Salvatore Zofrea masters ‘The Greats’

When reviewing an exhibition of such epic proportions such as 'The Greats' at the Art Gallery of NSW, somehow rating the masters out of five stars just doesn't cut it. Instead Salvatore Zofrea shares his opinion, reviewing his five favourite works from the National Gallery of Scotland's collection.

Diego Velazquez ‘An old woman cooking eggs’, 1618

Recalling how in my youth I became conscious of work by Velazquez, I was bowled over when I walked into the Art Gallery of NSW and was confronted by this classic work. I was enthralled to be reminded again that here is a great image. The quality of light, the modelling of form and the way Velazquez, with seemingly great ease, was able to express a moment in time in which this woman was cooking the eggs. His ability to capture the sensation of heat, where we can actually smell the eggs cooking, is magical.

And to think that this work was executed by a young man aged nineteen! We can indeed use the word ‘genius’ for Velazquez, who was able to create this riveting work using quite a limited palette of colours – he certainly was indeed a true alchemist.

Rembrandt van Rijn  ‘A woman in bed’, c.1647

What we enjoy in Rembrandt is a great master who transformed paint into flesh. The great use of light on the woman’s face enables the viewer to look into her eyes and understand the moment of her thought.

The modelling on her breast and the sheets around her seem to give off the sense of her body heat. To my awareness, no painter in modern times has been able to express the real nature of human flesh like Rembrandt. This work has continued to inspire, from the moment it was created right up to the present day. And it should remind modern-day painters of what can be accomplished with oil paint alone.It stands as a beacon of light to serious painters today.

Johannes Vermeer   ‘Christ in the house of Martha and Mary’, c.1654–55

Standing in the presence of this painting, I find myself filled with awe at the way Vermeer has captured a very difficult theme so eloquently. He conveys an image of love and understanding, calmness and compassion in this setting.The two sisters’ total awareness of the uniqueness of the Christ figure hits the viewer with full force. One sister looks up at him with an expression of a child listening to a magical storyteller, while the other sister, about to place bread upon the table, pauses in her action, seemingly transfixed by the words she is hearing.

The way Vermeer painted this moment, it seems to me to be early afternoon, and the light has a ripeness and warmth in the room that infuses the women’s clothing and greatly adds to the overall atmosphere.

Paulo Veronese  ‘Venus, Cupid and Mars’, 1580s

Veronese’s subject-matter here is a classical theme, and one very much loved by Renaissance painters. Veronese has painted a beautiful, voluptuous young woman, Venus, semi-naked. The scarf held by the young man, Mars, seems to hold up her breasts, so heightening the sensuality of the scene.

Symbols such as the dog (virility) and Cupid (erotic love) in the foreground are used to subtly reinforce the overall theme. Technically, we can observe Veronese’s great reverence for and understanding of the medium he uses. His paintbrush makes this image sing – and reminds us that everything we create is a reflection of ourselves, of our own emotions and thoughts.

Paul Cezanne ‘The big Trees’, 1904

Looking at this painting, I am involved and inspired by the landscape . I am really able to understand and enjoy Cezanne’s sense of composition and also the way he, with the simple motif of a tree or a branch, created a wonderful monumentality.

What I find inspiring about Cezanne is how he draws while he is painting, so giving the wonderful understanding that he ‘feels’ the actual shape.

As well, the way he applies his tones – he is very much into harmony – the gradual tones of the foliage and the trees is inspiring because this is extremely challenging. In the process of putting down the form of the rocks and trees, Cezanne’s highly developed awareness of colour and shape enables him to distil the forms to thereby convey their absolute essence. It is this that gives his work its great power.

When I look at this painting, I pay a lot of attention to how Cezanne uses his paintbrush and how he breaks down the tonal values of the form to express his thoughts on the image. This, I believe, is the challenge for any true artist.

Cezanne’s painting should remind any painter that a great work of art is one where the artist can transcend an actual scene to transport the viewer to another plane of contemplation of the presence of nature.

The Greats
Until Sunday 14 February
Art Gallery of New South Wales

Images courtesy the Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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