So, it’s difficult to single things out but I could list a few.

 

Totally up to you. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t mean to pose a difficult question, choosing a favourite child!

Exactly, haha, I don’t want to upset any of the others. But one of my favourite groupings of works that are all very related is the section in the exhibition that is dedicated to this innovative print-making endeavour that was undertaken by three of the impressionists, Degas, Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro, in the late 1870s.

Image: Sean Fennessy

 

And it’s interesting that they came together with the intention of publishing these prints in a new journal titled Day and Night. And you’ll understand why it was going to be titled that way when you see the print-making effects they were using a facsimile using it so that these like contrast with light and dark. But it was actually never published. Even though it wasn’t published as they intended, the prints still remain and I think it’s interesting because the vast majority of the exhibition is painting, and I think that is what we associate with the impressionists.

 

The interesting thing to consider is that they were very instrumental in other media as well, and they extended their experimentation and their embrace of modern subject matter to printmaking. So, in this series of prints by the three artists, we have the theatre, which was relatively new in Paris at that point in history, the art gallery where the impressionists would go to study the old masters at the Louvre, and scenes in in the natural world as well.

 

While they did record this predominantly on canvas, they also do experiment with other mediums as well. So, I really love that. It’s a very small and intimate section, but it is one of my favourites. And then I think on a much grander scale, we actually just installed – it seems like a very odd thing to say still – we just installed the Monet room, which is the final section of the exhibition.

French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston NGV
Part of the Monet Room at French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Image: Sean Fennessy

 

MFA Boston have very generously lent 19 Monet canvases to us, which is incredible. And 16 of those are displayed in that final gallery, an oval shaped space. And it’s just amazing when you walk in. I had a great physical reaction that was just shocking to see many of his works in one room. And to see how and why he is heralded as the great impressionist. You really understand it when you go into that room. It’s just amazing. I think those two are probably my favourites in the exhibition, but there are so many others as well.

 

You’ve mentioned that there are different rooms with different themes. What is the broad theme of the exhibition? Is there a broad theme or is it kind of several themes that link up?

There are moments in the show, for example, that follow chronology, but then it also can become thematic and look at certain motifs that the impressionists were interested in. For example, we have a section called watery surfaces that looks specifically at the very changeable motif of water and how that was a real challenge for the impressionists to capture.

Pierre Auguste Renoir
French 1841–1919
The Seine at Chatou 1881
oil on canvas
73.3 x 92.4 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Arthur Brewster Emmons
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

 

But the exhibition starts for example, with the Barbizon school and a section dedicated to the works of Eugène Boudin, and that’s really tracing these artists who were before the impressionists, who had a very profound influence on them. The exhibition is really tracing this movement that everyone knows about very well, but also introducing artists you might not know as well, and you might not realise without these precursors, there may not have been impressionism. These formative influences. And then we move into this exploration of the central members of the impressionist group and motifs that fascinated them.

 

But I think another really important line throughout the entire exhibition is that we have really consciously integrated the artist’s voice throughout the entire exhibition. From the opening corridor to a large selection of the labels, sometimes quotes are on the walls. We really wanted to, in addition to showing these works many of which people are quite familiar with, we wanted to reveal some of the motivations behind the artists, some of the difficulties they faced and the struggles, the connections, because there are so many connections between these artists, but also some of the rivalries and some of the difficulties that arose between certain artists as well. So, it really provides an extra layer, to contextualize the work and introduce a human element into them as well. I think when we think of Claude Monet for example, he’s almost elevated to this position in art history. And it’s kind of nice to remember that he had struggles and he was connected to this artistic community. I think it just humanizes the artists a lot which is really nice.

French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston NGV
Image: Sean Fennessy

 

Because we often don’t think about the person that actually painted all those. How did the decision to exhibit along these lines with these themes, how was that decided?

Well, we’ve worked closely with the exhibition’s curators. It’s a curatorial team across institutions. So, in Boston we have Katie Hanson and Julia Welch who are both curators for that institution. And they really selected the works and their thematic groupings and also were so helpful in providing a lot of this dialogue between the artists through their very extensive research on these works in the collection at MFA Boston.

 

And then over here in Melbourne, my boss Miranda Wallace and I, and the wonderful Ted Gott in international art have been working very closely with Katie and Julia to take the works, take the themes and really shape these sections and how we’ve weaved the artists’ voices into them. A lot of which has been done virtually. Often times, if it were different circumstances, they might’ve come and visited a few times and been here for the installation. But that’s not been possible this time round. So, fortunately even though it would have had to be done virtually, it’s worked out incredibly well, and we were able to work really effectively with Katie and Julia on developing all of this exhibition together.

 

Has the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston put on this exhibition itself before?

No, this exhibition has been conceived just for us, which we feel incredibly grateful for. We’ve been talking to one of the couriers, Rona, who is a conservator at MFA Boston and she mentioned some of these works often just do not leave the walls of MFA Boston, which is an incredibly generous thing to be trusting and allowing us to display these works for our audiences. But I believe it’s 79 works of the just over a hundred works that had never actually been to Australia before. So, it’s one that – even though impressionism is such a famous movement in art history – the vast majority of these works, our audiences won’t have seen.

 

Yeah. And do we know how the works included in French Impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston came to be in Boston?

It’s interesting actually in a number of ways. I was quite fascinated as well because MFA Boston has one of the best collections of French impressionism in the world. One of the best, outside of France, for example. It’s really the result of the collecting efforts of many Bostonians in the 19th century, many of whom travelled to Paris as the movement was developing. And they would buy paintings, you know, people say as they were still wet on the walls, and brought them back.

 

Mary Cassatt, for example, who we do represent in the exhibition, in the printmaking section and, with a fantastic painting as well, she was one of the members of the impressionist group and she advocated – she was from Philadelphia and moved to Paris – and she advocated among her fellow Americans for the work of the impressionists to be purchased. And it resulted in a lot of really key impressionist works now existing in the American collections, which I think is a really interesting story.

 

I personally love hearing about the stories behind how certain artworks arrive where they are, like where did they move from? How did they change hands?

 

Like who owned them before and then donated to them the Museum…

Exactly. For example, with the Mary Cassatt portrait that we have in this exhibition. It’s a portrait of her niece Ellen Mary and it’s the most beautiful painting. It’s one of my favourites in the show. Mary Cassatt gave it to her niece and then her niece gave it to the MFA Boston, which is such a beautiful thing, you know, it’s such a personal work. It was of her by her aunt and then it’s given to an institution.

French impressionism from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston at the NGV
Mary Stevenson Cassatt
American 1844–1926
Ellen Mary in a white coat c. 1896
oil on canvas
81.3 x 60.3 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Charles, Hope, and Binney Hare in honor of Ellen Mary Cassatt
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

 

So, you’ve said the exhibition was conceived just for the NGV. Does that mean that it goes straight back to Boston after this?

That’s right. Yeah. So, there’s no other institutions that it’s presented at.

We thank Meg Slater for this interview and look forward to visiting the French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition this Winter.

 

KEY EXHIBITION INFO

WHAT: French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

WHEN: Friday 25 June to Sunday 3 October 2021

WHERE: NGV, Melbourne

HOW: Buy tickets to see the exhibition via the NGV website: https://connect.ngv.vic.gov.au/40648

HOW MUCH:

Adult $30

Concession $28

Child (5-15 years) $10

Family (2 adults + 3 children) $65

 

NOTE: 20% discount for NGV Members

 

To find out more about French impressionism, you may like to read our interview with Paul Perrin about Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay, an exhibition which was held in Adelaide a few years ago.

*Top L to R:
Pierre Auguste Renoir
French 1841–1919
Dance at Bougival 1883
oil on canvas
181.9 x 98.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Picture Fund
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

Henri Fantin-Latour
French 1836–1904
Flowers and fruit on a table 1865
oil on canvas
60.0 x 73.3 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Bequest of John T. Spaulding
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

Bottom L to R:

Pierre Auguste Renoir
French 1841–1919
The Seine at Chatou 1881
oil on canvas
73.3 x 92.4 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Gift of Arthur Brewster Emmons
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

Claude Monet
French 1840–1926
Poppy field in a hollow near Giverny 1885<br />
oil on canvas
65.1 x 81.3 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved

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French Impressionism: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pierre Auguste Renoir
French 1841–1919
Dance at Bougival 1883
oil on canvas
181.9 x 98.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Picture Fund
Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved