Ladies and Gents
Mark Amery writes on a gathering together of New Zealand’s old European painting at Te Papa, Angels and Aristocrats.
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In many respects they feel lonely and landless these paintings - these chubby cherubs, bejeweled lords, costumed ladies and beatific Madonnas. Purchased by a young colony’s museums and galleries - sourcing vestiges of a cultural heritage ‘back home’ for their citizens’ betterment - today they float unanchored, surrounded by a wealth of New Zealand art.
Bringing together work spanning five centuries of European painting, from the 14th to the 19th, from five New Zealand public collections Mary Kisler does a fine job with Angels and Aristrocrats in giving these paintings company and context.
While her assertion that they form an important part of our history isn’t really substantiated, through smart, thoughtful arrangements and excellent writing she gives them a place in a wider art history, and teases out their interesting individual back stories.
Compared to the museums of other new world countries, New Zealand’s holdings of old masters are slight. Kisler doesn’t overstate these works importance. Instead she celebrates the social milieu and conventions from which they spring. This is an exhibition as much about fashions as it is art.
Nor is Kisler’s silk purse made out of a sow’s ear. It may only occasionally wow, but there is plenty of interesting work - from the terrific Bruegel fair scene from the Auckland collection (having grown up with this collection, the exhibition provides reunions with many an old friend) to the slopping, stormy seasickness of an early Turner maritime scene. In two works George Dawe gives us dramatic swooning theatre, his ‘Achilles’ a nest of writhing muscular flesh, with drapery strategically placed. His ruddy-cheeked self-portrait is remarkably fresh and direct.
Angels and Aristocrats show is studded with works that surprised me anew, and from which any artist can learn. The high Italian drama of Felice Ficherelli’s 1638 depictment of the racy story of Antiochius, Prince of Syria and his stepmother, with its extreme chiaroscuro, mathematical exactness and ability to enclose a whole story in one picture. Dutchman Gerard Dou’s The Physician from 1653, which has a luminosity and animated play with perspective that is as vital as any computer generated animation.
Whilst Kisler has clearly been very selective, the show remains a mixed bag. The landscape section of the exhibition provides large tracts of dull craggy stormy scenes I can’t get interested in. By contrast the portraiture section – sympathetically given its own room as if this were a society party - is packed full of gems. It pays testament to the strength of 17th and 18th century English portraiture, and is nicely anchored to the local by John Webber’s portraits of Captain Cook and Poedua of the Society Islands.
More of this kind of anchoring would have been welcomed. Kisler’s frame remains the familiar one, not straying earlier than the 14th century or far into the 19th. Step into the cramped permanent display of the Te Papa collection next door afterwards and the comparative strength of the 19th and early 20th century painting collection is immediately clear.
Welcome also now would be to see these old European works placed in relationship to contemporary New Zealand art, really emphasising their vitality. Marcus Gheeraerts’ Countess next to one of Yvonne Todd’s starlets, or the startingly loose abstraction of the white marked robe of Thomas Gainsborough’s Bishop of Exeter next to a work by Judy Millar.
- Angels and Aristocrats, Te Papa, until 27 January
- Must See
A beautifully playful installation of the sculptural work of Louise Purvis and Jeff Thomson, with exquisite colour Wairarapa landscape photographs by Ans Westra. Hanging Together, HedSpace Gallery, Masterton, until 1 December