As a public collection, the NGV Collection of art and design exists for all to enjoy, and with its enormous wealth of styles, stories, perspectives and experiences, there is something for everyone to connect with. In this series, NGV team members share the artworks that they love and return to – the works that offer limitless intrigue, inspiration, or a sense of connection and common ground.
Start Here Britain & Europe 15th–17th Century Art Gallery 14, Level 1, NGV International Click here to see map
Make your way through galleries 14, 15C, 15A, 16C & 16B to find the stories of the favourite works of NGV team members.
The Virgin Annunciate
Bernardo Cavallino The Virgin Annunciate
The emotion and humanity in the face of this portrait is moving for me, to the point of bringing a tear. The Virgin Annunciate takes its name from a milestone moment in the Bible, a moment that shapes the narrative of things to come, and in turn, guides the beliefs of those who identify with the Catholic faith. The Annunciation is the moment in the Bible when Mary is visited by Gabriel, an archangel (a high-ranking angel), who tells her that she will fall pregnant and give birth to Jesus. Gazing at her, it is unclear to me whether she is ecstatic or troubled at the news she has just been bequeathed. With her downward gaze and hands to her chest she certainly appears moved in one way or another. This is what I find so endearing about this painting; contrary to many traditional representations of the Virgin Mary, Cavallino’s Mary looks fresh and modern, and her emotion is very alive and understandable. The luminous skin, the flush on her cheekbones and at the flare of her nostrils, as though the air in the room is cool (and perhaps suggesting she has been crying), the line of a white undergarment underneath the velvet colours of her clothes all lend a photographic quality to the work. Given Cavallino was painting in a time and place (Naples, Italy) where Catholic faith was an everyday, lived experience, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider the painting in a kind of believed realism setting. Regardless, looking at Mary’s serious, thoughtful face I cannot help but feel a deep connection and empathy with Mary, and the many people in my community. It is a contemporary portrait in many ways.
There are many rooms at the NGV, especially within the European collection, that I connect with. I often gravitate to David Hockney’s painting The second marriage, 1963. It’s very large and bold, from a time in his career when he was prepared to be very experimental in his practice as a painter, and I can’t help but wonder what was on his mind while he was painting it. As an artist myself, working in pastel on paper and acrylic on canvas, I appreciate Hockney’s approach to figure painting and the influence of popular culture on his work. Although his style is of interest to me (and what an intriguing style it is, as the artist imagines a box-like structure in which the couple sit), it’s predominantly my curiosity about the reason Hockney made it that draws me in. There’s something secretive about the man in the picture – he seems to hide behind his sunglasses. The use of numbers makes me wonder how the man feels about his connection to the woman portrayed, and how the artist feels about their relationship. The numbers (1, 2) are a special feature of the work in my view and add quirkiness to the piece. The second marriage shows Hockney leaning into experimentation, daring to try new things and being ‘under the spell’ of the 1960s Pop Art style, which gives me inspiration for my own practice as an artist.
I only have to glance at this painting for my spirits to lift. It’s as if the gallery walls melt and I’m lost in an ethereal world of floating veils of red of every description, from molten lava to the ruby hibiscus in my garden or the chiffon pink of an evening gown. In my imagination I can feel the heat of fire, hear a beating heart, smell fresh raspberries, and I think about how the tiny ragged streak in the centre lets the light in, perhaps suggesting hope in the darkest days. I experience a deep sense of humanity and the pressures of life dissolve. Rothko himself said that ‘art is an adventure into an unknown world’. Every time I step into this painting, I discover something new, which is perhaps the hallmark of a great work of art.
Lucio Fontana Spatial concept
During my first visit to the NGV I found myself captivated by Lucio Fontana’s Spatial concept (Concetto spaziale), 1964–65. The canvas is a muted yet vibrant gold and contains many buchi (holes) encompassed in an oval. This work may at first appear simple, but is actually very complex. Fontana is considered the founder of Spatialism, an art movement that embraces technology and science, and this work is not limited by the dimensions of his canvas. The ruptures, holes and slashes in his Spatial Concept series are an expression of the third dimension. As a viewer, you are invited to look beyond and through the canvas, and to consider the idea of an infinite space behind it. For me it serves as a reminder to find beauty in imperfection and experimentation, and encourages me to think outside the box (or in Fontana’s case, outside the canvas).
Pierre Auguste Renoir The guitar player (La Joueuse de guitare)
The first thing that comes to mind when I look at this painting is how the young woman looks almost oblivious; clueless to the fact that Renoir is capturing her in such a private moment. She is not facing him and looks like she is in her own world, as if the music she plays is only meant for herself. Renoir changed direction in subject matter from the late nineteenth century and began painting people enjoying quiet, private moments. I always come back to this painting because I feel like a quiet observer. There is a softness to this painting that contrasts equally with all the bold textures – both the dress and the leather armchair are a highlight for me.
I am especially fascinated by the work Queen Esther, 1878, by Edwin Long. Here the artist has painted Queen Esther in a way that resembles Esther in the biblical story. Her preparation to see the king is authentic and her beauty is striking. The story of Esther was one of the biblical stories that I used to enjoy listening to and reading about when I was growing up. I find that the suffering of the Jewish people in Esther’s time is similar to the suffering of my people in Eritrea today. I am hoping and praying that someone as courageous as Esther will save the nation from the current brutal regime.
Jules Bastien-Lepage October (Saison d’octobre)
Its bare landscape hugs me like a warm sweater, the subtle flowers in the foreground reminding me to stop and find beauty in my day-to-day. The flushed cheeks on the women make my heart smile every time I look at it. Their laborious work is handled with care and pride. Celebrating the hardship, but also the beauty of farming life. Growing up in regional Sweden, where autumn days were bleak and the humble potato a staple, I cannot help but feel at home.
By Sofie Johansson, Audience Engagement Operations Coordinator
David Shrigley’s artworks always make me smile. They remind me that life is messy and flawed and a bit ridiculous, and that I am messy and flawed and a bit ridiculous, too. Things will never be perfect, I will never be perfect, but in the face of life’s absurdity, that’s OK. It is important to laugh and keep doing the things we like to do, in the way that only we can do them – because we can, and because they matter.
To encounter the energetic dance of Combat is to be absorbed into the fluid choreography of abstract colour and movement, reaching out along a four- metre landscape in the lyrical rhythm of bright magenta and vivid orange. I am always moved by how its vigorous gestures echo the vibrant dance of life, reminding me of the invisible yet vital emotional and psychological ties that bring us all together as a community. From each side of the painting you can feel the roll and tumble of each bundle and sinew of colour folding into and bouncing off each other; reminding me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic line ‘No feeling is final’, that the turbulent interplay of life is in constant flux. At its essence, Combat talks to me about how essential the flow of life’s ups and downs is to being human. I find both comfort and inspiration in Krasner’s brushstrokes, and am reminded of how the dynamic pulse of life rolls on with each new day.