August 15, 2009
The Canberra Times

Bowled by art’s beauty

You may have heard of tree huggers. But what about art huggers? I think the head of Australian Art at the National Gallery, Dr Anne Grey, might just be one. And she’s not alone. Grey is curator of Last Impressions, a retrospective of the work of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin, drawn from the last decade of his life, 1907-1917. It opened at the gallery yesterday. And in a word, this exhibition is simply – sublime.

It’s difficult to describe the emotional punch one feels when standing in front of these immensely joyful works. But as I stood there this week, I almost did it. I almost hugged a painting. I wanted to lift it off the wall and waltz across those impeccably shiny floors, out into the glorious sculpture garden and fly across the lake. I wanted to take the gorgeous object to perch on the highest point of the Brindabellas – and hug it. That’s how happy the painting Violet and Gold made me feel. What is this strange and wildly emotional response? Is it normal to suddenly swoon over a painting? Particularly a painting that I’ve seen many times before in books and in various online reproductions? But now that I was seeing it for the first time in “real life”, I was smitten.

Fortunately it was a private moment, and no one saw my loopy expression, or that fat tear tracking down my face. Grey, who has spent her life surrounded by beautiful objects and is immersed in a world of creative celebration, had warned me about this sort of thing. Before we toured the McCubbin exhibition, she happened to mention an experience she’d had some years back when visiting Britain’s National Gallery in London. It was the first time she saw in the flesh – so to speak – Bathers at Asnieres by Georges Seurat. “I wanted to go up and hug it. The emotional response was like seeing someone you love,” she enthused.

And yes – odd as it sounds, that’s how I felt when I laid eyes on McCubbin’s Violet and Gold. It’s not as if I was swooning over some object in the painting. After all, it’s just a Victorian landscape of trees and cows. And I don’t even like cows. But rather, it’s the light, the atmospherics, and the breath of the bush that pierced me. When something is so beautiful, and so unexpected the power of that discovery can momentarily unhinge us. And we submit, falling into the glorious pull, allowing ourselves to be transported to a dream-like place. It’s an exquisite experience.

But here’s the thing: it only happens in real life. You have to be there to feel it. You can’t sense it second-hand. It doesn’t come from looking at pictures in a book. Or from clicking through photos online. Or from watching a video, or checking it out on Facebook. In an age where we communicate – or “interface” – via technology, and our buddies are people we’ve never touched in person, but met via broadband, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are some things in life that can only be experienced if you are there. If you witness it, feel it, sense it yourself.

My new smart phone is clever at transmitting my words, voice and photos. But it hasn’t worked out how to transmit my feelings. No doubt the day will come when it emits a blue aura to let callers know when I’m feeling sad, and a warm yellow glow when I’m happy. But we’re not there yet. Thankfully. Some of the best moments in life can only be experienced firsthand. Our deepest emotions are felt when we’re face to face. Visiting the McCubbin exhibition has reminded me of that.

Ironically, this collection is testimony to the artist’s own lesson in the need to see and feel beauty in the flesh.

Like his contemporaries, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Condor, McCubbin had pored over reproductions of the great English and European masters in various books. He had seen printed versions of the extraordinary play of light and air in the dramatic paintings by Turner. But it wasn’t until the age of 52, when he journeyed to England and Europe himself, to stand before them, that he was possessed of their intrinsic beauty. And deeply moved by their power.

After seeing some of Turner’s work up close at the Tate and National Gallery in London, McCubbin wrote to his wife about witnessing the “dreams of colour – a dozen of them are like pearls,” he said. “They glow with a tender brilliancy that radiates.” The impact of the experience affected him deeply. He wrote to his friend Tom Roberts to say they had all been “too timid” in their painting. From that moment his work took on a whole new life – and light.

Seeing such powerful beauty first- hand infused McCubbin with a vigour that changed him profoundly. And it can us, too. Even the plodders and non-painters among us. I suspect an army of art huggers may soon unite.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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