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The Spirit Is Willing But the Legs Are Weak

The Cahill Expressway

For the last five years, I have suffered from ‘gallery legs’ – a condition that renders legs fifty kilograms heavier when they are standing in front of paintings. My first attack occurred in Europe. I was in the Vatican museum, surrounded by hectares of gold, Renaissance masterpieces, and other items symbolic of a good one on one relationship with God, when suddenly my legs would go no further. In my heart I wanted them to. After all, by my right hand was a scrap of Dead Sea Scroll. Over there, another scrap of Dead Sea Scroll. But physically, I was spent. So I found myself an ungilded stretch of Vatican wall, and sat down against it.

In the weeks that followed, gallery legs struck at practically every turn. In Florence, I felt fine looking at Michaelangelo’s David, but then nearly collapsed ten minutes later in front of some seventeenth century ceramic bowls. At the Uffizi, I’d barely handed over my ten thousand lira admission before I was clinging for upright support from the red security ropes. Then at the Prague National Museum (by which time my gallery fitness should have improved) I’d only absorbed about one third of the million or so igneous rocks on display before my lower limbs gave way again.

Little did I know that around the time I was lugging myself through the Louvre in 1995, Jeffrey Smart was completing a work entitled Margaret Olley at the Louvre Museum. Studies of the painting are currently being exhibited at the Heidi Museum of Modern Art as part of a Smart retrospective, and from a ‘gallery legs’ viewpoint, they are groundbreaking.

Margaret Olley at the Louvre Museum

Firstly, whilst not an expression of pain, it is clear from Olley’s face that she is experiencing discomfort. Her shoulders are slightly hunched, and her eyes have the blank stare of a woman who has just seen her thousandth harp-wielding cherub in a half-hour period. It’s my view that this represents the first genuine attempt by a name artist to paint gallery legs. And it says something for Smart’s skill as a figurative painter that whilst the condition is so clearly there in Olley’s expression, the legs themselves are cut off at the knee.

Secondly, Smart no doubt always intended to exhibit the portrait, his vision being perhaps that gallery leg sufferers might gaze into a canvas to find gallery legs staring straight back at them. It’s about exploring the relationship between artist and audience. It’s about empathy. It’s the modern art equivalent of viewing The Last Supper with eleven mates and a bowl of crispbread.

But if Jeffrey Smart was envisaging an inner connection with a tired, can’t-wait-for-the-coffee-at-the-cafeteria, gallery going public, it’s not happening at Heidi. Huge crowds have been attending this beautifully laid out retrospective, and even long term gallery leg sufferers like myself are reaching the Margaret Olley section with a spring in their step. True, Heidi doesn’t quite have the Louvre’s love affair with the long corridor, but even taking this into account, the exhibition is an absolute pleasure to attend.

For those who enjoy brilliant composition, marvel at Smart’s ability to see beautiful intersections of diagonals, arcs and straight lines at seemingly none too beautiful intersections (the Cahill Expressway (1962)). For modern art fans who like their paintings a little esoteric, there’s a fantastic one where a bugler is inexplicably piping a tune to a couple of hundred barrels (The Oil Drums 1992). And for those who don’t know much about art, but know they like roadworks, honestly, the news is better than you could possibly imagine.

The Oil Drums

In the next couple of years in Melbourne, ‘gallery legs’ sufferers will have some great mountains to climb. The National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Road is currently undergoing renovations, and when it reopens in 2002, the rooms will be bigger, better and take more steps to cross. Across town we have a spectacular new museum, so expansive that a heart as big as PharLap’s may become a pre-requisite to covering the ground to see his carcass. And most dauntingly of all, five years after I collapsed before them at the Vatican, the Dead Sea Scrolls have landed on Australian soil. They’re currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and will be in our temporary National Gallery of Victoria by March next year. Watch out in particular for fragments relating to the Parable of the Bountiful Tree.

It’s with these challenges in mind that I’m doing my gallery training at the Smart exhibition at Heidi. The name might conjure up images of shepherdesses on Swiss mountain slopes (if there’s anything worse than gallery legs it’s Swiss mountain slope legs) but the reality is a simple, manageable space, surrounded by gardens that could change the way you think about Bulleen.