The National Library incorporates major works of art that have become synonymous with the building. As the concept for the Library’s building developed, the chief architect, Walter Bunning (1912-1977), made the suggestions for 6 initial artworks, believing they should reflect the classical style of the architecture. Most of our works of art were commissioned by Bunning around the time the Library was opened in 1968.
The sculpture is spread in monumental proportions above the exterior of the Library’s front doors. Comprising over 3 tonnes of copper, the sculpture was transported in 3 trucks to the Library, where the pieces were welded together on site.
The work is based on allegorical symbols based on ancient Sumerian and Akkadian seals dating back to 3000 BC. At the centre is the winged sun, symbolising enlightenment and inspired truth. On the right are spear-like tree branches representing the source root and continuous growth of knowledge. On the left is the curved ark of knowledge, referring to the Library’s place in collective memory and preservation of intellectual endeavour.
Bass was one of Australia’s most fervent advocates of public sculpture. Born in Lithgow, New South Wales, he first studied under the Italian-born sculptor Dattilo Rubbo (1870–1955). After graduating from art school in 1948, Bass embarked upon a series of stylised figurative sculptures, including Ethos (1961) located in Canberra’s Civic Square.
Seven panels run along the outer lakeside wall of the Main Reading Room. They were designed by Arthur Robb, a young architect and draughtsman, with the building’s designers, Bunning and Madden. Bunning said the circles, diamonds, crosses and other shapes, with their rugged ‘Roman’ feel, were inspired by the decorations on gladiator shields. The geometric patterns also echo the motifs of Leonard French’s stained-glass windows.
The panels were fabricated from sheet copper and beaten into profile, probably over timber forms. The artisan was Z.S. Vesely, whose Sydney foundry also made works for Tom Bass. Vesely’s name is inscribed on the centre panel. To match the tone of Bass’ Lintel Sculpture, the panels were specially treated to appear aged. The spikes at the top of Robb’s panels were added after it was installated to discourage birds.
Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 9
Henry Moore's sculpture can be found in the Library grounds near the front of the building, Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 9 has long been associated with the Library. The work is 1 of 9 two-piece sculptures Moore created, starting in 1959, and this is 1 of 7 casts (the other 6 went to the United States). Originally, the sculpture was to be displayed on the Library’s front podium, however it was felt to be inappropriate for this location. Therefore, the sculpture was placed on the Library’s boundary on a plinth designed by Walter Bunning. Moore approved of the new location: ‘I think you are right in placing it the distance you have done from the building, for then the sculpture will take on its own scale’.
Moore believed that by dividing a figure in two (an upright torso and a thrusting leg) he could develop tensions within the body unachievable in a single unit. The sculpture’s shifting perspective creates a work full of surprises—at one moment suggesting the body of a woman, the next the shape of eroded rocks or a hill. Moore described the sculpture as being like a journey, in which the viewer travels around the piece and returns to a different view.
Moore was born in Castleford, Yorkshire, and studied sculpture at the Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. He taught at the Royal College from 1924 to 1931 and later at the Chelsea School of Art, London. Moore is regarded as one of Britain’s most eminent modern sculptors.
The 3 large tapestries hanging in the Library’s foyer were conceived as harmonising with Leonard French’s stained-glass windows. Woven in Aubusson, France, the tapestries are bold in design and make forceful use of colour to anchor the foyer’s expanse of travertine marble. Jean Lurcat (1892-1966) was originally commissioned to create the tapestries but he died before completing the designs. Mathieu Matégot, Professor of Art at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts in Nancy, France, was chosen to be Lurcat’s successor. Matégot began working on the tapestries in 1966 and they were installed in 1968. The works were designed to be best viewed from the mezzanine level.
The first tapestry depicts the radio telescope at Woomera, South Australia, representing the technological times in which the Library was built. Woomera was NASA’s first deep-space station located outside of the United States. It participated in a number of early important space missions.
The middle tapestry depicts Australian flora and fauna. The two-metre parrot represents ‘Terra Psittacorum’ or ‘Land of Parrots’—a name given to the Australian region in early navigational charts.
The third tapestry has a multitude of themes. Starting from the top, it shows a blue area symbolising the Great Barrier Reef. The pineapple evokes tropical Australia and the riverboat and the outline of the Sydney Opera House represent urban life. The ram’s head stands for wool, Australia’s major export at the time, with the brown area at the bottom representing the land.
Matégot was born in Hungary and lived in France. He initially worked in theatre design and also crafted furniture but he is best-known for his monumental tapestries.
The 16 stained-glass windows (6 pairs and 4 singles) in the Library’s foyer are made of Belgian and French dalle de verre (faceted or chunk glass style). Embedded in concrete, the blocks are cut to maximise light refraction and create dazzling patterns of colour. The windows include motifs of crosses, circles, suns, stars and mandalas in a palette of over 50 colours. The broader theme comes from the planets—Venus in tones of blue and Mars in red. Leonard French commented that the planet theme provided him ‘with a subject matter that has been the concern of artists from the beginning of time. The mystery and wonderment allows for a complete poetic interpretation’.
As well as being decorative, the windows originally served a more functional purpose, reducing the amount of outside light entering what was the Library’s foyer exhibition area. In the morning, the sun glows warmly through the glass—with a conversely cooler light filtering through in the afternoon. The windows were installed in 1967, before the development of the Library’s bookshop and café, which now incorporate them.
French was born in Melbourne and studied at the Melbourne Technical College (1944–1947). In the 1960s, he became internationally renowned for his semi-abstract paintings with crucifix-like forms that evoke Byzantine art. French likened himself to the Homeric voyager, the hero Odysseus. In 1968, The Sydney Morning Herald declared it ‘the year of Leonard French’. That same year, in addition to the Library’s windows, French’s ‘biggest stained-glass ceiling in the world’ became the highlight of the new National Gallery of Victoria building. Another of French’s chunk glass ceilings is on 24-hour view at the National Art Glass Gallery, Wagga Wagga.
Finding Kenneth Myer
This tapestry was donated by the Myer family through the Tapestry Foundation of Victoria in 2011. It commemorates the life and adventures of American-born Australian patron of the arts Kenneth Baillieu Myer AC DSC (1921-1992). In 1961, Myer was a founding member of the National Library Council and, from 1974 to 1982, was Chair of Council.
At the time of his death, Myer was the greatest collector of Japanese art in Australia. His philanthropy included personal donations and funding to the National Library of Australia, Victorian Arts Centre, CSIRO and Art Gallery of New South Wales. With his siblings he established the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1959, in honour of their late father Sidney Myer (1878–1954).
Melbourne artist John Young designed the tapestry to represent Myer’s many interests and passions, including gum forests, oriental art and technological enterprises in fields such as optic fibre and modified crops. It also refers to his distinguished career during World War II, and his passion for collection-building by cultural institutions. At the centre left of the tapestry, Ken Myer’s name is featured in Chinese symbols, which translate as ‘rigorous dancing arrow’.
Australian Landscapes I–IV
Since 2001, 4 machine-embroidered panels have been displayed in the Main Reading Room. They are by British textile artist Alice Kettle, who estimates she used 5 million stitches in the panels, which took 18 months to create. Many of the fine threads are made from synthetic rayon and cotton. They ‘capture the luminescence of the shifting light and the brilliance of the landscape’.
The 3 panels hanging together evoke a populated landscape, with impressionistic references to the Library’s Maps Collection. The Southern Cross is depicted at the top of the centre and left-hand panels, and the red line and text across the foreground is from a map drawn in 1570 by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). A fourth panel, hanging at the opposite end of the room, features a single eucalypt.
Kettle conceived the panels as a commentary on relationships between readers and libraries and between people and landscapes. The works were commissioned and given to the Library by retiring Director-General Warren Horton, in memory of his wife, Patsy Hardy.
Find out more
A different view: the National Library and its building art 2004, Canberra: National Library of Australia, nla.gov.au/nla.cat-vn3083203
National Library of Australia News August 2008 issue celebrated the 40th anniversary of the National Library building.