The Pre-Raphaelites, above all else, wanted to make art that felt like real life. Not necessarily in a photo-realistic way, although many Pre-Raphaelite paintings are minutely detailed; no, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were more looking for a certain feeling and overall tone that suggested the pain and passions of humanity. At the centre of their work was love, both romantic love and familial love, love that was doomed and love that prospered. It’s a theme that’s endured over time; look at today’s visual artists and you’ll probably find similar threads. And in music, love is timeless; nothing’s captured the attention of more composers and songwriters for longer.
Iconic Australian musician Sarah Blasko has been thinking about the multitudes of love since she debuted with What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have over a decade ago. With the release of last year’s Depth of Field, Blasko deepened her career-long fascination across a collection of darkly-toned electronic pop songs. And this year, she’s looking back to the Pre-Raphaelites for inspiration as part of the NGA’s Love and Desire exhibition. Ahead of Blasko’s show at the gallery on Feb 8th, we spoke to the songwriter about the Pre-Raphaelites, love, and her long-running career.
NOISEY: What was the process like, re-contextualising your work for this exhibition?
Sarah Blasko: When they approached me about doing the show, they wanted to tie it in with promoting the exhibition itself. Meg—who was the one that reached out to me – felt as though a lot of my songs fit within the themes of love and desire. It was kind of as simple as that.
Do you feel like love in different forms is still a relevant theme for artists today?
Definitely. I mean, it’s got to always be a thing, right? It’s what we all yearn for when it really comes down to it. When we’re children, we’re very open, receptive and affectionate and I think that anything or anyone that can take us back to that is beautiful. I think to think of it as our base nature. To love. Unconditionally. I think it’s always going to be relevant.
Do you think that’s in your nature, currently?
Definitely. On the one hand, I think as you get older you get both less and more tolerant in a confusing kind of way. More and more you want to get further in touch with what matters in your life. The core of what matters. You start to discard all of the superfluous things; all the shit gets pushed aside and you hone in on what really fulfils you. But it’s a hard road to get there. I see that within these paintings, the complexity of love, the pain and beauty and ugliness. True romance is based on complexity of life, it’s not as straightforward and superficial and the idea of “modern romance”. It’s like if you lose somebody, it’s a beautiful experience as well as tragic. That’s love.
That idea of romance being a superficial thing, what do you mean by that?
The true meaning of love is so different to just this ideal of romance. True love is sacrifice and pain and not self-serving. So many people don’t fit into this perpetuating myth of romance, because it’s restrictive. Anything that can expand on the true nature of love is important.
Do you have any favourite pieces in the exhibition?
The Ophelia painting is one I’m centering my mind on for the performance because I get to perform within the space, and it really resonates with me. I am a big Shakespeare fan. I know Hamlet really well, the tragedy of the character Ophelia and the story behind her killing herself really strikes me. There are a couple of other paintings where a woman is the centre character of heartbreak, which I love. The paintings I engage with as a woman are ones that express women, I feel like these are the ones that really strike me. There’s one of Mary, being told she is going to give birth to the son of God. I just love the humanness in it all.
How are you working on interpreting the works within your performance?
I’ve just been asked to base the performance on the themes of love and desire. I’m reimagining from my own collection, while also gaining influence by the colours, feel and texture of the paintings in order to create a space that sits naturally with the pieces. I want people to come in and have a really unique experience, surrounded by this art that makes sense together in different forms. I want to create a holistic vibe. I want there to be this idea of evolution from childlike love, then dealing with love throughout your youth and how you come out the other side of that… that’s the arc of how I want the performance to feel.
Songs of Love and Desire is on Feb 8th at the National Gallery of Australia. Info here.