Pegus, Annabel. Encounter, Lapérouse Museum, 2005-6 (review)

This exhibition brings to the fore the significant eighteenth century naval expedition by French explorer Lapérouse. It focuses on Lapérouse’s journey to the New World through the visual interpretations of his legacy by artist, Nathalie Hartog-Gautier. For the first time, Lapérouse’s expedition has been examined in a meaningful artistic context to produce a body of work that re-presents these important events in French naval history. This exhibition, the first by a French artist living in Australia, enables this history to be examined by audiences today in a factual and engaging context, opening it to inquiry and investigation.

Nathalie Hartog-Gautier has created her work by reinterpreting original surviving documents from Lapérouse’s expedition housed at the Mitchell Library, New South Wales, Australia and Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris. The resulting body of work, Encounter, stands alone as an accomplished aesthetic exploration of sensual materiality and, like Lapérouse’s journey, continues the exchange of art and culture between France and Australia.

Encounter can be loosely divided into themes of zoological specimens, maps and gardens, floral illustrations, Australian native flora, and objects carried from France. The artist’s historical stimulus includes instructions for Lapérouse in preparation of his journey, information given to the expedition’s gardener, lists of materials and items taken on board for trade and gifts, illustrations, Lapérouse’s diary, and correspondence to the French monarchy, King Louis XVI. The use of these sources highlights the importance of preparations made for the journey, the recording of land and weather as well as the journey itself.

Contemporary audiences will be drawn to the aesthetics of the work, which effect an enticing window onto these historical events. Specimens of flora and fauna have been chosen for their aesthetic and formal qualities and historical details are balanced with various creative techniques. Original texts have been detailed, enlarged and meticulously reproduced by hand. Delicate, fine paper is layered over watercolour, pencil sketch or rubbing, referencing the fragility of surviving historical documents, the obscurity of the past and the accumulation of meaning over time.

Minute details of distinctly Australian plants are faithfully delineated allowing shapes and forms to be central in each artwork. Their botanical origins are lessened and a fantastical world of visual discovery is entered. Other works are inspired by items taken on board such as beads, buttons, feathers, vermilion and mirrors used for trade, as well as utilitarian items such as nails and rope.

Presented in this way, these objects have been freed from past portrayals and conceptual modes of representation, and become open to popular inquiry and broader audiences.

Through this exhibition, the importance of Lapérouse’s expedition becomes engaging and relevant to today’s audiences. The artist’s process of interpretation and re-reading of historical references creates a dialogue between the present and the past. Encounter not only enlivens significant historical French naval events for contemporary audiences but furthers the exchange of art and culture, past and present.

Annabel Pegus 2005

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