Historic Toowoomba – the Regional Art Gallery

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.

Aristotle

What is art? Ask this question and you will get a myriad of answers. Art, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. I am not very good at art. In fact, I failed it at high school. According to my year 8 art teacher my artistic ability was “limited.” It’s true. Stick figures are the limit of my drawing ability and painting is probably best left to those colour by number projects. However my teacher was also wrong in a way. I believe we all have some natural artistic ability. It’s just that they didn’t teach the kind of art I was good at. 

According to the Oxford dictionary art is…

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Paintings and sculptures are probably at the top of the list when most people think about art galleries but many galleries now display a range of art forms that would most likely provoke a vigorous debate about the true nature of art. Despite my poor art report, I have always enjoyed viewing art and galleries are one of my favourite places to visit. In Toowoomba we are fortunate to have the regional art gallery which has an interesting history.

The Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery is the oldest public regional art gallery in Queensland. Established in 1937 it was first located in City Hall before being relocated to the old Toowoomba Electric Light and Power building in 1994. One of the most interesting architectural features of the building is the adaptation of the original stained glass skylight, which is now electrically lit.

You may be surprised that Toowoomba had its own electricity company but until the standardisation of the electricity supply, it was often up to town and shire councils to make their own arrangements for electricity supply. While electric lighting first came to Brisbane in 1882, it was some years before the rest of the state enjoyed the new technology. In fact, one town in the far north of Queensland, Croydon, was only connected to electricity in 1980!

Not everyone was keen about the idea of electricity and there were many fears and conspiracy theories. In 1907 the Brisbane Courier reported that  

electric lights and electric wires of all sorts poison the air, hurt your lungs and even eat out the lining of your stomach”.

The dangers were not exactly overestimated. Since QLD didn’t have an Electric Power Act until 1896, the lack of regulations led to wires being draped all over the city streets and roof tops. Incidentally, Thargomindah makes history as the first town outside of Brisbane to get electric lighting. Toowoomba had electric lighting by 1905 and in 1936 the QLD government established a Royal Commission into the supply of electricity across the state. It discovered some very interesting and probably quite dangerous “make do” arrangements in local towns and shires. Perhaps it is just as well the Toowoomba Electric Company building has been repurposed for a much safer industry.

The Toowoomba Art Gallery displays a number of exhibitions each year that enables locals and visitors to explore our relationship with our environment, culture, history and each other. During a recent visit to the gallery my attention was captured by a number of exhibits, including “Where They Burn Books” by Dan Elborne. As a book lover the idea of burning books is absolutely horrific to me, but Elborne’s exhibit “memorialises the 1933 Nazi book burnings in which over 25,000 volumes were destroyed.” The single dark book is quite striking among the white ceramic books. Elborne says “they stand as martyrs to freedom of speech, and in a contemporary context, they celebrate current societies’ unprecedented access to text and information.”

Where They Burn Books by Dan Elborne

Two paintings by Vincent Serico capture the early settlement of Toowoomba and the Indigenous stand on Table Top mountain. I loved the vibrancy of the colours but close attention to the detail in the works reveals a dark story of violence and oppression. After the confrontation on Table Top Serico describes how

“The young men get away over the side of the hill; they escape for a while, but the trackers and troopers bring them back in chains. The red sun is for the blood on the land – the people dispossessed….Things are different now in Toowoomba. Descendants of the original people have returned…They drive cars and work side by side on the land with the white men. Here is the opportunity for all to work together to build a better community; we can grow together or keep the chains.”

Another two exhibits that caught my eye were this striking piece repurposing bright red teapots and this gorgeous 17th century rosewood bureau. It is called a Mazarin in memory of Cardinal Mazarin and interestingly, was designed to be used sideways! As the male nobility often wore a ceremonial sword they could only fit one knee under the desk. The intricate design is inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. Certainly not a desk for the common person!

This last piece is one of our own making. Having being bitten by the puzzle bug I acquired this 1500 piece puzzle of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” It is from a series of puzzles called Mindbogglers and it certainly lived up to its name. The metallic gold highlights were quite dazzling in the sunlight and the lack of distinct structural features and dark colouring of the design were quite challenging. It’s still on display on our dining table because after all the effort I’m not ready to pack it up yet.

Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” in 1889 while he was a patient at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. One of the most interesting things about “Starry Night” is that it was painted purely from van Gogh’s imagination which apparently was quite unusual for him. You can read more about this work at the Van Gogh gallery.

A puzzle is probably as close as I will ever get to producing a masterpiece but regional art galleries provide a great opportunity for those outside the city limits to experience the beauty of art in all its forms.

5 thoughts on “Historic Toowoomba – the Regional Art Gallery

    • I probably will do it again one day. When I was growing up my parents did two large puzzles, 5000 and 4000 pieces, and had them framed. My father-in-law does heaps of puzzles too, and he’s got them all stacked up on boards in the shed. I just hope they don’t all come tumbling down one day!

      Liked by 1 person

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