Floribunda, Newcastle Art Gallery, until April 28
Flowers abound in all their variety and forms in Floribunda which opens Saturday at the Newcastle Art Gallery in another fascinating exhibition selected from our own unique collection.
It is a broad-reaching show that covers about 180 years and combines rarely-seen work from some of Australia’s most famous artists with that of highly-talented, though lesser known painters and botanical illustrators who have particular links to Newcastle and the Hunter.
Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Margaret Preston, Sidney Nolan, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Brett Whitely share the spaces with contemporary artists like Tamara Dean, Michael Zavros, Danie Mellor, Fiona Hall, Tim Maguire and many others.
Margaret Olley had a strong association with Newcastle, and a number of the highly regarded botanical illustrators in the exhibition were also based in the Hunter.
William Fletcher spent much of his life in Bellbird, near Cessnock, Cecile Watson was born in Stockton and her daughter Roslyn Earp, whose three-and-a-half-metre-tall pencil drawing of a Gymea lily greets visitors to the gallery, lives on the shores of Lake Macquarie at Toronto.
Fiona Hall provides a vital link between the illustrators and artists with her intaglio etchings of closely observed botanical forms, recomposed and energised with creative vigour, and she is also one of four contemporary sculptors in the show with Kate Rohde, Michael Zavros and New Zealander, Peter Madden.
A number of works descend from 17th Century Dutch still life painting including the earliest work, WB Gould’s ‘Fruit and Flowers’ from 1840 through to contemporary artist Elisabeth Kruger’s amplified close-up ‘Taffeta’ and Robyn Stacey’s analogue photograph of sumptuous, baroque excess, ‘Bombe’ from 2009.
While many regard this period of Dutch art as ‘the golden age’ of floral representation, the flower has occupied varying positions and carried different meanings throughout the history of western art since at least the ancient Egyptians 3500 thousand years ago.
To the Egyptians the lotus was sacred, a symbol of the sun god Ra which was depicted on jewellery and wall paintings and which also crowned the columns of their temples and palaces.
Contemporary prize-winning photographer Tamara Dean returns to this motif in her two large prints from 2017, “Sacred Lotus…Spring” and ‘Sacred Lotus…Autumn’ where Pre-Raphaelite water nymphs gambol and shelter among the lake plants, which are seen at different stages of their life cycle.
For the Minoans, Greeks and Romans floral imagery was used extensively in their pottery, frescos and mosaics, and even through the Middle Ages flowers and floral designs were often incorporated into illuminated manuscripts, tapestries and the stained glass windows of Middle Ages churches, their commonly-understood symbolism being part of the visual language of an illiterate age.
In Italy during the Renaissance the symbolic meaning of flowers continued to be largely of a religious nature but in the north a radical shift occurred as the symbols in the Golden Age now referred more to their owner’s wealth and status than matters of theology, and though varying in emphasis and significance, flowers have remained part of nearly every art movement since.
While Monet is forever associated with waterlilies and van Gogh with sunflowers their Australian contemporaries Streeton and Roberts rarely travelled down the floral path so the inclusion in Floribunda of Robert’s luxurious ‘Roses’ and Streeton’s waratah emblazoned cedar ‘shingle’ advertising The Society of Artists give this exhibition added interest and appeal.
Seeing Nolan’s Bush Flowers, Whitely’s large ink drawing ‘The Vines’ and Danie Mellor’s delicate mezzotint ‘Cyathea Cooperi’ similarly broadens our appreciation of the expanse of their practices.
The unexpected nature of these works is countered by prints and paintings by Thea Procter and Margaret Preston and Tim Maguire’s gnarled winter vines shooting tendrils to the sky, all of which are strong examples of the styles and techniques for which they are best known while Gloria Petyarre’s enchanting multi-panelled painting is probably worth the visit on its own.
Floribunda is another exhibition that demonstrates just how strong and unique our collection is and why it deserves a permanent exhibition space that distinguishes it positively from all other major collections.
But this would require a new 21st Century gallery, of course.