Melbourne: Mecca for modern art

By Megan Anderson

An artists' haven since the 1930s is now an art museum, writes Megan Anderson.

A sculpture in the grounds of the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Photo / Megan Anderson
A sculpture in the grounds of the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Photo / Megan Anderson

After two years' nurturing a fierce Melbourne obsession, I've finally found the beat of the city's artistic pulse.

I'm standing in front of Alice and her face is dripping with hot oil paint. Her legs and right arm are missing, and her whole body swims in flashes of gold, flecks of dark water grey and blood red.

She's staring wide-eyed from painter Charles Blackman's vision of Wonderland towards the ghost of Sidney Nolan, who's busy painting his Ned Kelly series atop a white-washed table. Outside the doors of this French-styled farmhouse, a quivering sea of trees guards thickset modernist sculptures.

Welcome to the Heide Museum of Modern Art. Nestled on the banks of the Yarra River in the suburb of Bulleen, Heide really is a grand retreat - and just a 15-minute drive from town.

It also has a history dating back to the roots of Australian modernism. When benefactors John and Sunday Reed moved in during the 1930s, they created a home for themselves and a Mecca for artists, poets and writers.

The Reeds nurtured barren farmland into a small forest and farm, establishing an almost self-sufficient lifestyle that saw the Great Depression and World War II come and go - with barely a ripple of rationing or butterless fare touching their small kingdom. The Heide Circle, as the frequenters of Heide became known, included the big Australian art names of Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Charles and Barbara Blackman, Joy Hester, John Perceval and Mirka Mora.

Today, the museum is made up of three main galleries scattered among the grounds: Heide I, Heide II and Heide III. While the newest of the galleries, Heide III, tends to exhibit emerging artists on the brink of success, it's Heide I and II that form the historical backbone of the whole enterprise.

Heide sustainability and finance manager Paula Greene walks me up to the French-styled cottage, the original farmhouse, that is Heide I. Trees swish under the wintery sky and an enormous oak reaches up into the wind. I mention the fairy-tale likeness of it all.

Greene agrees. "It's a dream place to come up in the morning to."

In front of the cottage, a few brave wintertime violets sway within the steel outline of a heart. This, Greene tells me, is a garden of nostalgia, planted by Sunday Reed in memory of an affair with Nolan.

Apparently, Sunday's passion for all things French included out-of-wedlock romance.

Opened to the public fully for the first time in March, Heide I is celebrating with the exhibition Sunday's Kitchen, which showcases the richness of the history behind the place, and Sunday's passion for cooking and gardening. The exhibition and recent restoration of the house was inspired in part by a just-released book, Sunday's Kitchen: Food and Living at Heide.

Inside, the house somehow keeps its fresh, lived-in air, while also working in its modern function as gallery. Artists loved the Reeds' extensive library, stocked with the latest and best of art, literature, and thought from Europe.

On the cottage walls hang paintings, photographs and sketches by the people who loved this place and spent afternoons, evenings, days and even years here (Nolan spent six years at Heide in the 1940s).

There are clippings from Sunday's recipes, the ethereal airs of Blackman's golden Alice (1956), a generous number of Nolans and Christmas drawings by one of Melbourne's best-loved artists, Mirka Mora.

Cats are a big theme here, either painted on kitchen tiles, staring from pitch-black canvases or photographed.

"Sunday loved cats," Greene tells me. "She had a ridiculous number of Siamese cats."

Downhill, the limestone-blocked Heide II forms a remarkably different structure to the simplicity of the farmhouse. Designed by modernist architect David McGlashan, the Reeds lived in this award-winning home, intended as "a gallery to be lived in", from 1967 until 1980, a year before their deaths. The gallery is where the extent of the Heide Collection really makes its formidable presence known.

The exhibition during my visit, Affinities, taps into the emotions of the Heide artists as they responded to the steely conditions of a wartime world. There's a nightmarish, surreal edge to Albert Tucker's maimed figures, reflective of the horror of war and the human condition. Other works range from John Perceval's ceramic, goblin-like cherubs to Joy Tucker's distorted ink-work bodies and Nolan's characteristic coloured flatness and sweeping brush strokes.

The best thing about Heide is how the artworks keep on breathing when you emerge, bedazzled, from each gallery. Spindly steel and curving wooden sculptures nestle neatly into the landscape of this .6ha sculptural park. You can sense the care put into the place.

Already, Heide is keeping up the forward-thinking environmental efforts of the Reeds by implementing advanced sustainability projects.

Water conservation, ever on the mind in Melbourne, is achieved not only through water management and rainwater tanks, but through a system that traps condensation from inside the galleries. This not only protects the paintings within, but the landscape outside.

The Sidney Myer Education Centre, also on the property, keeps environmental themes in mind in the programmes they run for children, teachers and community groups. The newly-opened boutique Cafe Vue, built into the old Reed carport, uses choice items from the kitchen gardens in their inspired menu and packed picnic lunchboxes.

The simplicity, beauty and ease worked into the many activities at Heide is part of the legacy the Reeds left behind.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas offers three daily services to Melbourne from Auckland and a daily service from Wellington. For the latest airfaes, phone Qantas on 0800 767 400, or contact your bonded travel agent.

Heide Museum of Modern Art: Is at 7 Templestowe Rd, Bulleen, Melbourne.

Further information: For more information about Melbourne and Victoria see visitmelbourne.com.

- NZ Herald

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