The Ancient Made New
Since the 1980s the National Gallery of Victoria has pursued a collecting policy focused on contemporary Indigenous Australian art. This year, to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, a further 173 works have been gifted by the Felton Bequest
Judith Ryan, Friday, 1st July 2011
The Indigenous Australian art movement is a relatively recent phenomenon that will undoubt-edly have long-lasting influence: as it has been asserted, ‘The new public prominence of Aboriginal art remains the greatest single revolution in the past quarter of a century in Australian art’.1 The dominance of the Western aesthetic in Australian culture has finally been displaced by Indigenous art, and a new authenticity has emerged to challenge ‘the belief that western art and art history are pre-eminent’.2 In asserting the paramount importance of land, and its centrality to both temporal and sacred identity, Indigenous artists throughout Australia are making art that is profoundly political and spiritual. Their works not only reiterate the sublime, but also transform and reinterpret the way we see the land, and its cultural and colonial history. Rather than being defined by and consigned to a historic ethnographic taxonomy, Indigenous artists are now justifiably positioned in the vanguard of contemporary art practice at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), Australia’s oldest art museum. But this was not always the case: for much of its history the NGV was considered a citadel of conservatism.
The NGV was founded in Melbourne in 1861, on the birthday of Queen Victoria, a recognition of empire that resounds in its early focus on collecting work by British artists and Australian settler artists schooled in a European tradition. This is an uncomfort-able cultural episode, sitting uneasily as it does with Australia’s inglorious beginnings as a British penal colony located in an untamed Antipodean wilderness. With the advent of the Felton Bequest in 1904 – the most important benefaction in Australian art history – the NGV was afforded both opportunity and funding to develop a representative collection of European art, an anomaly in the Antipodes. This approach accorded with the principles of such stalwarts as art historians Irwin Panofsky and E.H. Gombrich, and proclaimed the NGV’s art historical inclinations while perpetuating the linearity of Western art hegemony. When my own curatorial career started at the NGV in 1977, its collection protocols were relatively compatible with the didactic and encyclopaedic perspective of art history that had informed my Fine Arts Honours studies at the University of Melbourne between 1967 and 1970.
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