The good the bad and 'The Greats'

The good the bad and 'The Greats'

For months Sydney has been festooned with proudly billowing banners heralding a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. You’d be forgiven for concluding from these silky proclamations that the show was, in a word, ‘great’. After all, it is called ‘The Greats’.

No false modesty there.

In testament to the resources required to convince northern hemisphere galleries to send their collections below the equator, the show has been on for a while. And will be for a while yet (no need to run to buy tickets).

I wasn’t actually going to write about it at all as, well (and this rather gives away the ending), I don’t think the show is really all that great. In fact, I’m inclined to think it should be renamed ‘Good Works by Great Men’, or perhaps ‘ Minor Pieces by Major Players.’ (AGNSW if you’re reading this, I’m definitely available to consult on branding of the next show).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went to the show one Wednesday late last year.  I went with my mother, partly because we both think that no show on earth is so good it should prevent your being at the bar 45 minutes after commencement. Visual fatigue is real.

Wednesday is late night at the AGNSW and the only night on which there is, in addition to the tremendously large doors staying open, a bar. Cultural consumption at its finest.

Of course… you can’t actually consume wine while you whine (well-matched though the activities might be), as the security guards will prevent you from accessing any area of cultural titillation with glass in hand. We found ourselves reduced, therefore, to hastily downing cheap prosecco in the echoing foyer, with me trying not to giggle at the memories evoked of myself sneakily sculling goon bags in much the same manner at teenage parties.

The worst thing about downing an entire glass of champagne moments before entering a show is the way the mild buzz leaves you almost as soon as you hand the man your admission ticket. Falling soberly back to earth between a Titian and a Botticelli is rather the inverse of the intended transcendent experience.

There’s a Rembrandt that is apparently a portrait of his mistress/house-keeper (although it could also be a self-portrait). There’s a Turner that would excellent were it not Turner but is, with that attribution, passable at best. Rounding out the usual suspects there’s a rather typical homage to pondweed by Monet.

Not to discourage you; there is also an excellent Velazquez and a brilliant Gaugin. My personal weakness for pointillism means I am always susceptible to the seductive powers of Seurat - though I accept others might not consider it one of his finest works.

The real star of the show (and indeed one of the few truly great works) is Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochraw. The spiel about this piece says it was done while she was convalescing with nervous exhaustion. But her tremendous resting bitch-face suggests that she was just too boss for the 19th century. Either way, hers is a work that speaks through the chasm of time and makes for truly compelling viewing.

At its heart, the real issue with The Greats is that, on the selection alone, visitors would be forgiven for thinking Sargent more masterful than Turner. And while Sargent is demonstrably a very skilled artist, this injustice is incurred through showcasing one of Sargent’s strongest works with one of Turner’s weakest.

Of course, this impression relies on including only one work from each artist in the show. This makes the selection of work absolutely critical; without breadth there can be no away for the audience to understand and assess the variance within an artist’s body of work.

This is a great disservice to the artists who have had weaker works chosen but an even greater disservice to the audience - as it creates the impression that art is a standardised beast.

Showing one work only implies that art is a production - something that can be relied upon to have certain values as set fixtures. In other words, that a Turner is a Turner is a Turner.

This is, of course, wrong and undermines the core fact that art is art precisely because of the flawed and variable human souls that, in creating it, infuse it with their own particular failings and triumphs.

While all the men in The Greats are undoubtedly great artists it does not follow that everything they lent their brush to must be similarly coloured. In ignoring the difference between great artists and great art, The Greats missed a chance to create an actually great show - showcasing only the strongest works from selected masters.


The Greats runs until 14 February 2016 and will set you back $22 as an adult, $18 as a concession or $16 if you’ve stumped up for AGNSW membership (but lets be honest, if it’s the last one you’ll have already been to the show at least once)

Sex, drugs and earthenware

Sex, drugs and earthenware

Fail better

Fail better