Lobbing into Brisbane over Xmas for four lazy days with family, I found the summer weather hot, sweaty and often overwhelming having now acclimatised to Melbourne.
Fortunately rain set in cooling the atmosphere, although not my enthusiasm or affection for this larger than life town.
Brisbane is a city where optimistic people live, particularly those looking for a larger than life experience, albeit these days a more enriching one.
This is in part due to a focus on its Southbank arts precinct, where contemporary and traditional art presentations have changed dramatically over the past decade.
Having been a regular visitor to the Queensland Art Gallery and, also having been at the opening of the Gallery of Modern Art during my time living in Brizzie 1999 – 2009, it’s really good to see them integral to each other these days – QAGOMA.
Director Tony Ellwood brilliantly managed the much-needed ‘art of change’ during his tenure 2007 – 2012, before returning to take over the top job at the NGV where he’s also much admired and appreciated.
My son and I visited the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) first, taking in a number of different contemporary focused shows.
The Tracy Moffat Exhibition: Spirited showcased recent works. Ms Moffat (b 1996-) has a sterling reputation for working in both photography and video and while we found her display both diverse and interesting, we were left feeling hungry for more.
Browsing the other rooms we were captivated by a display of superb indigenous basket weaving, which requires dexterity, skill and a very fine eye. Then there were a number of focused shows, offering a fascinating view of contemporary Japan, including Future Beauty, which explored the innovation of Japanese fashion designers.
We also paused by Michael Parekowhai The Horn of Africa 2006. Despite this we remained restless feeling unfulfilled, as if there was no real substance.
Over coffee my son and I discussed the architecture of GOMA, which is stunning.
We agreed that for us it did not seem to fulfill its purpose as a platform to showcase art. We found we remained focused on its breathtaking spaces, which always seems to overwhelm.
We then sashayed over to the award-winning 1982 Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) a building designed by Brisbane architect Robin Gibson.
Interestingly in here our experience was quite the opposite. While this building also has superb spaces designed within modernist aims, by way of contrast it is and remains a great canvas, enhancing our overall art experience.
Its large or intimate spaces are integral to a very pleasing and satisfying whole.
Acclaimed Sydney architect Harry Seidler said of Gibson’s buildings: “They are of a design which is beyond style, not transient as in fashionable one day, not fashionable the next, but something for all time. That’s the essence of good architecture.
First up we were confronted by beautifully proportioned pleasing aesthete columns of artist Zilvanas Kempinas (b.1969 Lithuania) that suited the space and building perfectly.
This sensational installation is truly sublime, a dynamic modern take on themes and measurements from nature and the ancient world.
The columns assaulted our eyes aesthetically in a pleasing and positive way, plugging into the mathematics that underpinned sacred architecture for thousands of years.
They are a masterful display of dynamic art. We both loved it and did not want to turn away, lingering for quite a while.
When we did turn it was to confront German artist Michael Sailstorfer, (b.1979 -) Wolken (Clouds) installation 2010, purchased with funds from philanthropist Tim Fairfax, AM.
Here was an interesting and amusing comment on contemporary life as ruled by the ‘car’.
Giant whirling ‘car wash brushes’ and the roof installation made from rubber tyres together made quite a splash.
Over on the main feature walls near this building’s famed water pool there were a group of works that called us to investigate yet further.
Yessie Mosby, Barnisha Mosby and Carolyn Mosby had contributed dance instruments, 2011, which alongside George Nona’s feathered headdresses and Patrick Thaiday’s Zugub or dance objects 2011 provided a colourful and fascinating commentary of superb cultural objects.
Then it was time to traverse the rooms of the gallery that flow from one to the other like a great European enfilade, revealing an exciting array of works from the seventeenth century to the period immediately post World War II.
From the permanent collection they were arranged cleverly alongside traditional works in rooms that consecutively unfold like unwrapping a huge pile of presents.
We peeled back layers to discover a group of fascinating works brought together in a wonderfully thought provoking display that captivated and held us enthralled as we undertook our odyssey in the world of art.
Whoever the Curator was that arranged this display deserves a big pat on the back and a star on the forehead.
In each room the combined fine and decorative arts group of works was full of interest and presented in spectacular style. The diverse and interesting array of pictures and sculptures were punctuated by very special pieces from the decorative arts collection.
There were sensational silver or ceramic presentation vases, silver mounted emu eggs and fine furniture from many differing periods and styles.
There were a number of works by Australian born artist John Peter Russell (1858 -1930) who studied in London at the Slade School of Fine Art.
They included his almond trees and ruins painted in Sicily in 1887 as a comment on the curiosity attached to the ongoing archaeological interest at that time.
Following his graduation in London he went on to Paris where as a student he associated with many famous artists involved in developing modern art, including fellow Australian Tom Roberts, sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose Italian model Marianna Mattiocco he married and the great Vincent Van Gogh who wrote to him from Arles.
‘… as for me I remain enraptured with the scenery here. I am working on a series of blooming orchards and involuntarily I though often of you as you did the same in Sicily…’
One of the larger rooms was painted glorious ‘red’ as renowned early 19th century artist JMW Turner would have wished.
This displayed large gilded framed glorious works by late 19th century and early 20th century Australian/English artists, including the great Rupert Bunny (1864-1947), in truly spectacular style.
They added interest and were comments too on how the past influences the present and future.
There were defining war works by George Lambert particularly poignant, as the centenary of that first great conflict looms large in all our minds.
A pair of very interesting chairs c1905 made by a woman ‘leatherworker’ from Toowoomba was a ‘striking manifestation of the romantic connotations attached to the late 19th century English Arts and Crafts movement in Australia.
In reality they are reminders of the austerity of styles that prevailed during the reign of Cromwell’s harsh Commonwealth regime in seventeenth century England.
In the huge room with the international works there was a great deal going on.
Great English artists including Joshua Reynolds were represented alongside Scottish portrait painter Henry Raeburn whose image of Major general Alexander Murray MacGregor as a young man was displayed next to a portrait of Lady Campbell, both painted in 1795.
There were also works by some of the great 17th century Dutch artists, including a still life by Alexander Cooseman (1627-1689), which glowed gloriously as it featured ‘God’s Bounty’ from nature.
This is where I found a contemporary work I really responded to, Anne Zahalka’s photograph on paper entitled The Cleaner, which came from her series ‘Resemblance I’, 1987.
This image cleverly blends historicity with role-playing, providing a cutting comment on the changing role of art in our lives. It’s all about breaking down the boundaries of class structure and about how portraiture can aim to deceive.
A portrait in art history was generally meant to be all about revealing the personality of its sitter through their gestures, features, stance and expression of individuality.
However here the sitter is not being her true self at all. The model while ‘playing herself’ is really ‘performing a role’ and the photograph is posed to ‘look like a painting’ so this image is all about the art of artifice – attempting to deceive.
She is posing in a seventeenth century room setting providing a social comment on how her status in a democratic society should be equal to that of a wealthy merchant whose portrait appears on the wall behind her.
It is the splendid German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s image of the merchant George Gisze.
‘Holbein, wrote English diarist John Evelyn to his contemporary Samuel Pepys in 1689, ‘…really painted to the life beyond any man this day living’.
Holbein became renowned for having achieved a purity of style through which the sitter appeared to tell you his own story, with a clarity that is a distillation of the truth.
After his death of the plague in 1543 painters and sitters in England became far more subject to precedent and fashion.
His portrait of a young Hanse merchant based in Danzig George Gisze 1532, revealed his intent brilliantly.
The Latin inscription on the office wall behind him certified to the portrait’s accuracy.
“Distich on the Likeness of George Gisze.
What you see is Georg’s countenance and counterfeit; so bold in his eye, and thus his cheeks are formed.
In his thirty fourth year of Our Lord 1532′”
In this large room is where we also found a full size figure made from hand beaten copper and finely enamelled in the cloisonné technique by the talented Chinese born artist based in Sydney Ah Xian (b.1960).
I love his works in traditional Chinese mediums such as porcelain, bronze and as here cloisonné, which he has transformed for the modern age.
They are all so aesthetically pleasing while earnestly searching for the inner beauty that exists within humanity’s engagement with nature.
This sensational work was standing as a focal point among a well-selected display of porcelain and other great works from Asia and Europe providing defining points of interest with an ability to hold you captivated for hours investigating them all.
Around the corner we also found a splendid array of brown pottery standing against a backdrop of water through glass where outside giant bronze pelicans posed perfectly beside a reflective pool.
It made me take a moment to remember my own decade of living in Brisbane and many visits there throughout my life.
The first took place in the late 50’s way before the ‘74 floods when I stayed with my eldest sister and her family living there at that time.
Back then it was a very different town, massively insecure and in so many ways insular, with a giant chip on its shoulder about Sydney and seemingly divorced from the ‘Australia’ I knew at that time.
Post the 88 World Trade experience on my next visit it had started to change and by the time I arrived in 1997, it was busy shedding its big country town image.
When I found myself there permanently from 1999 for a decade Brizzie was the Australian city big enough to get lost in, but still small enough to feel at home, although its people still complained a great deal about change and the past.
That atmosphere lasted for a few years but with the advent of the 21st century another big period of rapid and welcome creative change that I was lucky to be an integral part of was highlighted by my writing and producing the 150th anniversary civic event about the founding of Brisbane.
Post the 2011 floods, which happened two years after I left, in 2014 I found Brisbane a familiar but different town yet again. With the invasion of water fresh in their minds, significant changes have taken place in the outlook and life of Brisbane people.
Such shattering defining events do have a habit of altering our perspectives and it seems that today Brisbane people seemingly appreciate the changes made and are embracing modern life with great alacrity.
At QAGOMA Brisbane this summer everyone, Australians and visitors from interstate or international destinations alike, can experience a whole gamut of emotions, while reflecting on past, present and future.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014