Returning from one of our routine trips to the Chinese Visa Service Center, we struck up a conversation with a couple from Canberra sitting opposite from us in the tram. They mentioned a temporary exhibit of works by the iconic Australian painter John Olsen as a ‘must see’ in Melbourne at the moment – not that we had ever heard of Mr. Olsen before.
Back home I googled a little and found out that the “John Olsen: The You Beaut Country” exhibit was only running for another couple of days at the Ian Potter Center. Well, off we went the very next morning to the NGV, the National Gallery of Victoria. In Melbourne, you’ll find two separate museums under the NGV label. The NGV International and the NGV Australia, otherwise known as the Ian Potter Center which houses Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian art through the ages in permanent collections and also hosted the temporary John Olsen exhibit.
Along the way to the Ian Potter Center, our tram passed other landmarks, like Parliament House.
Our destination was Federation Square next to the Yarra river, the new, hip, and central meeting area in the center of Melbourne. The buildings of the Federation Square were designed according to John Horton Conway and Charles Radin’s mathematical principles of pinwheel tiling, in this case actually, quaquaversal tiling as seen here:
The Ian Potter Center is a part of this crazy pinwheeling and we rushed inside, glad to escape the overwhelming sunshine for cooled interior space, be it quaquaversal or not.
John Olsen presented his artist statement about his 2005 Archibald [prize winning] self-portrait in the form of a poem. The portrait itself was not well received by the public.
The hardwood floors were a delight throughout the museum. And in one room the ceiling was quite special as well. Olsen painted many ceiling canvases over the years which were often removed and hung on walls after they changed ownership. The Ian Potter Center’s curators strove to give us an impression of the originally intended impact of Olsen’s ceiling installation with their unique display.
The painting is described as somber and dark, and indeed the museum’s online file copy appears lifeless and subdued. My perception, on the other hand, showed me a vibrant night sky merging with ocean blues, contrasted against the golden yellow of the wattle pollen. Perception is the key word here, I suppose. Another shot, a close-up of the lower right corner of the painting that the camera “auto-corrected” for color and light, demonstrates yet another view of the painting. It also shows how beautifully detailed the image is.
In case you should wonder, wattle is an acacia tree, whereby the golden wattle, Acacia pycnantha, Fabaceae, with its stunning and fragrant golden flowers is native to SE Australia. Wattle often forms the underbrush in eucalyptus forests. And with this botany lesson, we shall conclude our Olsen adventure which I enjoyed very much since so many of his paintings seem to revel in the details of cellular life. I am certain many of Olsen’s creatures previously swam across the objective lenses of my microscopes!
After a brief rest in the fractal-domed central lobby of the Ian Potter Center which opens up into “The Atrium” plaza connecting several Federation Square buildings,
we marched fairly briefly through the permanent galleries of the museum. Being tuckered out from our long visit in the Olsen exhibit, we want to return on another day for a less cursory glance at the diverse treasures of the permanent collections.
Indigenous woodwork juxtaposed with western woodwork,
three-dimensional heads juxtaposed with two-dimensional heads,
and a few more sculptures.
A favorite painting [Fred Williams “Mittagong landscape” 1958, portraying the featurelessness & expense of the Australian bush] and a favorite chair [Fred Lowen “Twen T-Four” 1971, lounge chair & footstool] concluded our visit.
The permanent collections of the NGV are open to the public free of charge so one can pop in as often as desired.