When National Gallery of Australia director Nick Mitzevich introduced the institution's latest blockbuster to media on Wednesday, he began with the words from his National Gallery in London counterpart, Gabriele Finaldi.
"He says, to walk through the National Gallery [in London], is to journey through the history of picture-making in Western Europe," Mr Mitzevich said.
"This exhibition aims to give a flavour of that experience."
Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, which opens to the public on Friday, features 61 renowned paintings by artists including Titian, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Canaletto, Turner, Renoir, Cézanne, Monet and Gauguin.
The exhibition is the first international touring show by the National Gallery, London, in its almost 200-year history.
"Very rarely do works of art, that define the history of painting, come to Australia in such quantity," Mr Mitzevich said.
"Some of the most masterful works are with us. Like Rembrandt's Self portrait at the age of 34 - it is a masterwork of technique and process.
"The sorts of paintings in this exhibition are unsurpassed in their quality. And when you can't travel to London to see these works, there will be cultural pilgrimages to Canberra over the next three months."
While the number of notable works in the exhibition has seen it be described as a crash course in art history, it is Vincent van Gogh's much-loved Sunflowers that has captured the imagination of the public.
The 1888 artwork is one in a series of artworks the Dutch painter did of sunflowers, with coordinating curator Sally Foster, from the National Gallery of Australia, crediting Van Gogh's use of colour for the attention it has received over the years.
"It's the vibrancy and simple imagery. For some reason, when you kind of look at it, it's just so beautifully painted, and you can't help but just be interested in it. But it's the million-dollar question. Why is it so famous?" she said.
"He loved vivid colours and he played with them. And I just think when you actually see it in the flesh, and you see what that means, it's just - wow."
But Van Gogh's work is just one in the exhibition.
The exhibition is a visual representation of art history, starting with the Renaissance and travelling right through the Post Impressionist movement, to conclude with the Van Gogh masterpiece.
"You can stand in each room - doesn't matter where you are - and stand in front of one of those paintings and see something incredible," Ms Foster said.
The exhibition is the first major international exhibition in Australia since COVID-19 closed international borders in March last year.
Mr Mitzevich said he hoped it will mark a new beginning after a tough year for the arts.
"We are both optimistic and cautious at the same time because the health of our country is important," he says.
"I hope it's the spark that'll encourage us all to think about how important art and culture is to the life of our society.
"One thing that's very important - something that we've learned over the last 12 months - is the experience of actual art is something that can't be emulated through reproduction.
"To stand in front of work of art made by the hand of an artist - and for some of these works it was more than 500 years ago - to see the brushstroke, to feel and observe the materiality, that is something that can't be replaced."
- Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, runs until June 14 at the National Gallery of Australia. Visit nga.gov.au for ticketing.
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