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Monday, 9 December 2013

Kerry Stokes should bequeath his Modernist collection to Western Australia

It's a bit presumptuous to go giving unasked-for advice to businessmen but having spent 30 minutes in the Art Gallery of Western Australia this morning admiring a part of the Modernist collection of Kerry Stokes, I can come to no other conclusion. In one room you have an assortment of paintings to rival the holdings of any public gallery in Australia. The detail shown here of a gem by proto-Modernist painter Gustave Courbet - Low tide, the beach at Trouville (1865) - gives you a tiny taste of what's on offer in Perth until March; Courbet is known now as the direct forebear of the Impressionists and it's extremely rare to see a painting of his in this country.

What made me most emotional, however, was Claude Monet's The Pointe de L'Ailly, low tide (1882). It's a medium-sized painting with a brilliant colour effect present as the sun sets behind clouds. The lavender cliffs to the left are offset by the lemon colour in the water. You can almost hear the water lapping on the beach.

Next to the Monet on the wall is a work by a lesser-known artist: Shoreline: Sainte Addresse at dusk (1890). It's a striking contrast because both paintings use a similar palette. What emerged most forcefully for me is the strength of Monet's vision when it is compared to the work of a more academic practitioner. You can only see this kind of thing when you see two paintings hung together on the wall. Putting this show together must have been a joy for curators.

Also notable in the exhibition is a tiny canvas by Henri Matisse, Notre Dame (1904), where the sky behind the building is pink and the river has been evoked with a few fat strokes of blue paint. Compare this painting with those produced a bit over a decade earlier, such as the one by Paul Serusier, Mother and child in Breton landscape (1890) in which the traditional demands of beauty compete with the Modernist demand for immediacy. You can also go further back in terms of tradition and artistic evolution if you look at the painting by Alfred Stevens, A stormy night (1892). Step back and glance quickly at the last of these, then check out the Serusier again, and finally let your gaze return to the Matisse: here in a couple of seconds you can see an entire artistic moment that played out in Europe within the span of a couple of decades.

If you want to see how this moment played out in 20th century Australia, just pop over the hall to the neighbouring gallery containing a hard-to beat collection of antipodean Modernism. Here are the great names - Cossington-Smith and Rees, for example - but there's also not a few of the wonderfully odd paintings of Englishman Paul Nash. This is a fresh collection - for someone who grew up in Sydney - and well worth a relaxing 30 minutes spent getting to know old favourites again, while meeting a few new names as well.

Western Australians are lucky they get to see those wonderful Modernist paintings of Kerry Stokes but it would be such a shame to see the collection merely sold off to make a profit. That's why I urge Mr Stokes to talk to his lawyer and make sure that there's a clause in his Will to make sure the people of Perth - and of the whole country - can enjoy the incomparable delights of his paintings for generations to come. What a lovely, generous gesture that would be, and how the people of Australia would thank him for doing something truly public-spirited.

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