Wednesday 29 September 2010

In Memory of Roger Neich

The Gallery has learnt with much sadness of the death of Professor Roger Neich at the age of 66.

New Zealand has lost in his passing one of our finest and most gifted citizens.

A humble man with much modesty, Roger rose to the heights of his profession both at the National Museum of New Zealand and at the Auckland Museum. His outstanding work as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The University of Auckland occurred while he was also working as the Curator of Ethnology at Auckland Museum.

Roger was immensely respected as one of New Zealand's most distinguished scholars and writers. A man with eminent expertise as both a curator and an ethnologist, he was known internationally as amongst the most generous, talented and brilliant museum professionals in the world.

A graduate from the University of California at Berkeley. His field work in Papua New Guinea and in Western Samoa was ground breaking and of exceptional merit for Pacific anthropology. His superb re-installation of the historical, modern and contemporary Maori and Pacific collections at Auckland Museums is considered one of the most important presentations of indigenous art in any museum.

His knowledge of the material culture of Aotearoa New Zealand and of the entire Pacific was so extensive that he was an expert of first recourse. His knowledge was unparalleled and so wide-ranging that all of us curators knew that Roger would always be able to answer even the most complex professional enquiry. I recall his close interest in an installation of Pacific tapa that I prepared for this Gallery, and he was able to speak off-the-cuff about every item spontaneously.
Amongst his important publications, many have been of profound significance because of their innovative scholarship and fresh presentation of history:
Material Culture of Western Samoa (1985)
Painted Histories - Early Maori Figurative Painting (1994)
Pacific Tapa (1997)
Traditional Tapa Textiles of the Pacific (1997)
Pounamu - Maori Jade of New Zealand (1997)
Carved Histories - Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Woodcarving (2001)
Pacific Jewelery and Adornment (2004) - written with Pandora Fulimalo Pereira
The Oldman Collection of Pacific Artifacts (2004)
Vaka Moana - Voyages of the Ancestors (2006)

His last book, The Maori Collections of the British Museum (forthcoming later this year) will be the most important publication on Maori taonga issued this decade.

Dear Roger, we remember you with much aroha. You are an emblem for all of Aotearoa of bi-cultural life and scholarship.

E te rangatira Roger. Na te nui ou, nga te rongo ou, I heke ai te roimata. Moe mai I to moenga roa. Na o hoa mahi o Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

21st century blog

One of the most fascinating gallery related blogs has been started locally by the Gallery of Modern Art at Brisbane. It is not always clear what connects with what, texts are frequently separated from artists words, interviews and images.

Such opaqueness of navigation makes this outstanding blog even more intriguing as it appears to be so structured but is, in reality, much more free form. The blog quotes a lot of artists and writers.

Yet, it doesn't really make comments by readers easily accessible to others which is sort of nice, as one's responses seem as if they are being sent to a blog's lost letter depot.

What distinguishes this impressive website is its way of looking outwards. Well beyond the Australian shoreline and the nation's own cities. The blog feels like an updated grandchild of Robert Hughes's writings for TIME magazine because it is so assertively global in its remit. By having such a global focus it invites lots of cross-cultural perspectives. It also looks back and values older writings which is a significant point of difference to its take on artists. Like a mini review of how the present actually has a past beyond yesterday.

Check out the posting for the artist Claude Closky, who maintains that everything about his vocation and achievement as an artist can be contained in his many blogs. I list them here as it is an impressive schedule.

Here is what the 21st century blog says about this artist:
"All you want to know about me is in my blog – Claude Closky. French artist Claude Closky works across a variety of media, including painting, installation, video, and net art, in a signature style that revolves around the concept of conveying information and the connection between ideas and objects. The artist maintains a number of personal websites and a YouTube channel, each of which is copious in its offerings."

Here are Claude's links:

By maintaining a comprehensive presence in social media, Claude is proving that many artists are now employing this information vehicle as a key to their practice or, even more simply, the reality of their practice as media artists.

It is easy to subscribe to the 21st century blog and I reckon that this is one great site to watch.

Friday 24 September 2010

Aubrey Beardsley

I was wondering do many people know the difference between sheet fed gravure printing and platinum printing nowadays?

The image directly below is a gravure reproduction of a platinotype. I think Laurence Aberhart is the only local camera artist to experiment much with platinum printing. It is so archaic and difficult to produce.

The additional image below is of a platinum platinotype. See how much warmer it is. Gravure is known for its ability to render black as dark as the tone named surmey.

The portrait was made by Frederick Evans in 1894. His sitter is Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), the most gifted English illustrator of his generation. This is the epitome of fin-de-siecle aesthetic portraiture, he is posed so carefully and the studio's natural light is falling directly from above. One never sees close-up portraits like this in 2010. (Courtesy of a private collection).

Negative Capability (3) - Colin McCahon and Gerard Manley Hopkins

I cannot say with any certainty but I have always thought that Colin McCahon accessed the poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins through the selection edited by W.H.Gardiner for Penguin Books. First published in 1953, it went through numerous reprints in the 1960s and 1970s.

Gardiner's introduction to Hopkins is one of the best essays on the poet. He writes about the 'sound-texture' of Hopkins's poetry and his technique of 'vowelling on' and vowelling off'. This device is one of the keys to the poet's 'sprung rhythm' and stressed syllables.

Felix Randal was a poem that Colin McCahon admired and he invokes it in Angels and bed no. 9: Thinking of Hopkins-Felix Randal. This 1977 acrylic on steinbach paper can be viewed at the newly revamped Colin McCahon Online Catalogue.

Here is the link to the painting:

The McCahon database is an essential research tool for everyone wanting to know more about this exceptional artist. One can search by collection, date, title, subject and association. I refer to it on almost a daily basis and recommend it to you if you want to study the painter in depth.

The other day I attended the hugely informative illustrated lecture Patron and Painter: Charles Brasch and Colin McCahon delivered by Professor Peter Simpson at the newly opened TSB Wallace Arts Centre. He was presenting the inaugural Hocken Lecture for the University of Otago at Auckland - a great initiative for the Hocken and the University.

Peter drew upon the amazing material in Charles Brasch's currently unpublished journals and showed, for the very first time, a photograph of Brasch preparing the installation of McCahon's exhibition A Landscape Theme and Variations in the foyer of the Otago Museum in 1963.

I thought you may like to read Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Felix Randal. He must surely be one of the key British poets of the 19th century? It feels so modern and tortured.

Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Tuesday 21 September 2010

In Memory of Greg Flint 1952 -2010

Last week, the funeral for Greg Flint occurred here at Auckland. This was a sad moment of passing and the Auckland Art Gallery expresses our sincerest condolences to Greg’s family and to his many friends.

I was unable to be present at the memorial ceremony but a friend was there and she told me how moving the event was for everyone present. I remember with pleasure visiting Greg’s art gallery on many occasions and recall the wonderful contemporary art exhibitions that he both initiated and organised.

I think Greg was the first art dealer to introduce W.D. Hammond’s paintings to an Auckland audience. I certainly saw Bill’s Auckland Island paintings for the first time at his gallery. In addition, there was that amazing presentation of Ronnie Van Hout’s embroidered pictures. Another highlight for me was Michael Parekowhai’s wonderful solo show A Capella exhibited during 1994.

Greg was a very special person, a rare and talented man with terrific insights into the creative imagination. He was an advocate of our artists’ achievements with a similarly supportive manner for promoting visual artists that Peter McLeavey has always had in his Wellington gallery.

Greg was adamant, knowledgeable and always assured in his opinions. There was nothing equivocal about his judgment and if he disagreed with you, he was generous enough to explain why. He would not suffer fools either gladly or in any other manner. He was a feisty man and that made conversations with him especially rewarding. His human intensity was as impressive as his love for art.

Greg had faith in his ability to know what was good. I admired his lack of false shyness and respected his trust in collegial frankness. He could tell you that he despised something you had done and then recommend how to do it better. That’s a breathtaking preference for art’s power. He did not feel that he needed to be polite to institutional museum personnel, which was very refreshing.

He understood that evanescent quality which some of us professional curator’s describe as ‘wall power’. We often laughed about ‘wall power’ because he accused me, very warmly, of suffering from an addiction to icons, telling me that I was always both predatory and strategic in gathering them for the gallery. ‘Wall power’, we both believed, had its genesis in the old-fashioned notions of connoisseurship behaviour that the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt, practiced.

In 1998, I purchased for this museum from Greg Flint’s Gallery, W.D. Hammond’s powerful 1988 drawing For the New You and Bill’s equally unforgettable Head Bone of 1989. Greg not only brought these two exceptional artworks to my attention, he told me exactly why the Gallery must acquire them. He was always lovely to speak to about individual artworks and his gallery’s artists. It was at all times a two-way conversation that focused on the art.

I will miss talking to Greg Flint. He was a remarkable man and an insight-filled believer in art and artists.

Here are the two W.D. Hammond artworks that Greg believed had to always be at Auckland Art Gallery. He brought others to our care and we are so grateful to him.

Captions: W. D. Hammond
Head Bone 1989
acrylic, ink, oil stick, pencil

For the New You 1988

Friday 17 September 2010

Negative Capability (2)

I came across some memorable quotes by four of our modernist poets and thought that you'd enjoy them:

Here, where we are beginning…
Allen Curnow

I think I have no other home than this.RAK Mason

Leave the nest early, child. Our climate’s changing…
Robin Hyde

The godwits vanish towards another summer.
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure; distance looks our way;
And none knows where he will lie down at night.
Charles Brasch

What brought these fragments of poems to mind was my re-reading Paul Millar's great biography No Fretful Sleeper: a life of Bill Pearson (Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2010).

Auckland City Libraries catalogue gives a pithy summary of this book's rationale:

" 'There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different', wrote William Harrison (Bill) Pearson. One of New Zealand's most distinguished fiction writers and sharpest critics, Pearson's life was also fraught with contradiction and secrecy, largely because of his homosexuality. Born in a small town in 1922, he grew up in a society dominated by a rugged ideal of manhood; not easy for a sensitive boy who preferred intellectual pursuits to sports. He went to university and teachers' training college, then taught at the tiny Black-ball School, a period from which he drew the material for his celebrated novel, Coal Flat. After serving in WW2, he received his PhD from the University of London - where distance gave him a clear critical perspective on this country of 'fretful sleepers' - then returned to New Zealand as a scholar, editor and lecturer. Pearson's life is emblematic of vital elements, and conflicts, in 20th-century New Zealand society: intellectual culture, left-wing politics and the growing acceptance of homosexual identity and Maori and Pacific Island culture."

Interestingly, in the biography there is barely a mention of E.H. McCormick and one of the comments that Paul quotes by Eric made me think that the two men were maybe unsympathetic of each other while at the University of Auckland. I will have to write to Paul and ask him if this was the case. Both men were among our best scholars and writers. Without question!

Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Face of Facebook

With over 500 million people using Facebook regularly, this social media tool has transformed how we communicate.

One of the most illuminating essays on Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook has just been published in The New Yorker:

The author of The Face of Facebook is the very clever Jose Antonio Vargas and he has been able to secure some unforgettable quotes from Mark: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.” Jose's essay is recommended reading for anyone wanting to know how Facebook is now a language tool.

Read more:

Monday 13 September 2010

Harvey Benge – Against Forgetting

I was trying to recall the last occasion when an Auckland photographer looked closely at one of this region’s suburbs. I think that it was during 2005 when Haruhiko Sameshima produced a photo-essay on Mount Roskill for the local community board. The resulting images were exhibited as part of that year’s Auckland Festival of Photography. Both Alan McDonald and Gavin Hipkins have also made a substantial body of photographs in the suburb. Haru’s photographs have not yet been published in book form but are all accessible through this city’s heritage images on line:

A few weeks ago, I came across Harvey Benge’s new book Against Forgetting (FAQ Editions, Auckland, 2010). The book also takes Mt Roskill as its subject and the illustrations contrast images made by the artist during 2009 with his own family photographs, a discarded map and an anonymous found portrait.
The book is modest in its physical scale, as well as in its production values, but it is not reserved in its aspiration to express a memorable and moving response to the reality of Mt Roskill.

This wonderful little book is, to my way of thinking, actually an artist’s book in its conception. It arranges the carefully sequenced images so that they reflect both the artist’s past and his present experience of this unique Auckland suburb. Against Forgetting is a dynamic response to place because it reveals the area’s identity as residing as much in its memory as in its current experience.

Harvey begins his book with an informative prefatory note, setting the scene for the visual narrative which follows:

“For the first thirteen years of my life I lived with my parents in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill. Our family home was a modest, two bedroom, weather-board house which my father had built about 1940. The suburb is known for its volcanic peak, 110 metres in height, one of the many extinct volcanic cones that dot the Auckland isthmus. Mt Roskill has been referred to as the Bible Belt of Auckland with more churches per capita than any other New Zealand suburb. Now, after more years than I care to think about I’ve gone back to look at my past. Where I grew up. Here are some photographs. Against forgetting.”

While Against Forgetting works as an autobiography of the artist’s Mt Roskill childhood, it also reflects upon the changing nature of the suburb. It is illustrated with snapshots gathered from his own family, a hodgepodge of signage including a silhouette of the crucifix that looms down from the mountain. There is recent graffiti, and a religious message presented as if it is an old grocershop's handmade sign writing. Among all this is a gathering of found material that have been, perhaps, mislaid or simply lost or even discarded.

There are two portraits of unknown children. A teenage boy captured in a battered mug shot, probably taken for his New Zealand Passport. A blond girl stands demurely against a dark background. Bibles are placed on chairs waiting for worshipers. A present day image of the Benge family’s home is contrasted with a period snapshot taken by Harvey’s Dad, who I am told was a “keen photographer”.

Against Forgetting reveals a suburb now reduced in scale and changed from what it once was. A passionate demonstration of self-discovery has occurred in Harvey’s returning ‘home’. His book reveals the suburb’s character and reminds us it has never been gentrified like Freeman's Bay or Grey Lynn, Parnell or Ponsonby. Mt Roskill remains a home place for people with modest means. I asked Harvey to comment on the difference between what Mt Roskill was like between 1943 and 1958, when his family decided to shift across to Mt Albert so that he could attend the Grammar School:
“Mt Roskill then was very much a white working to middle class suburb bounded by new sub-divisions to the south of Mt Albert Road. My old school (Dominion Road Primary) photos that I have show only white faces. Today the suburb is completely multicultural with a strong Indian community.”

Harvey's view of Auckland's suburban life shows the ways images can work as symbols rather than as a mere document. His photographs, at first, look like they might function in the tradition of documentary photography yet they frequently express a telling narrative. Harvey kindly sent me his take on locality:
“Sense of ‘place’ has always been central to my thinking and is often defined by the people. I've frequently been told my pictures have a cinematic feel to them and capture moments where something has just happened or something is about to happen. These edited still frames of course sometimes include people if only in the minds eye.”

Harvey Benge has an impressive website that is both international in its subject and scope:

About Lens

Some newspapers already have associated blogs that are dedicated to featuring contemporary news photography. One of the best of these is About Lens, the dedicated photography Blog of the New York Times.

Photography, multimedia and slide shows. They are all there and they do not only profile the work of the Times's photographers but include selections of the best from all over the world.

There are links to other important blogs and you can search on New York Times staff photographers work also. Readers' comments are taken on board. The Tag list is a great feature and totally up to the minute in its selection of topics.

About Lens is one of the serious blogs about contemporary photography. It is, as they say, essential viewing.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Toss Woollaston and Ursula Bethell

I gave a talk recently at the new TSB Wallace Arts Centre on a number of paintings by Toss Woollaston in the collection. I reminded the visitors that Toss always said that he was both a portrait and landscape painter. He sometimes felt that the public forget his life-long interest in painting and drawing people.

I recommend that you read Toss's letter to Ursula Bethell in Jill Trevelyan's fine book Toss Woollaston: A life in Letters (Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2005). The letters indicate the friendship and trust that they shared. They also contain illuminating perspectives on his beginnings as a painter. For instance, in late August 1932, he wrote to Ursula and noted about his teacher Robert Field "His teaching is decidedly of a different order from that at ChCh - from within, more inspirational than technical."

The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre has a superb resource on Ursula Bethell and her work. It reproduces both the drawing and the painting that Toss made of her:

As well, there are all the poems included in her brilliant book of poems, From a Garden in the Antipodes (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1929) and her other poetry.

Here is one for you to sample. Ursula and Toss both worked in her garden.

Old Master

Or picture, here, some Conversazione
With flowers, birds, grass, and purple hills beyond,
And gilding sunlight, elegant chiaroscuro,
And noble forms augustly grouped, and still –
Smiling and still. Initiate and aware.

And thronging on the outskirts, in the foreground,
You, and you, and you, beloved familiars,
Bearing your individual sign and coat of arms,
Surprised and still, smiling and yet expectant –
Found. Known. Secure. And reconciled.

I particularly recommend the superb essay Perfectly fairy-godmotherish’: the friendship of Toss Woollaston and Ursula Bethell written by Jill Trevelyan, that was originally published in Kotare: A Journal of New Zealand Notes and Queries 4.1 (June 2001): 3-16:

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey

I do not know who took the first photographs of Jerusalem but the work of the French daguerreotype artist Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892) must be among some of the very earliest and most exceptional.

Christies New York are holding an important auction on 7 October 2010 titled A Historic Photographic Grand Tour: Important Daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.

For everyone interested in the history of travel daguerreotypes from the earliest period, I recommend that they look at the catalogue which is available on line. It contains some of the earliest middle eastern photography known.

Friday 3 September 2010

Negative Capability (1)

One of the most influential phrases in the history of English poetry is John Keats's Negative Capability.

I asked friends and colleagues if they thought anyone in our visual arts ever considered Negative Capability as part of their working method. All the responses I received suggested that no one local would think it even useful.

Yet, I am a bit stuck on Negative Capability as it evokes sensations of the unnerved Gothic.

I have been thinking about the biography that Eric McCormick wrote on Charles Armitage Brown who immigrated to New Zealand and died at New Plymouth. [Eric used to speak about Negative Capability a lot as being a creative inspiration that was in opposition to the footnoted symbolism of T.S. Eliot].

Brown was an irritable and testy character but he remained Keats's closest and most loyal friend. He made the drawing which I have illustrated above in 1819, when the poet was 24 years old.

If you read every written word by John Keats that remains, you will only ever encounter Negative Capability once. It appears in the letter that he wrote to his two brothers. I have transcribed it below as it is an astonishing letter. Most of Keats's letters are memorable because he is always inventing words like obsoletion:

Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]

I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this. I saw Kean return to the public in 'Richard III.', and finely he did it, and, at the request of Reynolds, I went to criticize his Luke in Riches. The critique is in to-day's 'Champion', which I send you, with the Examiner, in which you will find very proper lamentation on the obsoletion of Christmas Gambols and pastimes: but it was mixed up with so much egotism of that drivelling nature that pleasure is entirely lost. Hone, the publisher's trial, you must find very amusing; and, as Englishmen, very encouraging-his Not Guilty is a thing, which not to have been, would have dulled still more Liberty's Emblazoning-Lord Ellenborough has been paid in his own coin-Wooler and Hone have done us an essential service - I have had two very pleasant evenings with Dilke, yesterday and to-day, and am at this moment just come from him, and feel in the humour to go on with this, began in the morning, and from which he came to fetch me. I spent Friday evening with Wells, and went next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse. It is a wonderful picture, when West's age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality-The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine 'King Lear', and you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness - The picture is larger than 'Christ rejected'.

I dined with Haydon the Sunday after you left, and bad a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith, and met his two Brothers, with Hill and Kingston, and one Du Bois. They only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment-These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter-They talked of Kean and his low company -Would I were with that Company instead of yours, said I to myself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me and yet I am going to Reynolds on Wednesday. Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Shelley's poem is out, and there are words about its being objected to as much as "Queen Mab" was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!!

Write soon to your most sincere friend and affectionate Brother
John [Keats]

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Exploring Photography at the V & A

If you want to see one of the best museum sites devoted to photography, please check out the V&A Exploring Photography

It looks at material in their collection, has interviews with photographers, thematic and personal tours, information on photographic processes and materials with information about the photographers. It is a very useful site and one that I recommend.