Looking beyond the Sunflowers: A review of the NGA's Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition

Spanning across an artistic landscape of almost 500 years, the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) latest exhibition features some of the most revered European artists and masterpieces. Upon first hearing about the exhibition’s showcase of masterpieces, I was adamant on visiting it multiple times. These works extend from the classical mastery of the Renaissance period to the vibrance and movement of Impressionism: from Botticelli to Van Gogh. Luckily for us Canberrians, the National Gallery in of London have brought these masterpieces to the NGA, featuring artworks such as Botticelli’s Scenes from the Life of Saint Zenobius and– of course– Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

 Despite its title as a collection ‘from Botticelli to Van Gogh’,  all the targeted advertisements I’ve received have exclusively featured the work of Van Gogh. Specifically, his Sunflowers painting was plastered amongst all of the NGA’s advertising, despite it being his only piece that is featured in the 2021 NGA collection. Indeed, it is a work of genius, it deserves to be celebrated. But to an extent, I found myself tiring over the frequency at which I repeatedly saw Sunflowers everywhere, particularly on merchandise. Sprawled outside the lawn of the gallery, a canvas print of Vincent’s Sunflowers decorates lounge chairs. Inside the gift shop, pencils and coasters and notebooks and umbrellas were decorated by more prints of his one painting. 

 The prevalence of masterpieces on literally anything did make me consider the role of the gallery as an economic benefactor of artistic merchandising. In fact, this ‘mere-exposure effect’ has helped to finance not just the NGA, but other famous museums across the globe. Sadly, I am no exception to this technique and remain a targetable consumer for the merchandising of artworks. I mean, don’t we all want to keep an artistic piece of memorabilia home? But another question arises: when do recognisable artworks tire and become almost tacky from over-exposure? Clearly, I’ve already dosed a few too many drops of artistic fatigue in my post-venture to the NGA’s Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibit. Their heavy-handed marketing technique which exclusively advertised Sunflowers on all fronts may have worked to the benefit of the gallery, but for conscious consumers of local art, the magic of Vincent was indeed stolen by the process of commodification.

On another note of capitalist venture, you may not have given gallery spaces too much previous thought. However, upon closer inspection, their architecture and interior design are constructed with the intention of intimidating visitors. High slung ceilings, stone cold marble floors and grandiose doors are repeated features of gallery spaces. This institutionalisation of galleries has indirectly shaped our viewing experience of exhibitions and art pieces. You’ve probably noticed how people soften their speech and slow down their pace and movements within a gallery. Even the flow of people drift in a clockwise direction around each of the spaces towards the next room is a gesture of respect for others and even the art pieces themselves. In a way, galleries are treated with the same sacrality as places of worship, acting almost like a modern rendition of a temple. Without knowing it, I saw these implicit social customs in practice as people modified their behaviour within the NGA. This act of devotion was most noticeable with regard to visitors’ of Vincent’s Sunflowers.

 As one of the most influential and well-known Impressionist artists, Vincent Van Gogh’s story as a tragic artistic genius has shaped our understanding of his artwork. Yet, without realising so, our global adoration of his genius also parallels that of a dead religious icon. The exhibition’s gallery layout design honours and emphasises the significance of Vincent’s Sunflowers. As you walk through the exhibit space, each room is dedicated to one of the seven defining periods of European art history. Even as you exit the period of ‘The Discovery of Spain’ and enter ‘Landscape and the Picturesque’, Vincent’s Sunflowers are visible from two rooms away. In fact, the design of the gallery space connects each of the rooms by an open cut-out of the gallery’s white walls, thus forming a straight corridor of rooms that climaxes towards Van Gogh’s highly anticipated painting at the end. It’s as if the gallery has purposefully designed a modern pilgrimage for visitors to pay tribute to Van Gogh as an artistic icon, no? Whether it was done with monetary intentions in mind, it showcases an obsession with commodifying artwork. Evidently, it seems that masterpiece artworks have adopted a secular iconographic role in contemporary society today. 

 Whilst Sunflowers waswere an obvious highlight to look forward to at the exhibition, the exclusivity of its marketing and its prevalence on some obscene and questionable material items have detracted from some of the masterpiece’s magic. However, I would still highly recommend visiting the 2021 Botticelli to Van Gogh collection. I honestly did enjoy the collection, however small, and relished the ‘Italian Renaissance painting’ time period which was one of the exhibit’s first rooms. Revisiting the NGA for the first time this year though, I was able to look at the gallery’s architecture and its exhibition from a new perspective, observing in a new manner the interaction between artists as creators, galleries as institutions, artworks as products and audiences as visual consumers. I hope that the next time you enter a gallery setting, you will also notice how space has been constructed with authorial intention. Whilst it remains a ‘public space’, its enclosed high walls and foreboding exterior inevitably limit our individual consumption and perspective of art. After all, art within an institutional setting can never be experienced with absolute freedom.



The ‘Botticelli to Van Gogh’ exhibition is on display at the NGA from 5 March – 14 June 2021. 

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