Love and Desire – immersive moments at the National Gallery of Australia

A beautiful Canberra day beckoned as I drove south to explore the Love and Desire exhibition, showcasing Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces from the TATE, works from British and Australian galleries and private collections. This artistic genre has been a favourite of mine since high school and my study of art for the HSC. (who remembers Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages 5th edition?) To my teenage self, the Pre-Raphaelites seemed to create a perfect mix of art, nature and medieval chivalry, and the Arts and Crafts movement spoke to my aesthetic. Much, much later I learned more about the artists and their lives and passions.

In my Heroine’s Festival of Women’s Writing – Part 1 post, I documented the research and writing process behind Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns. I devoured this novel in my long summer break, and looked eagerly forward to this exhibition. And, for the first time, I chose to purchase an audio tour.

There were two works by artist and poet Lizzie Siddal – model, muse and lover of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Both are watercolours on paper dating from 1856 and are quite small.

Sir Patrick Spens

The exhibition’s didactic panel states:

Siddal began painting in the 1850s and, like may of her male contemporaries, also wrote poetry. The watercolour depicts a scene from a Scottish ballad of the same name about a disaster at sea. Sire Patrick Spens ventures out, but his ship is lost in a great storm and all aboard perish. Here Siddal captures the wives and children watching for the ship’s sail and slowly realising what has happened, variously looking out to sea or mourning and comforting one another.

Lady affixing pennant to a knight's spear

The audio guide explained:

In this jewel-like watercolour, Elizabeth Siddal depicts a tender interaction between a medieval couple. the woman’s arm rests on the knight’s shoulder as they huddle together, working to attach a flag to the knight’s spear. The vibrant red triangle symbolises their love in an intimate, yet bittersweet gesture. Heads bowed to the task, the gravity of their parting is palpable as he prepares for what is likely to be a dangerous quest. They are flanked on each side by an open window and door – suggesting the threshold between the domestic realm of the woman and distant horizons to be travelled by the man.

Tucked away into a corner, these small images were displayed one above the other, and whilst the audio guide helpfully provided details, I strained to contemplate their subjects. Not as large, well known or captivating perhaps as Millais’ Ophelia nor Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, each of these moments reveal the emotional landscape of women – moments of loss and leaving that are familiar to me. I found the catalogue to be an informative and useful reflective tool after returning home.

Ophelia Re-imagined

The audio guide also explained:

At the time women were barred from attending the royal Academy, which made it difficult for them to become proficient in any media other than drawing and watercolour, and impossible for them to study anatomy or work from nude models.

While this painting [Lady affixing pennant to a knight’s spear] highlights the disparity of the gendered world in medieval times, it is easy to understand why such ideas concerned Siddal, who herself was operating beyond the safe zone of womanhood in the Victorian era. She defied expectations in her relationship and career; while her uncorseted gowns, and unbound hair became associated with wider personal freedoms.

Siddal lived with Rosetti for years before they married, a choice that cast her into the margins of society, but also provided her with access to a studio, mentors and patrons – including the art critic John Ruskin.

It is a wonder to me that these paintings survived.

Listening to the audio guide allowed me to be isolated from other viewers and experience that contemporary phenomenon of people living their days while headphoned – an experience I generally avoid, except on planes. When collecting the audio device, I was told I could swipe to select the adult audio. It was slightly disappointing that some works had not audio explanation, but noticed other were included in the child audio guide.

The audio on Brett’s oil on canvas was explored from a child’s perspective, while

The British Channel seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs

the catalogue tells us that ‘some observers criticised the azure colouring as inappropriate’ and that

Brett’s exacting technique was likened to a camera obscura: the viewer, one writer concluded, would be unable to symapthise with the artist because he could tell nothing of the artist’s feelings when viewing the scene.

I found the play of light on water, accompanied by small ships, to be quite emotional on my first viewing.

It was later that I swiped upon the classical audio and returned to this seascape to become fully immersed in the Tasmania Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave). This beautiful marriage of music and image was intense: having visited Staffa and clambered over rocks to walk in Fingal’s Cave in the year 2000, I was transported by the rhythm and soaring strings to the Atlantic once again.

Never underestimate the power of sharing music with images or writing in the classroom: these are powerful multimodal experiences that allow students to develop a contextual appreciation.









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