With all the healthy glamour of a Peggy Guggenheim on heat, well-heeled Melburnians turned out last night to flirt with the twentieth century. The twentieth century, sadly, was having none of our advances. Actually, it seemed about as warm and responsive as Jackson Pollock after a night on the turps in East Hampton.

And, in fact, every bit as focused as a sozzled Jack the Dripper.

The Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now is the latest and most untenable of the Winter Masterpieces series in Victoria. NSW has nothing like it, but be warned: last year, even infidels like me found themselves Bettered by Picasso. A slender lens and some clever curation had so many of us moaning at the sheer pleasure of actually learning something about visual culture.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

Get more and save 50%.

Subscribe now

Not so last night.

Things didn’t start well. People, public transport and significant works of visual art are, I have found, generally improved by judicious drinking. The wine was not, even by my standards, potable. It made everyone stink and bray like donkey cooked in cheap muscatel and it was not well matched with the National Gallery of Victoria’s party pies.

(And, no, the symbolism of the frozen and reheated pies was not lost on me, my dear, as I queasily looked at what must have been one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s crappiest self-portraits. From which of the Guggemheim’s neglected and leaky Frigidaire’s did these aging snacks come?)

When I acknowledged that I’d have to actually look at some Jeff Koons pictures sober, the speeches began. As a Global Franchise, Guggenheim, I suppose, must have its Ham-Burglar. He came in the form of the improbably named and wonderfully accented Wolfgang Schrempp. This is actually pronounced Shrimp.

I only mention it to evoke the cloud of ironic dust that was beginning to choke everyone in the gallery’s vast and cavernous space.

Anyhoo, Herr Schrempp was from the Luxury Brand Car manufacturer that had made this intractable exhibition possible. He went on for about 10 days clumsily comparing the work of high end European car manufacturers to transgressive art forms. Which even I, not at all a student of art, found hard to take.

Apparently, Mercedes Benz make “art”. No. They make frigging nice cars. They do not make Entartete Kunst. Media workers pay heed: Wolfgang is not a master of subtle branding and urgently requires a speech writer.

Then, a very nicely groomed blonde lady spoke about Rothko Rupturing the Canvas of the Twentieth Century and my learned date remarked that dinner would soon be ruptured unless this nicely groomed lady mentioned Dada. Which, as it happened, she didn’t.

The Guggenheim seems to be the sort of organisation that values its corporate memory above the history of art. Rather arrogantly, it seems to me, the company believes it can allow a potted history of ideas and images that does not engage beyond the limen of its collection.

And, what we’re left with (despite all of the talk about ripped canvases) is a very flat narrative that tells people like me nothing about the twentieth century. Decades of chaos covers the walls and floors of the NGV like bad graffiti and, ultimately, I learned nothing about the emergence of a New Artistic Identity. And, I still loathe Jeff Koons.

Oh, I went home feeling empty, alone and disposed to tell Dear Diary of my deep dissatisfaction. The National Gallery of Victoria will egoistically roll over, I’m sure, and say to its public, “Finish yourself off, love.”

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%