Thursday, January 1, 2009

Portraits at the portrait gallery

So yesterday we went to the still brand-new Portrait Gallery. We avoided the first few days it was open, because it looked like everyone else in Canberra was there. They offered activities for small children. Canberries seem to whoop it up whenever activities for small children are advertised. I am not sure if this signifies that there should be more activities for small children here, or whether Canberries are just very committed to the development of their children.

Anyway, as you'd expect there were lots of portraits. The emphasis is strongly on the life of the sitter rather than the artist, style, technique or anything else actually to do with art. It's not that any discussion of art is entirely absent, but if it was it wouldn't make all that much difference to the experience.

I kind of suspect the gallery is aimed squarely at people who feel that they don't know much about art (and are perhaps quite content with that). Perhaps I'm being horribly unfair, or perhaps it's just my art-bias-underskirt showing. I always enjoyed how the Queensland Art Gallery made non-arts people feel very welcome and relaxed, but also offered accessible and useful information about art of all kinds as well. I really miss the Queensland Art Gallery, although I do think that the balance between natural light and artificial light has been compromised by the new back door. It's too bright!

The Portrait Gallery manages the issues of light and space very well indeed. Inside the building is lovely and soothing. The flow of people through the space is pretty good, and there is nearly always enough space to look at a picture from more than one spot. Some of the viewers had trouble moving through the space without getting in the way of other punters. So did the Noodle, who cannot quite believe that some spaces are not entirely appropriate for practising swing bowling (albeit with no ball). Also, I'm not entirely sure he believes that strangers exist as such, because he never really seems to see them. Except to shout 'that lady is really, really short isn't she?' at the supermarket. Perhaps I need to go about the place introducing him to everyone he sees.

The earlier portraits were positioned more in their social context. Issues of the social meaning of the portraits, the wealth of the new society and so on were discussed in the didactic panels (I love saying didactic panels. Some of these ones are morally didactic panels). As the portraits moved towards contemporary times and the subjects became more recognisable (nearly all politicians, celebrities, sports people and the like), there was less of this. Which was a shame, because a discussion of why it's suddenly only famous people rather than rich or self-congratulatory people, who get portraits would be interesting. To me, anyway.

There's a most fine bookshop at the gallery (run by an ex-coworker of the Husband that I don't know).

Criticisms aside, and they aren't really criticisms but observations I guess, I liked it. I shall go again, and have already added it to the 'places to take visiting relatives' list. After Old Parliament House and the Botanic Gardens, I reckon.

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