Sunday, 28 September 2008


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” - Edgar Degas

Yesterday I had to go the University of Melbourne, my alma mater, and as always found many changes, especially so as the last time I had been there was about 2 years ago. Nevertheless, some things had not changed and one of them was the art around the campus. The gallery of the University is the Ian Potter Museum of Art. It is worth visiting both for its collection and its own architecture. Designed by one of Melbourne's most interesting contemporary architects, Nonda Katsalidis, it incorporates parts of older university buildings such as the Napier Waller Art Deco stained glass window from the old Wilson Hall (which burnt down). The gallery is a bequest to the university from the businessman, Sir Ian Potter. The very distinctive façade has this striking sculptural mural, where classical art burgeons forth from the interior of the museum! A tribute to the excellent collection of Greek pottery housed n the museum, perhaps. There are some very good 19th century paintings and many contemporary art pieces. Temporary exhibitions make the bulk of the exhibited material.

Whenever I visited the Baillieu Library as a student I could not help but notice the monumental sculptural group just outside, on the lawn adjacent to the library. The bronze sculpture known as “Charity Being Kind to the Poor”, was originally the “crowning piece” of the massive entrance portico of the Equitable Life Assurance Society headquarters in Collins Street. The building was demolished in the late 1950s and the owners presented the sculpture to the University. Created by architect Edward W Raht and sculptor Victor Tilgner at the Imperial Art Foundry in Vienna in about 1893, the substantially-scaled Charity, sheltering a huddled family, is a clear statement on the advantages of buying life insurance. Originally situated at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning’s Mount Martha site, it was relocated to its present location in 1981.

Fifty metres away from the Baillieu Library are James Gilbert’s Atlantes, a pair of massive stone classical male figures supporting the western entrance to the underground car park. Everyone is aware of the Caryatides, the female figures supporting the porch of the maidens of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. The male equivalent of a Caryatis is an Atlas (as in the giant Atlas of mythology who supported the heavens on his back). Atlantes is the plural and refer to the architectural device of male figures supporting an architectural feature on their backs. Both Caryatides and Atlantes were very common in the past as standard architectural features.

This imposing gateway was originally part of the Colonial Bank of Australasia Building on the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins Streets in the City of Melbourne. The bank donated them to the University in 1932 following the demolition of that elaborate 1880s city building. Unfortunately, the unrelenting wheels of progress have meant that many a fine building was demolished in the past to make way for some modern monstrosity that adhered to the tastes of the time. At least some vestiges of these original buildings have been saved and through the sensitivity of some souls can still be enjoyed today.

The abiding relevance of Classical Greece is also reflected in the Melbourne Greek Orthodox Community’s gift to the University to commemorate the 1956 Olympiad in Melbourne: Poseidon, a modern cast bronze copy of one of the finest examples of early classical sculpture. The original (c. 460 BC) is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. It was recovered in 1928 in the sea off Cape Artemision after fishermen found its arm in their nets. It depicts Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, about to hurl a trident (which is now missing from the original statue and therefore from this cast also). An alternative interpretation of the iconography is that it depicts Zeus about to hurl a thunderbolt.

The statue is one of only two approved castings; the other is in the United Nations Building in New York. It was initially located in the University’s Beaurepaire Centre sporting complex, built in the 1950s and used as a training pool for the 1956 Olympic Games. Poseidon was relocated to the courtyard of the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Building in 1994.

The University as a place of intellectual pursuits, a temple of learning, a refuge for the arts and sciences, teaching and research ensures that art will always have a place in its environs.

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