Melbourne Calling

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

Some may believe that Standring has paired "Weeping Woman" with the Florentine portrait in order to act as an aesthetic agent provocateur, and that's what I originally thought. But it's worse than that. What he's actually done here, and throughout the show, is to marginalize modernism, to reduce it to just another phase in the development of the art of the Western world. On the contrary, the modern movement marks one of the biggest changes in art in recorded history.

As a result of his approach, a consummately modern painting like "Weeping Woman" looks downright stupid when paired with a Renaissance portrait -- and vice versa. This is a fact, regardless of whether or not the DAM's focus groups are said to have loved it (where do they find these people, anyway? At the Division of Motor Vehicles?) And other placements are offensive too, including the 1960s David Hockney next to the 1760s George Romney. The relationship of the 1930s Magritte to the 1730s Canaletto is also very bad.

Because Standring has taken neither a chronological nor a stylistic approach, the show becomes a thoughtless meander, and visitors will lurch from painting to painting feeling completely disoriented. There are quite a few treats for the eyes, but Standring has made sure that nothing of the history of painting could possibly be gleaned from the show -- even if you know how the events took place. (Luckily, an old-fashioned chronological approach has been taken in the excellent accompanying catalogue; it gives a more sensitive -- and, not incidentally, more interesting -- organization of the material.)

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

But as I said, there's quite a bit to see. There are several noteworthy court portraits, some hung in the third gallery, others hung in the large gallery that's the penultimate space in the show. The Anthony Van Dyck, "Philip Herbert, 4th Earle of Pembroke," is an oil on canvas done around 1634 and is majestic. That could also be said for the Modigliani portrait hung nearby -- in what looks to be another attempt by Standring to minimize modernism. In this richly dense painting, "Portrait of the Painter Manuel Humbert," an oil on canvas from 1916, Modigliani juxtaposes his characteristic style, used to convey the portrait's sitter, against a cubist background.

There's the pair of Jan Steens, "Interior" and "The Wedding Party," both oil on wood panels done in the seventeenth century. The Rembrandt, dating from this same time, is very fine, too, even if the subject, an unidentified man, is hardly an appealing figure. The Turner, "A Mountain Scene: Val d'Aosta," from 1845, is stunning -- but it is, most likely, unfinished. And even though the impressionist and post-impressionist paintings are few and far between, Claude Monet's "Vétheuil," of 1879, is very nice.

European Masterpieces -- aside from the unconscionable installation -- is worthy of repeated visits. Most of the paintings will never be seen in this country again; though a couple, like the Pissarro and the Picasso, will probably travel in the future to places like Paris or New York, most of the rest will never again leave Melbourne. And I don't know about you, but I'm more likely to be in France or on the East Coast some day than in Australia.

That means the only chance people like me will have to see the NGV's collection is right here at the DAM this summer. And if I were you, I wouldn't pass up the opportunity.

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