It was a rare sight. Five people in wheelchairs in one art gallery – and not one of them had their view of the art obstructed. None had to stubbornly nudge their way to the front of the crowd or wait for those standing around to step out of their way. Instead, they were able to move easily through the space, simply enjoying the art.
Open for access
It probably helped that the art they were enjoying was by Claude Monet. He was one of the greatest of all Impressionist painters and the subject of this year's National Gallery of Victoria winter masterpieces exhibition, Monet's Garden. Over 320,000 visitors saw this exhibition during its season from 10 May to 8 September. The five people seen wheeling their way amid the paintings were among a group of 50 or so attending an access evening at the gallery.
The National Gallery of Victoria usually runs access programs for major exhibitions. This was the first time, however, that an evening opening was held. A range of tours, including Auslan and audio describing, were offered on the night. Visitors were also free to roam through the rooms at their own pace.
Reflecting on the paintings
During the two hours the gallery was open, several small tour groups travelled through the exhibition. Participants commented on the paintings and conversed with each other and their guides. Many took the opportunity to rest on the chairs provided and reflect on the images surrounding them.
More than 60 paintings were exhibited in Monet's Garden. These included some early works and various views of the artist's gardens at Giverny. There were numerous, luminous examples of the waterlily paintings Monet is famous for. These showed the artist's skill in capturing the fleeting effects of light upon water.
Later paintings revealed the impact of Monet's deteriorating vision on his art. Visitors were informed that cataracts in both eyes rendered the artist almost blind. His perception of colour was altered too. He began painting his garden from memory and relied on the labels on his paint tubes to determine which colours to use. In a letter to a friend, he described how he applied these colours to the canvas
It is curious to consider that Monet's visual impairment may have contributed to a style of art that has inspired generations of later painters. The fact that he continued to paint up until his death in 1926 at 86 years old certainly impressed a few of the older visitors at the access evening. One man was heard to wonder if it were not too late to consider picking up a brush himself.
Time and space to appreciate the art
The access evening in Monet's Garden gave people both time and space to appreciate the paintings. Those with low vision were able to lean in close to get a better sense of the colours and textures. People who walked slowly or with difficulty could wander along without the usual crush and bustle of people around them. A mother was able to talk to her young son about the artwork without him getting distracted or distressed. Everyone could focus on the art instead of the difficulties of negotiating a crowd.
All those who attended were clearly entranced by the paintings and shared their thoughts and impressions companionably with one another. Several took advantage of both the bookshop and café being open as well. The overall mood of the evening was contemplative and appreciative.
This was a wonderful way to experience these wonderful paintings. Hopefully the National Gallery of Victoria will host more events like this so more people are able to access and enjoy great art.