Postcard from Canberra

Ah Canberra in the Summertime. Such a strange phenomenon. The locals leave – hurtling down the Clyde, everything is closed, and the hot dry wind is left to buffet around the city by itself like an insolent teenager.

I am as guilty as the next local of this seasonal abandonment, but drawing me back home this holiday was the promise of fine art thrills. I am referring of course to the National Gallery’s Masterpieces From Paris, the jewel of this year’s Canberra Tourism crown. Despite being half-cloaked in scaffolding the NGA is buzzing with energy in a way it hasn’t seemed to for years.

I venture over at two pm on a weekday to find my timing couldn’t have been better. The Gallery is crowded, but thankfully without queues, and even without having pre-purchased my ticket I swan right on in.

I’ve spent the days leading up to this visit trying to play down my rising excitement over the Masterpieces From Paris exhibition. I worry that I’ve been won over by the fancy television commercials, afraid of ruining the experience with grossly high expectations. As I step foot into the first room of the exhibition however, I breathe a sigh of relief. This time the hype is justified – this is going to be seriously good.

Gone are the small, murkily lit works and huge, yawn-inducing blocks of text that seem common to NGA blockbusters of recent years. No stuffing around here – instead, BAM: five Monets announce this exhibition as all killer, right from the get-go.

The next hour is a delicious blur of visual treats. I drift from the huge, seductive Sargent to luxuriously luminous Bonnards and dark and dangerous Toulouse-Lautrecs. I discover a new art crush in the work of Maurice Denis, and am caught out by a sneaky Picasso.

Yes, the exhibition is crowded but it doesn’t detract from my experience. Even the mullet bearing, singlet wearing Summernats punters (‘cos even petrol heads need art) are polite and accommodating, as if we are all caught under the same spell.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in front of the Van Goghs, where a hush descends over the visitors as if they are standing before an altar of high art. Starry Night, Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles – I have seen these pieces in reproduction time and time again, but nothing could have prepared me for just how vivid, how edgy, how beautiful they are in the flesh.

An exhibition of this calibre (paired with a four week hiatus from anything to do with culture whatsoever) is hugely refreshing, and was the perfect way of launching into another relentless year of visual art in Canberra.

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