Sunday, 18 October 2009

Fancy meeting you here!

My mother, who was an art teacher, had unorthodox ideas about the interior decoration of her children's bedrooms. My friends had framed pictures of Disney and Beatrix Potter characters on their walls, which were gradually replaced by sellotaped posters of Cliff Richard and Elvis as teenagery set in.

No framed Peter Rabbit or sellotaped Elvis for me and my sister! My mother had a vast supply of A3-sized reproductions of famous paintings. She subscribed to an art magazine which featured a different one as a centrefold each month. She pulled them out and stuck them on cardboard, ignoring the staple holes. She clothes-pegged them, three at a time, to a piece of clothesline which she had nailed to the wall facing our beds. She changed the pictures every couple of weeks. Throughout my childhood, I saw those pictures first thing in the morning and last thing at night: if I ever happen to run into Pope Julius II or Mona Lisa at the MCG or the Boxing Day Sales, I will recognise them immediately and greet them like old friends.

Over the years, I have in fact run into many of these old friends in various art galleries in the world, and it always comes as a delightful, if rather disconcerting, surprise. For one thing, in my mind all these pictures are A3 size, so I have to make what in some cases is a very considerable mental adjustment. Holbein's "Ambassadors" in the National Gallery, London, (which I discussed in a previous WASP article) is two metres square – a far cry from the A3 print along which I used to squint to see the skull appear.

An even bigger surprise than the size, is always the colour: even with today's cutting-edge technology, reproductions never get the colours perfectly right. In the 40s and 50s when I grew up, they hardly ever even came close.

I loved looking at the little Infanta Margarita by Velasquez, in her bubble-gum pink hoop skirts and long golden tresses – that, to my eight-year-old mind, was how a princess should look – not like the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose who wore smocked frocks and white ankle socks just like mine!

Thirty years later I ran into the Infanta, in the Prado in Madrid. The bubblegum pink frock was a lovely muted shade of apricot and she was four times taller than I remembered her, but there she stood, the same little princess, looking gravely at me just the way she used to, but without the staple holes in her forehead.

A picture that fascinated me as a child was Ghirlandaio's double portrait of an old man and a boy, presumably his grandson. At that age I was oblivious to the loving relationship between the benevolent old man and the trusting child. All I could see, was the grandfather's nose, a mass of bulbous growths.

When I eventually saw the original in the Louvre, I could look at it with an adult's perspective. The picture is dominated by the noble ruin of the old man's face, in contrast to the perfect and childishly chubby face of the little boy, complete with wavy golden locks.

The ravaged old face and the beautiful young one contemplate each other with affection – the painter has unerringly caught a fleeting moment of tenderness.

This picture is a perfect illustration of what Renaissance philosopher Leon Battista Alberti meant when he wrote that a good portrait painter possesses a truly divine power, making the past present and representing the dead to the living many centuries later.

Visiting the NGV's wonderful portrait collection is always an adventure: you never know whom you'll meet in the next room: Cleopatra, the Doge of Venice or King David - they all live in St Kilda Road and you can visit them free of charge, any time you like!

Isn't Melbourne Marvellous?

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