As you aproach the National Gallery of Victoria, along a boulevard jangling with trams in downtown Melbourne, it’s easy to see why a former director called it “the Kremlin of St Kilda Road”. It’s a massive rectangular block whose bluestone walls have something of the penitentiary about them, and in a quarter teeming with tourists and commuters it manages to retain a perpetual and sinister remoteness. There are no windows. The only break in the mass is a portal arch so tiny that it could be a mouse-hole in “Tom and Jerry”. Only when you step into that entryway do you see the building’s inner skin. There’s no portcullis here. All that stands between you and Australia’s greatest art collection is a falling sheet of water.The water wall has been disarming pedestrians and delighting children since the museum’s unveiling in 1968. Today, on a hot morning in the summer holidays, kids linger to feel the current sluice through their fingers. It’s a treat to watch them. It takes me back.
You could say the NGV and I got off to an awkward start. Back then, nearly half a century ago, the new building on St Kilda Road had been open less than a year; it was Melbourne’s new civic triumph, a trophy the city’s burghers and bohemians could share and dispute over. But I was of neither tribe. I arrived at her door sweaty and barefoot, a scruffy nine-year-old interloper from the western frontier.
I was born and raised in far-flung Western Australia, where the desert meets the sea. With the Indian Ocean at its feet and some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain looming in the rear, Perth is a city under geographical siege. It was long referred to as the most isolated city in the world and locals seized upon this distinction with a mix of shame, resentment and defensive pride. I grew up in a hardy, utilitarian environment, where nobody you knew had ever finished school, where practical skills were valued and beauty, art and language were mere frippery. It seemed there was a cultural moat between me and the speculative dream-world I learnt to call art. But there were larger barriers to contend with—distance chief among them. The “real” Australia, the one we saw on TV and in magazines, lay elsewhere, somewhere beyond the heat haze of the treeless plain. It was hard not to feel that everything you knew was inconsequential.
Feeling overlooked, even spurned by the eastern states (which made up two-thirds of the land mass), westerners like me suffered the prickly anxiety felt by provincials the world over. We dreamt of making the great crossing to the Other Side, if only to confirm it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The trip across the Nullarbor was a rite of passage, and in those days it was quite an undertaking—not simply because of the distances involved (Perth is much farther from Melbourne than London from Moscow), but because the only road linking the west to the rest was a brutal limestone track that ate cars and sent motorists nutty. My family made the trek in the summer of 1969, juddering across the corrugations by day, coughing white dust, camping under the stars by the roadside when we could take no more. The desert heat was intense and the landscape austere and pitiless.
We were sure our ordeals would not be in vain. Keen for us to experience the great world beyond, my parents had taken us out of school early. There was, they said, so much to see and do and learn, and Melbourne was a town where things happened. We’d visit the hallowed stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, walk the streets where cop shows like “Homicide” and “Division 4” were recorded in glorious black-and-white, and finally, most importantly, we’d tarry in the shadow of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, where only a year or two earlier the legendary Seekers had played a homecoming concert to 200,000 fans, the largest audience in Australia’s history.
It took more than a week to reach Melbourne. We knocked the dust from our clothes and worked our way through the sites of pilgrimage and, though no one would admit it, our hearts were sinking. The place looked ordinary. The trams were jaunty in their anachronistic way, but nothing about Melbourne looked any more potent or Australian than the places we knew. The mcg was just a hulk. The scene of the Seekers’ triumph, without our white-bread troubadours to enliven it, didn’t have much to excite a nine-year-old. Even Mum and Dad seemed a tad underwhelmed, but they lingered dutifully at the foot of the stage as we kids chased up the freshly mown amphitheatre towards the final stop on the itinerary.
Adults were sooling us out of the water. Dunking, they said, was disrespectful. Didn’t we know this was art?
Mum had shown me pictures of the brand-new museum: by all accounts the place was terribly modern. But that hot day, footsore as we were, its chief promise was water. We bolted through the parkland from the Myer Bowl to the fortress on St Kilda Road, and there, for a moment, we stood awed before the gallery’s moat-like ponds. Then, like the heathens we were, we dunked our feet and were happier than we’d been all day. To me the water was special relief. I’d stubbed both big toes and the flapping scabs were a nuisance. Even before our parents arrived, adults were sooling us out of the water. Dunking, they said, was disrespectful. Didn’t we know this was art?
Once we’d dried off on the hot pavement, we knew better than to touch the tantalising sheets of the water wall that lay like a shimmering curtain between the street and the mysteries within. We fell into line and followed our parents through the great portal arch into the cool interior. We were on our best behaviour. Mum spat on her thumb and cleaned our faces.
And then we presented ourselves at the box office, only to learn that we would not be admitted. Barefoot supplicants were not welcome in the temple of art. Mum was shamed; we were mortified. But there was worse to come because Dad was irritated and determined to press the point. Fine for him, safely shod in his rubber thongs, but for the rest of us, shrunk back in ignominy, it was awful. After trying several dud approaches, he made a breakthrough. He told the attendant we were from Queensland—and suddenly all resistance ceased. It seemed that for yokels from the tropic north they’d make allowances. We were in!
It was a victory nearly wasted: I was so embarrassed I could barely absorb what lay before me. And this is how I came to be acquainted with Henry Moore. For many minutes I lurked behind his “Draped Seated Woman”, trying to regain some composure. It could have been a parked car for all I cared. Still, I had time to take it in, and there was something consoling in its mass. Its curves were confusingly voluptuous. It was, as Mum had promised, terribly modern, but there was a quality to it I later recognised as humane. I didn’t just take shelter from it; I took heart. And from there I set off to see what else I could find.
I roamed free. In the great hall I craned to take in Leonard French’s much-discussed stained-glass ceiling. It would have been great to lie on the floor to see it better, but I didn’t dare. From there I wandered the courts and galleries, seeking out local legends like Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin whose colonial images were familiar from school. I lingered at Russell Drysdale’s “The Rabbiters”: it sounded traditional, and its colours looked old-timey, but it seemed weird, almost haunted. Was this modern? I didn’t know. I couldn’t stop looking at it. In the halls of the European masters I was all at sea. I stopped only to take in works that were monumental or whose artists were famous enough to ring a bell. Like Rembrandt, whose “Two Old Men Disputing” brought to mind a pair of cricket fanatics in a care home. It was a picture you fell into. You could look at it for the rest of your life and still wonder what the story was.
There were many things I didn’t understand, stuff that made me uneasy, stripes and splashes and globs on pedestals that had me scratching my head. There seemed to be no limit to what people could think of. And that was a giddy feeling. On and on the galleries went, on and on I trekked, until finally I yielded in dismay, back-tracked like a sunburnt Hansel and found my clan hunkered by the entrance, spent and waiting.
Passing back through the water wall to the familiar world, I had a dim sense I’d seen something special. I knew I was no genius but I didn’t want to be ordinary and if I’d learnt anything from the excursion it was what people could do when they saw past the everyday. There was no single experience that made me want to live by my imagination, but I don’t doubt the pivotal effect this visit had. Within a year I was telling anyone who’d listen that I was going to be a writer.
So it was a treat, this summer, to return to the NGV, no longer a new sensation, now an institution. There have been changes. The palazzo-style building on St Kilda Road has been rebadged as the NGV International and the handsome Australian collection has been rehoused at the Ian Potter Centre across the Yarra. Recent renovations have afforded the old building more exhibition space, and I found the halls teeming with visitors. From the exterior it’s still quite daunting, but the museum-going public is not as easily intimidated as it once was. That sullen reverence has fallen away. Children and their parents run their hands delightedly up the cascading sheets of the water wall. It’s a pleasure to see ordinary folks reaching out, making contact, claiming the place as they enter.
Inside the democratic spirit continues. Nowadays admission to the permanent collection is free. Children are welcomed without reservation. The morning of my visit, kids were lined up to ride the glittering brass carousel in the central court. In the Great Hall, where Leonard French’s 51-metre stained-glass ceiling remains, they lay on the floor, pointing and writhing. It was a joy to see a grandmother shuck her shoes and chase her charges from one end of the hall to the other in her bare feet.
Sadly, the ceiling itself hasn’t fared well with the years. Caught at the wrong moment, it looks like the world’s largest crochet rug ready to be spread across the knees of a giant philanthropist. Henry Moore’s once-controversial “Draped Seated Woman” is still there, handy as ever, even if the face on her pin head now seems disrespectfully blank.
Close by in the new sculpture garden is Pino Conte’s “Tree of Life”, featuring an infant clinging stubbornly to its mother’s breast. This babe could be any age. The mother’s arboreal trunk is sensually rendered but her mass is implacable. It’s a lovely, muscular celebration of the life-urge and if I were to bring one of my grandkids to the NGV, this would be our first stop. In the labyrinth of the European galleries, noticing for the first time what a solid collection of religious art the museum has amassed, I came upon Titian’s “Monk with a Book”. A pious man might prefer to be seen looking heavenward, but our friar has been caught seeking some action closer to home. Rembrandt’s “Two Old Men Disputing” is still there, luminous as ever, and farther along, in the gallery dedicated to 17th- and 18th-century works, I met a new acquisition—Jean-François Sablet’s gorgeous portrait of Daniel Kervégan, mayor of Nantes, a revolution-era burgher rendered with rare sympathy. His is the face of a plain, trustworthy man with tired, soulful eyes. Here is the sort of citizen-leader the communards dreamt of. But even in this world-weary visage there’s no hint of the Terror to come.
With the familiar past behind me, I rested over a pot of Darjeeling and reflected on the changes that have come to the museum. Apart from the structural additions, about which I have mixed feelings, the most telling improvements are social. The courts of the David Shrigley show were thick with kids drawing responses to the work. Upstairs, the young and curious coursed through galleries, snapping and texting. The temple of art no longer spurns the uninitiated
In the collection, the most telling change is the growing prominence of Asian art. When I was a kid, Australia had barely begun to emerge from the moral murk of the White Australia Policy, and the NGV’s collection remained trenchantly Europhile. At the entrance to the growing Asian collections is a smouldering piece by an Indonesian artist, Haris Purnomo. “Orang Hilang”, a work of remembrance for the disappeared activists of the Suharto years, has the happy effect of inoculating the occidental viewer against narrowly ethnographic expectations. Yes, the galleries feature works of tradition and antiquity—like the Jin Dynasty Guanyin and many precious ceramics from Japan and China—but there’s a growing appetite for contemporary exemplars and Purnomo’s piece helps set the tone. An old man with a limpid stare and a telling scar at the base of his neck wears the names of the missing like wounds. Words are too dangerous to utter. His mouth is covered. His eyes and patchwork of plasters speak for him.
For all its naked political intent, it’s a beautiful object, and of all the paintings it’s the one I saw people linger over longest. I stayed all day and tasted but a fraction of what was on offer. Following the kids and their guardians out through the water wall, I thought again of that boyhood visit. I first entered the NGV barefoot and cowering, but I was so taken with what I saw that I forgot to be embarrassed. I strode out of the place like a man in boots.
The National Gallery of Victoria open daily except Tuesday, 10am-5pm; ngv.vic.gov.au