University of Melbourne Magazine

Master of the masterpiece

  • Dr Ted Gott with Degas’ Dancer with Bouquets

    Dr Ted Gott with Degas’ Dancer with Bouquets, part of this year’s Winter Masterpieces at the NGV. PICTURE: JULIAN KINGMA

    By Andrew Stephens (BFineArt 1994, PGDipArts (ArtHist&ClinSt) 2001)

    Ted Gott stands before an Edgar Degas oil painting.

    It is of a cotton-dealer’s office in New Orleans, which Degas and his brothers visited in the 1870s when their uncle worked there.

    It seems, at first, like an odd favourite for Gott: there are no radiant ballet dancers, no vibrant colours, no single storyline we can easily latch on to when gazing at it.

    Then Gott starts talking.

    He is the Senior Curator of International Painting and Sculpture at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and he has a talent for bringing a work, with immense vitality, into the present tense. He makes art relevant – and this painting’s central subject is “work”, something with which Gott is familiar.

    Many people moving around him during their visit to Degas: A New Vision try to eavesdrop as he talks, for it’s evident to them that this man not only has extraordinary knowledge about Degas but an entrancing way of delivering it. Heads lean inwards, chatter abates.

    The painting, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), pays homage to Rembrandt in its dramatic use of black and white and, while it is not large, it tells multiple stories as the dozen or so figures within its frame go about their business.

    But it is the light – coming from multiple sources, even the huge mounds of cotton lying on the tables – that is so captivating, plus the way Gott animates it all.

    He has curated, co-curated or coordinated more than 25 exhibitions during his long career, and many have been French-themed. Mostly at the NGV or the National Gallery of Australia (where he worked from 1991 to 1998), they have included: The Enchanted Stone: The Graphic Worlds of Odilon Redon (1990), The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay (2004), Picasso, Love and War (2006) and Napoleon: Revolution to Empire (2012).

    Now he has just completed work as the Australian curatorial coordinator for A New Vision, which opened in June at the NGV and whose primary curator was Henri Loyrette (former director of both the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay).

    “I love telling stories and it is a great thrill to be able to fashion something that you’ve learnt and turn it into a story that will excite people,” Gott says. “That is the great thing: once an exhibition is open, to go in and listen, watch people and see what they are saying and what they are enjoying. It is a real privilege.”

    Given his extraordinarily detailed knowledge of French culture, it is no surprise that in June, Gott (BA(Hons) 1981, PhD 1987, Ormond College) received a knighthood from the French Government. Called the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, it was presented by French Ambassador Christophe Lecourtier. The order recognises significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of French culture. M. Lecourtier said on the night that Gott spoke perfect French – a compliment rarely paid to a foreigner.

    “Dear Ted, we understand that arts and artists have driven your life,” M. Lecourtier told him. “Furthermore that you also embrace the French culture and the French language in its entirety. We just need to hear you talking about France and your next trip to France … to feel the deep emotional attachment, not to say love, which animates you.”

    Similarly, NGV director Tony Ellwood praises Gott’s exceptional ability to bring artists’ stories to life. “His passion for French culture is great and his knowledge of French art history is extremely impressive,” he says. “His overall depth of knowledge as an art historian is greatly respected.”

    That love of French culture was nurtured at the Alliance Française, sited in Flemington when Gott was a boy. He had studied French in secondary school in Box Hill.

    “Fortunately I had a teacher who recognised my love of French and organised for the school to enrol me in the correspondence course. That gave me a very personal love of French. These packages would arrive every week with my homework and [the teacher’s] corrections.” His parents then organised Alliance Française visits and he won the Alliance French grammar prize in 1977.

    Two years earlier, when Ted was 15, his parents had taken him and older brother Robert to Paris on a six-week trip. “They weren’t rich but they saved all their pennies. That was my first time. It was magical, as you can imagine.”

    “What a great joy to do for a living something that you love, and work with what a lot of people associate with recreation — visiting museums.”

    When he later went to the University of Melbourne, it was in order to become a French and classics teacher. “I had always loved Greek and Roman history from the ‘sword-and-sandals’ Sunday afternoons’ Epic Theatre on television, after Bob Santamaria and the world wrestling.”

    Brother Robert (BA(Hons) 1978, GDipEd 1979) steered Ted into fine arts, and after studying art history and classics, Gott embarked on a PhD on French artist Odilon Redon.

    He returned to Paris again to do more Redon research in 1982 and 1983 on bursaries from the University, and in 1984 with help from his parents. These trips helped enormously with his French. “I was alone in Paris and I had no choice,” he says. “At first I was really terrible, but then you get your confidence. I was spending my days in the Bibliothéque Nationale and other libraries just reading French newspapers. It was hard – a lot of it was on microfilm and you would come out feeling like your eyeballs were bleeding. I was trying to find contemporary reviews of my artist so I was just reading all sorts of newspapers from the 1860s onwards.

    “I had to learn to speed read but, of course, you’d stop and read all these other fabulous stories about contemporary life – tragedies, murders, robberies. It would divert my attention. But it was total immersion in French language and literature.”

    What excites Gott is ferreting out information, and the various scholarships he has been awarded – including a Harold Wright Scholarship to the British Museum in 1987 and a Harkness Fellowship to the United States in 1987–1988 – have enabled that. “It gets in your blood. That is what I love about research. Your questions might be answered and other times you might find things that challenge your accepted theory. That is the spirit of the chase. That is what captivates me about curating and art history.”

    As we walk through Degas: A New Vision and he talks about the rest of his career, Gott repeatedly mentions how fortunate he has been to have worked at places such as the NGV, the National Gallery of Australia, the Heide Museum of Modern Art, and as a curator for the Robert Holmes à Court collection.

    “I have been in the right place at the right time and been enabled to travel and study to my heart’s content,” he says. “What a great joy to do for a living something that you love, and work with what a lot of people associate with recreation – visiting museums. I do it for a living. There is no work-life balance because there is no division.”

    The University of Melbourne’s Learning Partnership with the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces at NGV allows alumni and friends to discover treasures of the art world. Visit to keep up to date with special offers.

    Painting by numbers

    • This year’s Degas exhibition was the 13th Melbourne Winter Masterpieces staged by the NGV.
    • The biggest attendance so far was for The Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Musée D’Orsay, which drew 380,234 visitors in 2004.
    • More than 8 million visitors attended the first 12 exhibitions.