National Gallery - A Jewel Repolished

Today [Thursday 4-12-03] Melbourne's crown jewel -- will be exposed for the first time publicly in 4 years -- cleaned and restored to all its original glory.

Interestingly, the story does not appear in either the Herald Sun or Age newspapers today, although this story was originally pulished by Herald Sun [11jun03].

This is Leonard French's ceiling for the Great Hall of the National Gallery on St Kilda Rd. Once more, the blues burn deep like Burmese sapphires, the reds are bright as Flanders poppies and the ochres and oranges are as vibrant and alluring as Ayers Rock at a summer sunrise.

Welcome back to the Great Hall, the place gallery director Gerard Vaughan calls the most noble space in Australia.

From July to December the building will be under high security as $1.5 billion worth of art comes out of storage and is hung to a meticulously timed program.

And the Herald Sun can reveal that three new masterpieces are being bought for the gallery.

They are believed to cost millions of dollars and will be paid for by the Felton Bequest to celebrate the centenary of the death of Alfred Felton, the gallery's original benefactor.

Another significant piece, a sculpture, also to be announced, will join works by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore in a new and beautifully designed garden at the west of the gallery.

The garden is filled with beds of camellias and on opening day will be reached by a bridge over a moat that leads from a new exit cut discreetly into the bluestone wall of the Great Hall.

"We have cleaned and restored and reframed thousands of pieces of art over the past four years, "Dr Vaughan says.

"We have found one amazing old master, a beautiful 18th century masterpiece, that had been stored away.

"But now our gallery space for hanging works of art will jump from 9000 sq m to 13,000 sq m -- and we will have 1000 sq m of space for temporary exhibitions."

You cannot yet lie down in the Great Hall. The floor is still covered with bits of wood, plaster and tools.

But Dr Vaughan promises there will be a new carpet to lie on come December, even softer than the one before.

Lying down will be the only way the visitor can really appreciate the glory and wonder of the ceiling.

"We have removed a thick layer of dust and grunge from on top of the cut glass and we've cleaned and vacuumed and polished. Now the light can get through and the ceiling just glows again,"Dr Vaughan says.

He brought the Herald Sun for a sneak preview of what will be unveiled when the redeveloped National Gallery opens to the public again on December 5.

On that day, visitors will pass a new, larger water wall at the entrance.

THE whole impression is one of space, space and more space.

Italian architect Mario Bellini of Milan, with Metier 3 of Melbourne, has enlarged and improved a Victorian treasure.

Among the new features:

A NEW space for blockbuster exhibitions has been created by removing 30 internal concrete pillars and an entire floor, making a huge double-height space to hang even the biggest European paintings or new works of art.

TWO three-level towers have been built in old internal courtyards, increasing space by 25 per cent.

The builders are about to hand the building back to the gallery after a redevelopment that has cost $160 million.

TWO exhibitions will get under way as soon as the gallery reopens, with a party the night before for 5000 people.

The first will show works by four contemporary artists; the second a retrospective of works by the architect and designer Bellini.

His works range from design classics such as the Olivetti typewriter to the National Opera Theatre in Tokyo. And now the redevelopment of the National Gallery on St Kilda Rd.

"Bellini sees Melbourne as essentially a grey city, built on bluestone,"Dr Vaughan says.

"So in the redevelopment he has used a palette of colours ranging from the deep blue of the granite through to milky grey and silver metallic mesh.

"There is also a sense of fine tailoring, like the best Italian fashion, throughout."

Dr Vaughan says the gallery's first blockbuster exhibition will run from March to May next year.

It will be entitled Caravaggio: Darkness and Light and will feature at least six major paintings by Michelangelo Merisis da Caravaggio and about 40 paintings by old masters of the Caravaggisti school.

While there will be charges for special exhibitions, entry to the redeveloped gallery will be free.

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