An intellectual snob, I like to pride myself that I take no interest in celebrities, agreeing with the witty definition of them as being just "people famous for being famous".
And so it is with some unease that this snob realises that his eager gambol along to the Botticelli to Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia was, really, a deliberate choice to go and ogle 61 celebrity paintings. The paintings are superstars from the National Gallery, London.
There is something about Vincent's painted vase of sunflowers, capturing sunflowers' essential sunflowerness, which somehow surpasses any arrangement of real sunflowers in a real vase.
And so to be thrilled by the exhibition (I have just been to the exhibition, loving my two hours there, sometimes so thrilled by a painting I thought I might swoon before it, like a devout fan of a celebrity going weak at the knees upon meeting that celebrity in the flesh) is in a sense to take a rapt interest in celebrities.
Perhaps great galleries, like the NGA, understandably (to make an essential quid) depend upon and exploit common people's fascination with the famous when they, the galleries, stage these celebrity blockbusters.
I do understand it, and the fact that my ticket and my companion's ticket contributed some essential shekels to the NGA helps me feel slightly more at ease about my having gone to Botticelli to Van Gogh as much like a fan going to a Taylor Swift concert as like the sincere art lover I want to believe I am.
My wrestles with my conscience continue, but meanwhile I commend the present blockbuster to all who can rock up to its whirring turnstiles.
My companion and I made whispered confessions to one another that the biggest celebrity of the exhibition, Van Gogh's Sunflowers (1888), the show's poster painting and the focus of the show's advertising and merchandising, really is a wonder.
In one's snobbery one had hoped to be underwhelmed by it (in the same way one would hope to be disappointed by a Taylor Swift concert) but instead it turns out to be that rare thing, something fabulously popular that is also deeply, truly fabulous.
Yes, it is famous for being famous but, for once, it is fame that is utterly deserved. Words cannot describe it (and so I won't try) and what it tells us of its tragic creator's genius.
Looking at it from a distance it appears to glow goldenly as if it has been artificially enhanced by a gallery's artful use of lighting. But no, the glow is all Vincent's work. In the sumptuous official coffee-table book of the exhibition he is quoted saying in a letter to his brother how with this painting he had invested his "whole and entire energy" in order "to be sufficiently heated up to melt those golds and flower tones".
In Canberra gardens this has been a wondrous summer for sunflowers (obsessively, I grow a dozen varieties) and our modest home has been serially festooned with umpteen vases of them. But there is something about Vincent's painted vase of sunflowers, capturing sunflowers' essential sunflowerness, which somehow surpasses any arrangement of real sunflowers in a real vase.
The word "awesome" is tragically devalued now by promiscuous overuse (at my local supermarket I am often congratulated for having done something "awesome" when all I have done is to have my credit card's acceptance successfully complete my purchase of unawesome groceries). But when I come to power the word "awesome" will by law only be permitted for sparing use (with a cap of six uses a year) to try to describe things as genuinely awesome as Vincent's Sunflowers.
Another transfixing painting in the exhibition is Carlo Crivelli's The Annunciation (1486).
Quite apart from its startling depiction of the Virgin Mary being told of her surprise appointment as the woman to bear Our Redeemer (more of that depiction in a moment) there was something else.
The sumptuous painting glows with hues of red and gold and while I was in its neighbourhood, haunting it (for the painting obsessed me), up to the painting came and stayed for quite some time a tall and elegant young woman with long hair full of hues of red and gold.
She seemed to belong to the painting as if she had stepped out of it (and perhaps she had), and, the balance of my mind disturbed by this awesome painting (there I go using up another of my six priceless awesomes) I half expected her to step into it and blend into its busy goings-on. Perhaps, after I had left to go and admire Vincent's masterpiece, she did step back into the painting, into 1486.
One of the delights of the painting is that Mary, although she has just been touched on the head by God's laser-like bolt of golden light, sent down from Heaven and signifying the divine choice of her for very important work, is choosing not to look up just yet, thank you very much, from whatever it is she is reading. Whatever God us up to with his bolt of light He'll just have to wait a moment.
This is a sweetly humanising touch by the painter. All avid readers know how it is to be utterly absorbed in a good book. Warping time a little (it's my column and I'll warp if I want to) I choose to think Crivelli's young reader is in a world created by Jane Austen. She, Mary, is enchanted by deliciously fictitious lives (can Elizabeth Bennet really be falling in love with Mr Darcy?) so much more eventful than her own.
- Ian Warden is a regular columnist.