If you’d asked me in January what I was planning for February, there wouldn’t have been too much of the arts. I planned to go to one of the MSO free concerts with my sister. There was also a play at my local theatre I wanted to go to, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to find the time.
As it turned out, February did end up a month for discovering and experiencing art. There were paintings hung in galleries, live performances, and the everyday art of murals, of sculpture, of spray-paint, and even of chalk drawings. There were orchestral performances, plays, and even a ballet evening. It was a lot of fun.
Finally visiting the National Gallery of Victoria main collection
This is something I’ve intended for so many years that I’m really not sure why I didn’t get to it sooner.
I’ve walked past it many times, and it’s a nice building with fountains out front:
As well as a water wall at the entrance which I’d seen far more often from the outside than the inside:
It was in 2014 - 8.5 years ago - that I visited the Getty on my way to Los Angeles Airport and went “I liked that - I should go to the NGV sometime and see what it’s like”. But I was still heavily involved with religion, so it didn’t happen.
After leaving religion I did find myself in the city more, and I went to the NGV’s special Escher exhibition in 2019 (really good!). But somehow the general collection continued to elude me.
Then I came back from the US again last year, having visited a number of art galleries (including returning to the Getty). I’d enjoyed it, and wanted to do more of it here in Melbourne. And in the months since I’d been to a couple of other art exhibitions - but not the NGV. It was on the list, and it was going to happen sometime - but it wasn’t on the cards for February.
Then the weather changed my plans. The first weekend of February I’d planned to take a long weekend and go camping in Marysville. When it came closer to the time, it turned out that there were significant storms predicted for Friday and Saturday, so that didn’t seem such a good idea.
But I still had the Friday off, and wanted to do something with it. Preferably something indoors. So the NGV sprung to mind.
Before I’d spent the time in art galleries in the US, this room would probably have been my mental image of art galleries:
It does make it hard to get more information about the paintings you’re interested in. I can’t think of a single room like that in the several art galleries I went to in the US, and it was the only room like that in the NGV. But it was still a lovely room to see.
In the courtyard, they had a very decorative version of the Parthenon, which they called their “Temple of Boom”:
There were also selfie opportunities:
It was a good day, though I’ll pass on the happy ending for now:
By the end of that day I was probably more than halfway through. So when I was unexpectedly in the city later in the month (called there by ballet, actually), I took the opportunity to see the rest of the collection.
Stirring up missionary memories
I may not have known what to expect at the NGV, but one thing I definitely didn’t expect was for it to stir up memories of missionary work in India. It was all started by this piece:
It’s not just that the piece was Indian: There were a number of pieces from Indian in the Asian gallery, and I’d seen similar items in a few galleries in the US.
What set this one apart was its donor. It was donated in 1883 by the Reverend George Oliver Newport, who worked as a missionary with the London Missionary Society in South India for thirty years from 1862. He was here because he was touring Australia trying to promote mission work.
The subject is one of the attendants that serve Shiva. They’re ruled over by Ganesha, one of India’s most recognisable gods:
He’s also the god that I most strongly associate with India. I’ve even used him in a sermon illustration once (story for another day, perhaps?)
I don’t know whether the donor was trying to point out the practices of those poor benighted heathens and their need for salvation. But that attitude was to a fair extent me. I thought I had the One True God and was happy to mock their beliefs and insist they should change to my beliefs.
In my teens and twenties I spent seven months cumulative in India - but I also haven’t been there for eleven years, and don’t expect that to change soon. I have complicated feelings around it all. And the NGV wasn’t where I expected to be exploring those feelings.
The bicycles of Marysville
I still went to Marysville - just for two days rather than three. It’s another place I hadn’t been for many years.
One of the things I noticed was that just about every store on the main street had some form of cycle in front. Mostly something very specific to the business or their name or logo. They had individuality. Character. They were well done, and they were also just fun. So here are a few of my favourites:
Bruno’s Art and Sculpture Garden
Also in Marysville is Bruno’s Art and Sculpture Garden, which was varied and inventive.
So here are some of my favourites:
But there’s plenty more to see and admire. If you happen to be in the area, I’d definitely recommend a visit (weekends are better because you can see the art gallery as well as the sculpture garden).
New Life after fire
In 2009, the Black Saturday fires destroyed much of Marysville, including the sculpture garden. In Gallipoli Park there’s a memorial, and there’s the 1,000 hands project. But there’s also another sculpture by Bruno, titled New Life:
It was done a couple of years after the fires, and was intended to honour the past and embrace the future. I found it a very hopeful sculpture.
MSO Free Concerts
For time immemorial (well, for over ninety years, anyway), the MSO has had an annual series of free outdoor concerts. Sponsored by Sidney Myer, and since 1959 held at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, with a capacity of over 10,000 people.
This year, my sister and I had intended to go to the Tchaikovsky concert pretty much since they announced the program. But that was all I planned.
Not only was it a great concert, but we also had some unexpected visitors:
(they were advertising Bugs Bunny at the Symphony - which is actually next week if anyone is interested).
Later, I found that the third concert not only had Carmina Burana (a vocal spectacular which I love), but also my favourite of Prokofiev’s piano concertos (the third). With that, I was definitely going into the city for it.
It’s probably been five years since I was last at those concerts (2019 I was in New Zealand, and since then there’s been this Covid thing). I believe we did get over 10,000 people at both concerts, and I don’t remember it being so crowded before. Previously, I’ve never had difficulty finding a seat in the undercover area, even if I didn’t arrive particularly early.
That did give me a chance to experience what it’s like from the lawn:
The musicians were less visible, but the music came through perfectly clear. And we had some special accompanists:
They were particularly audible during quiet sections in the music, and all took off together whenever applause came. I hadn’t expected to be practicing flight photos during the concert, but it certainly added to the fun.
Ballet under the
For me, ballet has always been more about the music than the dance. There’s some great ballet music around (particularly that of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev), and I’ve watched a few online, but never watched any in person. So when I heard Australian Ballet was doing a “Ballet Under the Stars” at the Music Bowl, it seemed worth going along.
I was out on the lawn again, which was fine (more sea gulls 😉 - and even some ducks 🦆). As it turned out, it was a wet afternoon and evening with some spells of heavy rain. Great for an outdoor concert, right? 😛 It felt fitting when a heavy downpour started just as there was a storm scene on stage - but it should have stopped when the weather calmed on stage 😉.
I was glad that I went: The dancing was nice to watch and very skillful, the costumes were well done, and we got to see warm-up routines that audiences don’t usually get to see. But it’s still really the music that makes it for me.
The piece I enjoyed most was The Vow: A ballet wedding scene that included plenty of opportunities for drama, confrontation with an ex, breakup, and of course a final reconciliation. Musically, it was set to an arrangement of Peer Gynt that used a Hardanger fiddle, the national instrument of Norway. So that was a bit different, while still very recognisable.
It was a pretty normal wedding, really:
After all, what wedding ceremony doesn’t have the groom twirling the bride round while the celebrant watches?
There were a couple of young boys on the rug next to me, and when the bride gave the ring back, one was asking “Are they married?”
Then came the final reconciliation:
As they came together and kissed, the boy said “They’re married. That was beautiful. That was officially beautiful.”
While the presenter commented: “Absolutely mesmerising, but still the most awkward wedding I’ve ever witnessed”.
Then there were other scenes. Other dancers. Other costumes. Other music.
And finally, one interesting statistic quoted: Here in Australia we may view ourselves as the land of sports, but more children take dance lessons weekly than are involved in cricket or football outside of school.
A few plays
Like I said, I really didn’t plan on going to the theatre in February. But, as it turned out, I saw plays more than 400 years apart on consecutive days.
The first one was a modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which stuck much closer to the original script than I expected, but I enjoyed it a lot. Seems a bit odd going from khaki and guns at the initial meeting with the witches to swords for the final battles, but hey - it worked.
Then came Family Values, a 2020 play involving our Medevac legislation, “stopping the boats”, religion, a divided family, and (off-stage) a certain Minister Duckett (I’m sure any resemblance to the current Leader of the Opposition is completely coincidental 😛). It was a very funny play, but also deeply moving and thought-provoking.
Out and about in the city
The city is a great place for art galleries and concerts, but also just a good place to walk round and see what you find.
There are sculptures:
There’s the ever-changing art of Hosier Lane:
There’s art at the Metro Tunnel site:
Art that was originally on the side of a tram (interview here):
Even the toilet block next to a skate park can get its own decoration:
It’s not just Melbourne, though. It’s possible to find interesting murals almost anywhere you go. Take for example this one in Box Hill:
Or this one at my local library:
There’s the sculpture guarding a playground:
There are commemorative brick paths:
They’re things that aren’t sitting in a gallery or a museum somewhere. Things that probably aren’t even noticed very often. The bricks have grass growing between the cracks - but they also have pictures and messages to share.
I was glad to finally get to the NGV in February. It has some great art there. But I don’t think art galleries have the monopoly on “real art” that makes everything else “wannabe art”.
Not all art will hang in the NGV. And not all art should hang in the NGV, either. That doesn’t make it worthless.
Like pretty much every month, this month I saw things that made me smile. Things that I admired. Things that I wanted to share. Things that perhaps weren’t capital A Art, but which I was glad were there.
A Valentine’s Day display
When talking about everyday art, I can’t ignore window displays. Perhaps they’re not always considered art, but I think they can be well arranged and creative and beautiful.
A local florist always has good displays, though of course they had to do something special for Valentine’s Day:
What’s more, that photo even contains a reflection of one of my loves: The hills.
Written in chalk
No art will last forever, but some is more ephemeral than others. One day I walked past a demonstration in favour of Ukraine on Princes Bridge, including some chalk drawings:
It was wet that afternoon when I walked back over the bridge. The chalk drawings were all gone. But that doesn’t mean they were useless.
They’d been made with a purpose. They had a meaning to the person who made them. They had a meaning to the people who saw them (probably multiple meanings, actually). And the fact that the chalk drawings don’t last doesn’t change that.
A tale of two swans
I mentioned that the first free concert I went to this month was a Tchaikovsky concert. One of the best sections was selections from Swan Lake, including this theme:
It’s a theme that takes me back to my childhood: My parents had a cassette of lullaby arrangements of classical music we would sometimes listen to before sleep (that’s right, an actual cassette). And one of them was this theme. So it’s a theme I knew and loved from very young, though I didn’t know it was from Swan Lake until my teens or maybe even twenties.
That was going to be my music of the month for February. Until I was reminded that Carmina Burana features another swan:
This time it’s a swan singing in misery as it’s roasted on a spit, then served on a plate to be eaten. Perhaps not so good for the swan, but great when sung live.
As I’ve already mentioned, Swan Lake isn’t just a great piece of music - it’s a ballet (it took #1 in ABC Classic’s Dance countdown a few years ago). So we got a repeat of “Selections from Swan Lake” at the Ballet under the Stars (orchestra only, but still lovely).
So yes, my live music in February had a lot of swans 🦢.
So there we are: A month of art with far more variety than I’d expected and planned for. So what’s the take away?
If you happen to be in Melbourne, I’d recommend the NGV. Similarly, if you happen to be passing through Marysville, I’d strongly recommend visiting the Sculpture Garden (on a weekend if you can).
Quite possibly some of my readers will never find themselves on the streets and laneways of Melbourne. Forgot the right country, I know some don’t even live in the right hemisphere for Melbourne.
I’d suggest looking into what art galleries, what concerts, and what theatre productions might be in your area. But also to keep an eye out for the everyday art: The murals, the temporary displays, the chalk drawings, the graffiti. The things that most people’s eyes slide past.
Some of it isn’t that good - but some of it can be very good. It can be an opportunity to add colour and interest and meaning to life.
Zooming out still further: For me, it’s really about making opportunities to experience things you like. Maybe you already attend art galleries or live music or theatre frequently. Or maybe, like me, you grew up without going to them, and will discover on going that they’re much better than you expected. Or maybe they’re just not for you. That’s all OK.
I do suggest finding the things you value, and thinking whether you can / should do more of them. That spirit has taken me in so many unexpected directions since leaving religion (including to art galleries!), and I hope it will continue to do so.