Art Gallery of NSW

In Defence of Lawrence Alma-Tadema

On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I admired the fine details of the painting A Juggler, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This painting shows the figure of an Egyptian juggler performing in front of an audience of patricians in the peristyle of a villa in Pompeii. As I stood in front of the painting, observing the careful rendition of the villa’s interior, its murals, architectural details and furniture, I asked myself the question “Why has it become embarrassing to admit that you like Alma-Tadema’s paintings?” There are some obvious answers to that question, for instance Alma-Tadema’s obsession with subjects from Classical Antiquity and his idealistic treatment of these subjects. But there are many other 19th century artists whose work could be criticised in the same way but whose reputation hasn’t suffered in the same way as Alma-Tadema’s (Frederic Lord Leighton anyone?).

Even though Alma-Tadema was extremely popular in his lifetime, his work fell out of favour after his death in 1912. As the avant-garde emerged, there was no place for Alma-Tadema’s ‘pretty pictures’ in the art world anymore. But surely we are now in a position where we can appreciate 20th century Modernism without feeling the need to reject everything that came before its advent. There are also some who say that Alma-Tadema’s art is vacuous, that it has nothing to say, but following this line of thinking couldn’t the whole Aesthetic Movement and its precept of “art for art’s sake” be discounted on similar grounds? Admittedly, the fact that some Hollywood producers used Alma-Tadema’s paintings as the basis for the design of their movie sets (most notoriously, Cecil B. DeMill for The Ten Commandments) would not have encouraged art scholars and academics to take his work seriously. But the finely crafted details in Alma-Tadema’s works are a testament to the extent of the archaeological research he must have conducted to design his paintings, and it is unfair to discredit an artist on account of who endorses his work after his death. Nobody rejects the Pre-Raphaelites for the reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber is an ardent collector of their works (or do they?).

Perhaps what Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s reputation needs the most is a retrospective exhibition, to let the works speak for themselves once again and enable a new audience to discover his wonderful visions of an idealised antiquity.


Art Gallery of NSW brings America to Sydney


America: Painting a Nation is the latest exhibition in the excellent Sydney International Art Series, which brought us Francis Bacon: Five Decades last year. This new exhibition offers to chart the development of American painting through the history of the United States from the 18th century to the mid 20th century. This means a very broad selection of themes and styles, from early portraits to the triumph of abstract expressionism.

The paintings are arranged in chronological order. The first few rooms contain portraits of Native Americans and early settlers, encounters between their respective cultures and sweeping landscapes. We then shift to more social concerns with portrayals of everyday scenes of labour and family life in rural surroundings.

In the next room two stunning society portraits particularly stand out, one by John Singer Sargent and the other by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. They were part of a generation of American artists who established themselves in Europe, where they encountered immense success.

Arguably one of the most remarkable paintings in this exhibition, Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk is a perfect example of the sense of isolation and the tension between nature and manmade structures that characterise most of his work.

One of the effects of urbanisation on American art was for artists to embrace modernist styles as a way to express the exhilarating pace of life in the metropolis.

The exhibition concludes with abstract expressionism works by, among others, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, from a time when America rose to the forefront of the art world.

With such variety of subjects and styles there is much for everyone to admire in this exhibition. If you are not convinced yet, ask yourself: “when am I going to see again on Australian soil an exhibition that gathers works by Cassat, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko, Sargent and Whistler?” That’s right: not in a very, very long time.

America: Painting a Nation is on at The Art Gallery of NSW until 9 February 2014.