Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on show at National Gallery of Australia
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on show at National Gallery of Australia

Van Gogh’s masterpiece on show in Australia for first time

It's the subject of art historical legend and an acclaimed Hollywood film. Its image sells more postcards than any other painting at the National Gallery in London, its home.

Now Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers - one of the world's most famous and rarely-travelled paintings - is here in Australia for the first time. Created in 1888, Sunflowers is the glowing centrepiece of an exhibition that opens to the public at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra on March 5.

The installation team at the National Gallery, London with Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Sunflowers. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage
The installation team at the National Gallery, London with Van Gogh’s masterpiece, Sunflowers. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage

Titled Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, the display is beyond rare - it's the first time the Trafalgar Square gallery has ever sent a major selection of its artworks overseas. The show was seen in Japan before coming to Australia, its only other destination.

"We are effectively presenting a mini National Gallery," said the London gallery's director Gabriele Finaldi.

The list of 61 paintings in the exhibition includes Rembrandt's Self Portrait at the Age of 34, Vermeer's A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, and works by Uccello, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and many others.

Paul Gauguin’s A vase of flowers. Picture: The National Gallery, London.
Paul Gauguin’s A vase of flowers. Picture: The National Gallery, London.

"They are 61 works that really define art history," NGA director Nick Mitzevich said.

Arguably the strongest star wattage will shine from Sunflowers, painted as part of a series when Van Gogh was decorating his home in Arles in the south of France in eager preparation for a visit by Paul Gauguin.

When the two artists fell out some weeks after Gauguin's arrival, Van Gogh's distress led him to sever part of his own ear. The episode features in Lust For Life, the 1956 film starring Kirk Douglas.

Anthony van Dyck’s Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover. Picture: The National Gallery, London
Anthony van Dyck’s Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and Dorothy, Viscountess Andover. Picture: The National Gallery, London

Teams from the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery, London were on video calls for hours yesterday as both parties collaborated on hanging the pictures. It was done with military precision.

Mitzevich said life-size copies of all the works, including frames, were stuck to the gallery walls as placeholders. As each masterwork was carefully removed from its travelling crate, its placeholder was torn away so the real thing could be installed.

"It's very carefully orchestrated," Mitzevich said.

"The crates are moved into the space to minimise the movement of the works. London is on Zoom, supervising every step."

The NGA completely renovated galleries for the exhibition, replacing a roof, laying new floors and installing new lighting systems.

"We wanted to be able to show these works to their best advantage," Mitzevich said.

* The writer visited London with assistance from Art Exhibitions Australia.

Originally published as Van Gogh's masterpiece on show in Australia for first time