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Australia Going nowhere: Matisse, Picasso paintings trapped in Australia by COVID-19

03:20  30 march  2020
03:20  30 march  2020 Source:   smh.com.au

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a young man standing in a room: Exhibition Istllers, Ben Taylor and Ruby Rossiter hang Pablo Picasso's L'Arlesienne: Lee Miller painting for the Matisse Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz © Elesa Kurtz Exhibition Istllers, Ben Taylor and Ruby Rossiter hang Pablo Picasso's L'Arlesienne: Lee Miller painting for the Matisse Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Picture: Elesa Kurtz Some of the world's most valuable works of art are trapped in Australia, unable to return to their home institutions around the globe because of coronavirus. And some of Australia's most valuable works are similarly trapped overseas.

"We have nearly 100 Matisse and Picasso works here from 23 lenders around the world, the Tate in London, the Met in New York, and the Musee Picasso in Paris among them," says Nick Mitzevich, director of the National Gallery of Art in Canberra. The NGA is where the Matisse & Picasso blockbuster was due to close on April 13 before the pandemic forced the gallery to shut its doors early.

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"It's untenable to move these works safely so they will remain with us until such time as staff from those institutions can come to Australia to collect them."

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The international exchange of works between major public institutions is crucial to the staging of big-name art exhibitions. But moving these works around the globe is a complicated and costly business.

"We don't just let them go out on the back of a truck," says Mitzevich. "They are couriered, and the couriers are conservators, they look after the work.

"If you're coming from London or Paris or New York to Australia, it's always at least two flights, so you have to check the work into one aircraft and then switch it to another. And the crates can't be left sitting in a shed or on the tarmac or anything like that, because of concerns about temperature and humidity, which are the great enemies. It's important there's close scrutiny of every moment of the transportation of these works."

The paintings can't go anywhere without a human being by their side. And because human beings can't go anywhere right now, nor can the paintings. It flows both ways. The NGA has about 1200 works out on loan right now, some within Australia, some overseas. None of them will be coming home any time soon.

"At the moment our Francis Bacon is in Houston, our Monet haystack is in Germany, our Monet waterlilies is at the Queensland Art Gallery, and our Ned Kelly series is in Cairns," Mitzevich says.

The NGA is not alone. The National Gallery of Victoria has confirmed its Keith Haring/Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines exhibition is still in Australia. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has declined to reveal whether or not it currently holds any major works from abroad, citing security concerns.

This is not the first time major artworks have been held hostage to fortune in this country. It's not even the first time Picasso and Matisse have found themselves in such a predicament.

In 1939, Sir Keith Murdoch - father of Rupert - sponsored an exhibition of contemporary artwork from Europe through his Herald Newspaper Group. Known as The Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, the show was curated by Basil Burdett - co-founder of Sydney's Macquarie Galleries and a sometime art critic for Murdoch's Melbourne Herald - and consisted of 217 works: 189 paintings, 16 works on paper, and 12 pieces of sculpture.

There were four works by Georges Braques, six by Pierre Bonnard, seven by Paul Cezanne, eight by Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh, and nine by Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso.

The entire exhibition was insured for £200,000 - approximately $17.9 million in today's money. For that sum, you would now be lucky to pick up a single painting from the NGA's Matisse & Picasso show.

The Herald exhibition opened in Adelaide in August 1939, at the National Art Gallery of South Australia. In October, it moved to Melbourne Town Hall because the National Gallery of Victoria could find no room on its walls.

Then it travelled to Sydney where the insult was even greater. The Art Gallery of New South Wales declined to hang the show, ostensibly because people had to pay to see it, which was against the gallery's rules, but more likely because the gallery's trustees didn't much rate it. Instead, it hung on the top floor of David Jones' George Street store.

According to art historian Steven Miller, head of library services at the AGNSW and co-author (with Eileen Chanin) of the book Degenerates and Perverts, the works had been sourced by Burdett from "80 or 90 different places". When war broke out in September 1939, returning them became impossible.

Legend has it that once the exhibition had finished its tour the works languished in storage for the rest of the war. Robert Hughes wrote in his 1966 book The Art of Australia that the paintings were "kept in their crates until 1946 and not shown at all, half in the basement of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the other half in the National Gallery of Victoria".

In fact, according to Miller and Chanin, it was not these cutting-edge European works that were packed away for safekeeping (in case of bombing) in what was known as Operation Hush Hush, but the local permanent collections of the state galleries.

"Bare gallery walls were then periodically hung with paintings from the Herald exhibition," they wrote in their 2005 book. "Minor paintings from Australian collections were carefully protected, whilst works by Picasso, Braque and Van Gogh were left to their fate."

Selections from the exhibition in fact toured Australia continuously throughout the war, making it as far as Launceston and Hobart in May 1945 before finishing up in Brisbane in October. Some 70,000 people saw the pictures, many of which were for sale, as they travelled the country but the collecting institutions remained largely immune to their charms.

"None of the galleries bought major works, though they were there, absolutely, and they would now be worth a fortune," says Miller. "There were some very significant works that would have been really major acquisitions."

The AGNSW did purchase eight works for a total of around £2500, including what it believed was a painting by Gauguin (for £1500); it later turned out to be by another artist, Charles Camoin.

"Camoin is a recognised artist, he does have value, but it's in the thousands," says Miller. "If it really was a Gauguin it would be in the millions."

The NGV, though, was especially unimpressed. Despite having the greatest acquisition fund in the country through its Felton Bequest, it bought just two works - Felix Vallotton's Le Point du Jour for £108 and Vincent Van Gogh's Portrait of a Man for £2196. The latter was declared a fake by the gallery in 2007, effectively reducing its then value from $5 million to almost nothing.

Among the works that could have been purchased at the time were Cezanne's nature painting Sous-Bois (c 1885) for £5522; Bonnard's Prairie Aux Chevaux (1919) for £552; Georges Braque's La Table De Marbre (1925) for £850; and a Marc Chagall painting of flowers for just £165.

Of course, it's easy to be wise in retrospect, and in purchasing what they thought were works by Van Gogh and Gauguin the major galleries showed they at least had half a clue.

As for the works now stuck in Canberra, it's highly unlikely any will be offered for sale, and almost certain that none will suddenly become available at a bargain price. They're merely enjoying an extended holiday abroad.

"I describe this as a bit of pause and a bit of postponement, that's all," says Mitzevich. "The show still goes on, it just doesn't go on exactly as we had planned."

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