Melbourne Calling

An Aussie collection of European masterpieces will grace the DAM all summer.

The current blockbuster at the Denver Art Museum is an enormous show with the exhaustively informative title of European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings From the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Filled with compelling pieces, it occupies both the Hamilton and Stanton galleries, which comprise some 18,000 square feet at the museum -- more than enough room for the 88 paintings in this traveling exhibition.

But if the show is installed too thinly in places -- there's even a blank wall or two -- it's usually for the best, since it gives the pieces some breathing room. And that goes for visitors as well. Because there are fewer things to see in each of the dozen or so galleries over which the exhibit ranges, the pace is faster than usual, and people will spend less time in each area. And surely that's what the show's designers and marketing experts had in mind, as they are expecting more than 160,000 people over the next few months during the show's Denver run.

Denver is only one stop on a multi-city U.S. tour for the Melbourne-based collection, the formation of which is an interesting story. In 1904, Melbourne businessman Alfred Felton died and left nearly £400,000 to a charitable trust called the Felton Bequest. A portion of the trust's assets was dedicated to the purchase of "art ancient and modern" for the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia's premier art museum. With this fairly modest amount of money -- which is now essentially exhausted -- the museum was able to buy more than sixty of the 88 paintings included in European Masterpieces.

"Weeping Woman," by Picasso.
"Weeping Woman," by Picasso.
"Portrait of Manuel Humbert," by Modigliani.
"Portrait of Manuel Humbert," by Modigliani.

One of the reasons the money went so far is that Felton had empowered his trustees to work with a group of advisors in Great Britain (Australia was still a British colony in 1904, remember). Among these were art historian Sir Kenneth Clark and curator and Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt, both of whom are now deceased. The ever-changing roster of experts made some savvy decisions that obviously allowed the NGV to stretch the Felton money. For example, in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, when people couldn't give away their nineteenth-century academic and Pre-Raphaelite paintings because they were so out of favor, the Felton Bequest picked up major works of these kinds for peanuts -- paintings which are now worth millions of dollars apiece.

That's how, in 1919, the NGV wound up buying one of the greatest of the Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces, "The Garden of Pan," a magnificent 1880s oil on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones, a key figure in the movement. Another example of insightful bargain-hunting was the Jules Bastien-Lepage, a breathtaking realist painting from 1878, which was acquired in 1924, the nadir for appreciation of this kind of work.

But the NGV also purchased contemporary pieces. In 1905, museum director Bernard Hall bought Camille Pissarro's "Boulevard Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather," an oil on canvas from 1897, with the first year's income from the Felton Bequest. It's one of the few paintings in European Masterpieces to have been widely exhibited, and therefore to be widely known outside of Australia. And of the paintings that were exhibited in Europe before they were acquired by the NGV, almost none have been seen in the United States. That alone makes European Masterpieces a must-see.

The occasion for this U.S. tour is the ongoing rehab of the NGV's main building, a 1960s modernist structure, which is being carried out by designer Mario Bellini of Milan. What this means for the museum is that the majority of its collections had to go into storage while these paintings went on the road. The museum has vast holdings in Oriental, Aboriginal, decorative, and modern and contemporary art. It also has -- no surprise here -- the world's premier collection of Australian art, for which a separate building is set to open by the end of this year. The rest of the museum will reopen in 2002.

"The NGV is the most important museum in the southern hemisphere," says Tom Dixon, the museum's chief conservator. "And the paintings [now in Denver] are almost all of our finest paintings, with the exception of the Tiepolo, which is our most significant old-master painting." Dixon is referring to Giambattista Tiepolo's eighteenth-century "The Banquet of Cleopatra," an enormous oil on canvas. The Tiepolo was deemed too large and too fragile to travel.

The American-born Dixon -- he's from Iowa, believe it or not -- was in Denver last week and is personally responsible for including the city on the tour. Though he's lived Down Under for around twenty years, he's no stranger to Colorado. "I came to Denver in 1976 to oversee the move of the collection of the Colorado History Museum from the old building," he says. "I was also involved in founding the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center at about the same time, and I've been back many times since. My sister lives in Boulder." (Sadly the Art Conservation Center at the University of Denver, the successor to the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center, is set to close within the month.)

Over the years, Dixon came to know DAM director Lewis Sharp. "I went to Lewis with a catalogue of the NGV's collection -- not the catalogue that accompanies this show, but a similar one," Dixon says. "Lewis didn't hesitate to agree to join the tour, even though Timothy [Standring] was out of the country at the time."

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