Luke Morgan

When Bouvard and Pécuchet suddenly become enamoured of landscape design in Flaubert’s novel of 1881, and decide to remodel their own garden, they are bewildered by the ‘infinity of styles’ that are available to them. After much deliberation and research, they decide to install an Etruscan tomb with an inscription ...

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Some years ago, Robert Hughes bemoaned the capitulation of art museums and galleries to ‘the whole masterpiece-and-treasure syndrome’. Although made in the 1980s, Hughes’s point may still be valid, especially if the number of recent exhibitions with the word ‘master’ in their titles is anything to go by. A quick check reveals that, in Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria is particularly fond of the word. In Melbourne last year, we had ‘Dutch Masters from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’ and ‘Albrecht Dürer: Master of the Renaissance’. In 2004 the NGV put on ‘The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay’.

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The late Susan Sontag suggested that the photograph ‘offers a modern counterpart of that characteristically romantic architectural genre, the artificial ruin: the ruin which is created in order to deepen the historical character of a landscape, to make nature suggestive, suggestive of the past’. On viewing the retrospective exhibition Bill Henson: Three Decades of Photography, which was organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and is now at The Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria Australia (NGVA), this familiar idea of the photograph as memento mori struck me as peculiarly apposite. Although the experience of Henson’s photographs is not quite the eighteenth-century one of sighing over ruins, the tone of the exhibition is distinctly melancholic, something like a syncopated elegy in pictures.

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