Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review: Rupert Bunny, artist in Paris (exhibition) – Art Gallery of NSW

Dolce farniente c1897 (Sweet idleness)
the main figure is
Jeanne Heloise Morel, who would later become Rupert Bunny's wife
An underground sublime.
I am sure that after all the Christmas celebrations, most of the population is rather worn out, lethargic and wishing we could roll over in bed and sleep off the copious amounts of food we gorged into our already filled stomaches yesterday. The AGNSW was no different. I admittedly contributed to the weariness that filled the gallery, using it as a sanctuary from rather scarring experiences in the Calcutta-bazaar that is Myer. And as I mindlessly bought a ticket to Rupert Bunny, artist in Paris, I had no idea what said artist had achieved – all I knew is that I thought his last name rather becoming.
Unexpected. A large black and white pinstriped wall, followed by a hallway of Marie Antoinette/Florence Broadhurst wallpaper is not what you expect to find in the underground levels of the art gallery. One gets the impression that this exhibition is in a world of its own (even with its own gift shop) and wonders how on earth it hasn’t received more coverage. The attention-grabbing wallpaper and the concrete walls covered in large gold frames filled with dream-like portraits of mermaids and youths gives the impression of...(now I know this might not make sense, but bear with me) a cult – dedicated to colour, frills, love and above all, beauty and the sublime. The underground/warehouse-like nature may have evoked this idea, but also the fact that there were so few people there – it seemed very selective. All in all, it seems very post modern, to have a cult at the bottom of the art gallery, lamenting the beauty of past art.
The curatorial text (mind you it was hard to resist going immediately to the painterly portraits which are sadly a rarity in our conceptually-based 21st Century art world) provided key information as to understanding the exhibition. Rupert Bunny was an Australian artist who practiced in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century and “It’s no exaggeration to say that Bunny had the greatest international reputation of any Australian-born painter” (John McDonald 1986). His works directly reflect his own ideals and imagination as well as the artistic and social mores at the time. A fascination with beauty, those who revel in thoughts of the Belle Époque will appreciate the artworks made within this period.
The works are separated into categories (rooms) organized chronologically. However, I feel that this was at the exhibitions disadvantage. The epitome of Bunny’s works, implied by the size and high ceilings, are in the second of around five rooms. Large portraits of people such as Dame Nellie Melba, and symbolic themes of roses and swans fill the room with a dream-like beauty that makes this room, by far the best. The dream however is disrupted as the next room, where the light is incongruously brighter, the artworks are from the time in Bunny’s career when he became a colourist, contributing to the Fauvist movement. Gone is the dream and the audience is back in the claustrophobic underground surrounded by bright colours which would usually be wonderful, but at this time is unsettling. The artworks have a different edge, and one questions whether this is an art exhibition and more of a museum exhibition on Rupert Bunny’s life. Is the focus the artworks or the artist? I feel the latter. The works reflect social movements at the time and even portray African servants and an interest in the Orient, however paintings of landscapes are an anticlimax after the dream that was the second room. By the end, one is simply stuffed to the brim with Rupert Bunny and maybe it was just the weather, but I sort of wanted to leave (which I assure you is a first).
But not until I was, Disneyland-style, led into the gift shop. Now, I am one of those people who goes to an exhibition but really, all I can think about is the how the artworks I am seeing would look on their postcard. I have never felt so betrayed. If ever I thought this was a cult, I was sure now. Rupert Bunny jewellery, Rupert Bunny mugs, Rupert Bunny tea, Rupert Bunny lollipops, Rupert Bunny fans, Rupert Bunny hats, French novels, French cooking books, badges, bookmarks, nighties, slippers – they were even playing Gymnopedie (not a very good rendition, might I add)! Everything you needed to be one of the people in Bunny’s portraits. It was as if the entire exhibition had been a marketing campaign to convince you that you wanted to be in the Belle Époque, that you wanted to be French. The exhibition invented and built up your nostalgia and then cultivated it. No postcards for Vanessa. Mind you, Rupert Bunny’s work must be seen in real life. There is little lasting satisfaction in seeing reproductions. The glistening of the oil paints in the badly organized spotlights is what gives Bunny’s work the dreaminess that makes him so successful and unique.
I really cannot fathom just how the AGNSW has kept this such a secret – an underground cult to beauty! When I emerged from the exhibition, the rest of the people in the art gallery had no idea what was going on underneath them. It was bizarre. If you have the slightest interest in what is considered “true art” or if you’re sick of artists constantly pointing out just how terrible and destructive society is and that war is terrible and oh it’s a shark in a tank! post modern, recontextualisation…then you should visit:
Rupert Bunny, artist in Paris
21 November 2009 – 21 February 2010
AGNSW – Lower Level 1
Adult $15.00
Member/concession $10.00

review by Vanessa


  1. hahaa, vanessa, you are wonderful.
    and i must go see this
    -i was a little skeptical on first seeing the leaflet on this upcoming exhibition but you've convinced me :)

  2. Hi Vanessa,
    Thanks for sharing. Will pass on some of those comments to our exhibitions team.
    Glad to hear you (mostly!) enjoyed the "underground cult to beauty..."
    Cheers, Molly (at AGNSW)

  3. "The artworks have a different edge, and one questions whether this is an art exhibition and more of a museum exhibition on Rupert Bunny’s life. Is the focus the artworks or the artist? I feel the latter."

    Yes and no. I saw the exhibition in Melbourne and largely loved it, but I am not sure that it matters much where the focus was. I didn't enjoy the mythological paintings and, like you, I was very pleased when his works started to reflect social movements at the time.

    thanks for the link