The most expensive painting to be bought at auction in Australia will go on show at the National Gallery of Victoria next month when John Brack’s $3.17 million The Bar will be hung alongside his other iconic work Collins Street, 5pm as well as a range of other paintings in the gallery’s collection from the 1950s.

NGV director Dr Gerard Vaughan raised $2million to try to buy The Bar at a Sotheby’s sale 12 months ago so it could become a permanent companion to the Collins Street picture. But he was outbid by David Walsh, the multi-millionaire reclusive collector, investor and gambler who is building a $50million+ museum on his Moorilla Estate Winery outside Hobart. By 2009, The Bar will join a growing number of major works in his museum which will be the biggest private gallery in Australia and will be open free to the public.

But Walsh will first lend The Bar to the gallery until his own museum is completed and he, in turn, will be able to borrow Collins Street to hang alongside his Brack for an as-yet unspecified term. The NGV governing board of trustees seems certain to approve the arrangement when it meets later this month. At last week’s official opening of the NGV’s Australian Impression exhibition, Vaughan and Walsh had the most amiable of conversations after Vaughan had introduced the collector to Victoria’s Arts Minister Lynne Kosky who had just opened the show.

Before it turned up at Sotheby’s, The Bar had spent most of its life away from public view in the home of a now-dead Melbourne collector who bought it for 90 guineas in 1954. The saleroom’s then managing director, Mark Fraser, described it as the first painting to challenge the way Australians saw themselves, stepping away from the “gum tree” school of idyllic, rural, pioneering scenes. “I think it’s a period where Australia has come out of its so-called golden era … and is now consolidating and self questioning, and in that sense it’s extremely important,” he said.

Painted in grim, dull tones, The Bar shows a 1950s barmaid half smiling wearily at a bland mass of men drinking at her bar. Fraser said it was one of the most radical paintings of its time and was also an ironic reference to the impressionist Edouard Manet’s 1881 work, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which depicts a more vibrant and glamorous European bar scene.

Having boosted Sotheby’s bottom line after four years in the top job, Fraser resigned last month to join Walsh as director of the team responsible for collating and adding to his collection.

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