The Fascinating Life of the Rich and Famous

Rowan Everard interviews Robert Wellington

First things first, what is your position at the ANU?

I’m a lecturer in Art history in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory in the School of Art, so I teach students from all manner of practise disciplines within the School of Art but also teach Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts students.

What does academia entail for you and how does it tie in with the Versailles exhibition?

That’s a good question. At ANU the standard contract we have is that half our time is devoted to teaching, and half to our research. In fact, ANU is considered one of the top research universities, so they employ people not only on the strength of their teaching but the strength of their research. This ties into the Versailles conference in that my primary research area is the court of Louis XIV, with it being the topic for my PhD and my book.

Why do you think an exhibition like the Versailles exhibition is important not only for blossoming arts students but for the wider Canberran public?

Arts are the purest expression of what it is to be human, so we can learn so much not only about the past and its people, but we can also have revelations about our own experiences as people and what it is to be people. Even if that’s just interacting with an object because it’s beautiful, that’s something that is essential to what it is to be human. To understand how someone has made something that’s not just completely utilitarian, but how there is this kind of exquisite extra thing that’s supposed to engage us aesthetically, that’s a positive thing and a plus to be underlined. On another level, I think we shouldn’t underestimate the public, they are really fascinated with the past and they love the idea of court culture because it seems so excessive, the fashion is outrageous, the characters and stories are extraordinary, and I think there is a slightly tabloid side to it – ‘the fascinating life of the rich and famous’ – which comes through with the stories of Versailles.

You talked about the ‘wow’ factor of the exhibition, but what new and different areas explored in this, do you think, are of particular interest compared to other more permanent collections?

For one thing, these are objects that are drawn from the museum of the chateau of Versailles. So these are objects of royal patronage, of which I think there are very few in Australia, and they represent the best of this kind of work of that period. It’s a rare opportunity to have that encounter here in Australia. What’s different about a contemporary exhibition like this one is that it allows the curators to tell a story, in this case that story is about life and art in the palace. What I really like about it is that they haven’t taken the easy route of working with painting and sculpture, they’ve also been aware of furniture, textiles, tapestries, outdoor furniture, and broad material culture. Court culture can’t be summarised into a single object, it was greater than the sum of its parts. When one went into the court, it wasn’t just the building itself, it was rooms hung with tapestries, filled with people in exquisite fashions, it was an overwhelming experience, so creating a texture of that past can’t just happen through one medium. That’s the success of this show, it brought over a range of objects to help us understand what Versailles was.

What do you think is the importance of this type of exhibition in a broader, global context?

What I will say is that it represents a significant investment from the NGA, significant collaboration with the museum in Versailles, diplomatic negotiations, and a positive governmental and political relationship between Australia and France. Shipping these objects all the way across the world, it costs a lot of money. It’s a big investment and there’s a purpose to this. The gallery wants to attract people to Canberra and wants to present a significant show of objects people can’t see elsewhere aside from travelling internationally, so it’s part of a strategy of bringing people into the gallery for sure.

What other opportunities are present for ANU students to get more involved and learn more about Versailles?

One of the main ways is that we’ve organised a wonderful conference where the top specialists from all over the world: the Met museum, the Getty research institute, the Victoria and Albert museum in London, and many other places besides are going to be coming here for this exhibition. Obviously, there are costs associated with this kind of conference, but as part of my fundraising and negotiating I’ve managed to offer reduced, subsidised registration for students. Full registration is normally $180 for the two-day conference, but the student registration is $50. This includes entry into the exhibition twice – for which the concession fee is usually $25 –  and comes with afternoon tea and lunch included, as well as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of these scholars in Australia.