The Australian who made an impression on Van Gogh

I'm meant to be poring over the works of Van Gogh and the Seasons, the blockbuster exhibition with blockbuster queues along St Kilda Road, Melbourne's grandest boulevard, outside the National Gallery of Victoria, with elbow-to-elbow crowds inside to match. But, instead, here I am inside a gallery completely empty, save for a solitary security guard, having strolled straight into the institution entirely without delay.

I'm undertaking a bit of personal detective work, admiring two exquisite impressionist paintings – not Van Goghs – Peonies and Head of a Woman and Almond Tree in Blossom, at the NGV International's acclaimed sister institution, the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, dedicated to Australian art. It's situated further up the road at Federation Square on the banks of the Yarra.

Here, dear holidaying art connoisseur, you'll uncover an interesting back story, and an unexpected bonus, to a visit to Van Gogh and the Seasons and its 50 or so priceless paintings and drawings, the primary purpose of my weekend visit to Melbourne. The paintings I've come to view are the works of John Peter Russell, a Sydney-born-and-raised Australian painter, obscure to all but art scholars and enthusiasts.

Russell, probably one of the first of the bohemian Australian expatriates, became good chums with Van Gogh at art school after the Australian, the beneficiary of a wealthy father, journeyed to Europe as a young man in 1881 to live and pursue his art. Russell became the only antipodean to move within the milieu of the great French impressionists, including the likes of Henri Matisse, who admired his work and his collegial attitude and affable personality.

But the Van Gogh Australian connection doesn't end here and you need to find it back at the National Gallery of Victoria, at the end of Van Gogh and the Seasons. As you turn the corner before the exit, before being plunged into the inevitable and inescapable exhibition merchandising shop (do grab a copy of the excellent, and hefty, exhibition catalogue though), you come face-to-face with the tortured man for all seasons himself.

It's a haunting self-portrait of a gaunt, scruffy and struggling Van Gogh, painted in 1889, a year before his death at his own hand, just three years shy of his 40th birthday. The work was a late inclusion in the exhibition, with its custodian, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, agonising until close to the opening  over whether to loan it NGV International.

As I study the self-portrait, I wonder about another portrait of Van Gogh and whether it might have been considered as a feature of the Australian exhibition. It is  a painting widely regarded as the finest portrait of Van Gogh – and also the first of him by any artist.

It is the portrait Russell painted of his friend. It was acquired by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1938, the year before the start of World War II, and it remains on display there, an enduring reminder of a little-known and remarkable Australian connection to one of the greatest and most eventful periods in the history of Western art.

Van Gogh and the Seasons, to put Russell to one side for a moment, coincides with the NGV's inclusion in a list compiled by Britain's The Art Newspaper  of the world's Top 20 galleries. It's a remarkable achievement for an enterprising, accessible institution located in the second city, albeit the cultural capital, of a country of 24 million at the other end of the world.

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But the growing international stature of the NGV doesn't necessarily render it much easier for major galleries overseas to release  the precious works of the Dutch master, let alone Russell's prized portrait of him. The genesis of Van Gogh and the Seasons goes back 15 years.

"It's like when the National Gallery in Canberra sends Blue Poles  [the Jackson Pollock masterpiece owned by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra] overseas," says Ted Gott, the NGV's curator of Van Gogh and the Seasons,"and the security guards are constantly asked, 'where is the painting?' It's mind-blowing that we've been able to secure 36 paintings." 

Indeed, Van Gogh and the Seasons features key works loaned by leading international museums, including the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, home to the aforementioned Russell portrait, which hold the two largest collections of Van Gogh works in the world.

Although the exhibition covers the four seasons and the Dutch artist's masterly interpretation of them, it really represents exposition of the two halves of Van Gogh's life as defined by his early stubborn resistance to colour, reflected in his muted early works, then the final fantastic embrace of its potential.

As you pass through this brilliantly-mounted exhibition, with Van Gogh's works generally showcased on separate, standalone floor-to-ceiling panels, it be can difficult to reconcile that these are the works of the same artist. The viewer, after all, is forced to switch from almost sepia-like paintings depicting peasants digging potatoes out of frozen fields during a European winter to the vibrant blossoming of the orchards and meadows of spring.

While Van Gogh befriended a fellow artist from the other side of the world, he was also inspired by another distant land, Japan. It is Japanese art, with its own restrained use of colour, that begins Van Gogh and the Seasons.  The NGV  owns several works by Katsushika Hokusai, creator of the iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fiji series, which includes the artist's most celebrated image, The Great Wave. (Hokusai is the subject of another NGV exhibition set for later this year.)  

In Van Gogh's day, Japanese paintings and prints were grossly undervalued and were even used to wrap ceramics exported from Japan to France. This meant that enlightened artists such as Van Gogh were able to collect a plethora of such works for a pittance. It was an interest that the cultivated Australian Russell, who often corresponded with the Dutchman in letters written not in English but in French, also followed, originally inspired by Van Gogh's love of Japanese art.

Beyond the surprising friendship between the Dutchman and the Australian, Van Gogh and the Seasons is more than an exploration of an artist's work. It is also a poignant saga of intense brotherly love and profound familial faith with Van Gogh's art-dealer brother Theo, who financed and encouraged his turbulent artistic career.

In a final tragic twist to the Van Gogh saga, Theo died six months after his brother after having gone insane from the effects of syphilis.

As for Russell, he went on to live a long life, returning to Australia in his dotage and dying in his native Sydney.

FIVE MORE MELBOURNE SHOWS TO SEE IN THE REST OF 2017

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL

An annual celebration of jazz that next year will notch up 20 years, this festival, featuring  leading international and local jazz acts, takes place in concert halls, art venues and, of course, jazz clubs, across the city. From June 2 to 11. See melbournejazz.com

WALLACE & GROMIT AND FRIENDS: THE MAGIC OF AARDMAN 

Celebrating 40 years of Aardman Animation,  this exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Federation Square traces the work of the celebrated studio behind Wallace & Gromit. From June 29 to October 29. See acmi.net.au

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

One of the world's oldest film festivals along with Cannes and Berlin, the Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 3 to 20 August. See miff.com.au

THE HOUSE OF DIOR: SEVENTY YEARS OF HAUTE COUTURE

To mark the platinum anniversary of the House of Dior, the National Gallery of Victoria is mounting an exhibition featuring 140 garments designed between 1947 and 2017. From August 27 to November 7. See ngv.gov.au

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL 

One of Australia's leading arts festivals, this annual three-week event is a celebration of music, theatre, dance and the visual arts staged at indoor and outdoor venues across the Victorian capital. From October 4 to 22. See festival.melbourne

TRIP NOTES

MORE

ngv.vic.gov.au

visitvictoria.com

SEE

Van Gogh and the Seasons is at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Part of Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2017, Van Gogh and the Seasons runs until July 9. Tickets cost $28 for adults and $10 for children, with a family ticket costing $65. NGV International is open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 5pm Saturday and Sunday. NGV Australia, located at Federation Square, is open from 10am to 5pm daily. General entry is free. The Hokusai  exhibition is on at the NGV International between July 21  and October 15.

STAY 

Sofitel on Collins, a five-star hotel located at the so-called "Paris end" of Melbourne's main street, is offering, via Virgin Holidays, a special Van Gogh and the Seasons package. Starting at $415 per person twin share, the package includes return airfares with Virgin Australia, two nights accommodation and an exhibition entry ticket. See virginaustralia.com/au; sofitel-melbourne.com.au

BUY 

Eight works by Vincent van Gogh are available as high-quality giclee prints from The Store, a Fairfax Media enterprise. See thestore.com.au/van-gogh

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Tourism Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Sofitel on Collins, Melbourne

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