When Vincent Van Gogh set out to paint his series of sunflowers, he was trying to make a point about colour. He used three shades of yellow and not much else, showing how a single colour could still create a coherent image.
According to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the artist wanted to be known as the painter of sunflowers - the definitive one. From 1888-89, he did five major yellow-toned works - he liked the slightly ruffian nature of the flowers, slightly gone to seed - and hung some of them in his guest room where his friend Paul Gauguin was staying.
A year later, he was dead; his friends brought sunflowers to his funeral.
Today, at this very moment, one of the original five versions of Sunflowers is hanging on the wall at the National Gallery in Canberra. The painting - reproduced ad nauseum in the gallery's extensive media campaign, which included free packets of sunflower seeds inside invitations to the opening - was originally intended to be seen at the height of a Canberran summer. Hot and blazing outside, the colours would have echoed those of a 35-degree afternoon, and would have been absorbed by thousands of hungry art lovers in the languor of the summer holidays.
As it turned out, they are hanging instead in the last gasp of summer, and at the onset of a crisp Australian autumn, stark against pale grey walls. It's tempting to imagine Van Gogh, who never found fame in his lifetime, would love the idea of his work echoing the changing leaves in the southern hemisphere.
The work, part of the tightly curated National Gallery of London collection, is one of 61 works spanning 500 years of art history, that will be on display from March 5, our own delayed summer blockbuster. Billed as something of a "crash course" in art history, the show takes in the likes of Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer, Goya, Turner and Cezanne, to name a few.
"If you don't know anything about art, I can guarantee when you come to this exhibition you'll go from zero to art hero within an hour and a half," proclaimed gallery director Nick Mitzevich, when announcing the show back in 2019, before the world changed.
Billed as something of a 'crash course' in art history, the show takes in the likes of Rembrandt, Botticelli, Vermeer, Goya, Turner and Cezanne, to name a few.
And he was right; Rembrandt's muted and strangely moving Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, from 1640, will soon be hanging, as will Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal from 1670, the subject's gown as luminously blue as always.
There will also be old favourites like a Monet bridge, a moody, misty Turner, Cezanne's Provencal hillside, and Botticelli's minutely detailed scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius.
Coordinating curator on the Australian end, the gallery's Sally Foster, who at the time of writing is overseeing the painstaking un-crating process of these works, says the show is, indeed, a carefully curated art lesson.
"The National Gallery in London collect, basically, Art History 101 - that is their mandate," she says.
"And [they only collect] painting, so it's a really tight, beautifully curated collection, they only have 2300 works, which for a major gallery is really small.
"Their idea is that you do walk from the Renaissance through to the early modern period ... you are essentially getting an art history lesson. And this exhibition is a miniature version of that."
The first major show to open after the onset of COVID-19 last year, Botticelli to Van Gogh is set to be a crowd-pleaser, plain and simple - a roll-call of, if not always familiar names, then familiar scenes, colours, and arrangements.
"It is a show for everyone, and, you know, I really respect that. That's what we have to do and what we should be doing," says Foster.
"This is a show that's going to appeal to people who aren't in the art industry, just your ordinary mums and dads and punters in the street and also the people who are in the industry."
As the world, at least for Australia, seems to be turning a corner, it's also feeling smaller than it's ever been, the planet united by a common affliction. And so, it's the perfect time for an art history lesson.
We're speaking in the midst of quiet and controlled chaos. Metres away, Sunflowers, one of the first works to be hung on the wall, glows quietly. Elsewhere are Botticelli mock-ups and hypothetical Vermeers, ladders, crates and, most importantly, a camera on a tripod.
The priceless works - most of which have never left Europe - have arrived in Canberra after a long journey across several continents.
But their last stop was a drawn-out hiatus in Japan, where the exhibition had been planned as an act of diplomacy for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Olympics, as we now know, were postponed, but the show ultimately went ahead in Tokyo and Osaka, to limited audiences.
And from there, to here, individually crated and flying in on several separate aircraft . But unlike previous such exhibitions - and the NGA has played host to several major European shows - the works were unaccompanied by the usual entourage of couriers and curators.
Still, getting them here is always an ordeal, in the midst of a global pandemic or otherwise.
"The logistics of a show like this, moving works of art of this quality and this size around the world, is enormous," says Foster, as exhibition staff move quietly and purposefully around us.
"I have a lot of respect for the people who organise all this, because it has to go without a hitch, essentially, from location to location."
Instead, the installation process - usually drawn out and carefully controlled - is this time being overseen by a team of curators working through the London night and watching the process, from the un-crating to the hanging, via a livestream, witnessing every movement and every detail.
The works, in their customised crates, are still stabilised in a climate-controlled environment before being painstakingly opened.
"We've got cameras set up on everyone, so all the conservators [are] checking as soon as the crates are opened," Foster says.
"The cameras are on the whole time, we're talking to [curators in England] through headsets, and it's live."
It's a sign of confidence that the works - as famous as its possible to be and beyond priceless - have made it this far at all, but the NGA has a long-established reputation for staging major shows, pulling crowds, and showing the works, quite literally, in the best possible light.
Foster points out that many of the works have their usual home in richly coloured and furnished galleries, against dark colours or flock wallpaper.
But while the gallery's large space used for temporary exhibitions is something of a shapeshifter - entire walls can be moved to accommodate new works, and colour schemes changed dramatically to echo the ethos of a particular show - this time the works will be displayed in a relatively minimalist setting.
Australians, says Foster, see things differently to Europeans, both in terms of the context, and the light itself.
"Particularly for this exhibition, we've gone for a really clean, fresh, really elegant, sophisticated hang. It's much simpler than how you would see it if you went to London and you saw those big classic 19th century galleries with all those dark flock wallpapers. I think it's very elegant," she says.
"We want it to reflect the fact that it's in Australia, and this is the National Gallery of Australia, and we've got this kind of beautiful modern building, and it really speaks to that."
The effect is as dramatic as any wallpaper. The works - those already hanging in these early stages - seem stripped back to their very essence, as the colours jump off the walls. It's a feat the NGA has pulled off before, to great effect.
Back when Masterpieces from Paris, the country's most successful art exhibition to date, was unveiled in Canberra in 2009 while the Musee d'Orsay in Paris underwent renovations, the French museum's director was moved to tears when he saw Van Gogh's Starry Night properly lit for the first time in its life.
In other words, shipping all these works across the world is always worth it if it means more people can see them up close, breathing new air, colours bouncing off new light.
And, for Foster at least, the moment a painting emerges into the new light for the first time is every bit as magical, no matter the state of the world.
She says no matter how many times you may have seen a work before - whether on the walls of a European museum or in the countless reproductions that exist in art history texts or exhibition catalogues - nothing compares to seeing it here and now, right in front of you.
But there's something about being stranded, confined, prevented from seeing the world, that makes the prospect of seeing these works up close all the more enticing.
"It feels optimistic," Foster says, simply.
"None of us can go overseas at the moment ... So just to be able to see it here, it does feel more special than it probably would have, if none of this had happened in the past year."
It's that feeling, above all, that will bring visitors to the gallery to see them. Virus and border restrictions and world calamity be damned; the gallery is primed now for a leisurely stroll - COVID-safe and virus-free - through the annals of art history. Soak it in like sunshine on a summer's day - it's what Van Gogh would have wanted.
- Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London opens at the National Gallery of Australia on March 5 and runs until June 14. Visit nga.gov.au for details.