Friday 28 January 2011

Sidney Nolan and Ian Fairweather

Two Australian artists with significant reputations are Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Ian Fairweather (1891-1974).

Nolan remains in the eyes of Australians one of their finest artists. He was a painter who could encapsulate how Australians feel about their country. His work has grown in regard and become even more emblematic of place than Russell Drysdale’s. Nolan’s art is, arguably, more searingly accurate and less decorative than the work of Brett Whitley. Nolan’s early paintings pinpoint the larrikin nature of Australia’s self-perception.

Ian Fairweather may be significantly less well known as an Australian artist, but he is as deserving of a major reputation as Nolan is. Among curators, Fairweather has always been understood as one of Australia’s key twentieth century artists. He has the status of an ‘inner outsider’, much like their emigrant New Zealander, Rosalie Gascoigne.

Whenever I have studied exhibitions of Nolan’s paintings, I have always felt his best work dates from his early years. The period between 1942 and 1955; with his wonderfully and deliberately awkward St Kilda pier paintings (1945), Ned Kelly series (1946-1947), the Central Australia series (1950) and the astounding image of Mrs Fraser from 1947 (Queensland Art Gallery). That single painting is an anthropomorphic spectacle. It is also an affirmation of Nolan’s genius for looking at how an insecure history is part of Australia’s immigrant heart. Nolan painted avidly for another 45 years, but few of those later works have the raunchy anxiety oozing from his earlier paintings.

Sidney Nolan had a lifelong friendship with Albert Tucker, whom he affectionately called ‘Bert’. Tucker knowingly called Nolan, ‘Ned’. The Chartwell collection holds a fascinating Nolan crayon and pencil drawing from about 1954 of Ned Kelly physically amalgamated with his horse. Nolan and horse drawn as the one being. Kelly may have been well known as a horse stealer but here he is part horse and part human. Nolan may well be showing us his own doppelganger as Ned Kelly. After producing his 1946-1947 series, the painter could not escape identification with Kelly. It must have been a trial to be famous for paintings that you began at 29 and completed when you were 30.

Ian Fairweather is Australia’s archetypal bohemian genius. He had more knowledge of Asia and its culture than perhaps any other Australian artist of his generation. He was a tough man, not in personality but in stamina. He was itinerant and he often lived in rough conditions. Yet, Fairweather’s paintings are amongst the most sensitive ever created in Australia. He adored the human figure, especially the Buddha and other celestial beings. In Nebula from the Chartwell Collection, what appears as first to be an impenetrable network slowly realises itself into a complex image of organic forms. Fairweather was never an abstract artist and his images are always tied into reality.

Sidney Nolan
Ned Kelly circa 1954
Crayon and pencil
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Ian Fairweather
Nebula 1963
synthetic polymer paint and gouache on cardboard laid on composition board
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Wednesday 26 January 2011

If these walls could talk ...

For reopening, I have been working on an exhibition that looks at the Gallery’s architecture - from the competition for its design in 1883 to the present day development. Of course, a building’s history is much more than the bricks and mortar with which it’s made. It has made me wonder: ‘if these walls could talk, what would they say?’

City Gallery, looking through to Mackelvie Gallery, 1897 (left), Auckland Free Library reading room (today’s Wellesley Gallery), 1889 (right)

The building has served as not only an art gallery, but also Auckland’s main public library until 1971; and in its early years also housed council offices. So what are your memories of the building and its various purposes? Are there favourite exhibitions? Particular performances or events that still resonate? Memories of singular art works? Experiences of rooms or spaces and how they’ve changed?

To start the ball rolling here are some of mine...

My earliest memory of the Gallery is looking down from the mezzanine level of the Wellesley Gallery to take in the Chinese Buried Warriors – a truly awe inspiring sight for a 10 year old.

The Buried Army of Qin Shihuang, Aug – Oct 1986, installation views, Wellesley Gallery

Another early memory is of the historic international collection installed in the Mackelvie Gallery following the 1980s renovation. What sticks in my mind in particular is the moss green carpet, which I wrongly remember running over the walls, as well as the floor! I was fascinated by Pietro Paolini’s The Fortune Teller: Its velvety tones and textures; the wicked exchange of gestures and glances; the story that was very evidently behind the painting.

International collection, installation view of the Grey and Mackelvie Galleries, 1985 (left), Pietro Paolini, The Fortune Teller, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr Norman B Spencer, 1961 (right)

I recall waiting for what seemed like hours to get into Rembrandt to Renoir as a high school student (although appalling little about the exhibition itself) and writing copious notes in my 6th form art journal about a very inspirational talk by then curator, Alexa Johnston, in The 50s Show. It was the first time I was truly aware of the dramatic possibilities of exhibition making.

The 50s Show, Nov 1992 – Mar 1993, installation view (left), John Reynolds, Raft of the Medusa, 1992, mixed media on plywood, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery, 1993 (right)

While at University, I remember encountering Ralph Hotere’s Godwit Kuaka and John Reynold’s Raft of the Medusa shortly after the ground floor galleries were refurbished in 1998 (bye-bye carpet!). The scale and the quality of the works really impressed upon me the calibre of our contemporary artists.

And then, I found myself working at the Gallery in late 2002. I was particularly starry-eyed when I started – I had my ultimate dream job. Just to walk through the Gallery to my office every morning was a privilege. When shows would change over there was the palpable sense of discovering works anew and having my own private viewing.

Since that time, there are favourite exhibitions I have worked on. Bringing together Colin McCahon’s 1960s Waterfall series with the 18th-century William Hodges painting that originally inspired him in Fall of Water, Fall of Light. Celebrating Rembrandt’s 400th birthday and his influence as a master etcher in Masters of the Bitten Line.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt in a Heavy Fur Cap, 1631, etching, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1961 (left), Te Moananui a Kiwa, installed in Mackelvie Gallery with Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (Pakaka), 2003 in immediate foreground (right)

Another instance that particularly stands out: the placement of Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (Pakaka) in front of 19th-century New Zealand landscapes. It was a juxtaposition that was intended to work on several levels – but it performed an unexpected one. When leaving the building after hours, a number of staff including security reported jumping at the sight of the hulking figure standing guard in the dark. Even during opening hours, you often did a double take at his presence.
So, what are your memories of the building and what has occurred within it? Did you study in the Wellesley Gallery when it was a library? Attend the highly memorable Artichoke, when the entire collection was hung edge-to-edge? Is there a particular work you are looking forward to reacquainting with? We’d love to hear.

- Jane Davidson-Ladd, Associate Curator

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Thinking outside the box

Well, the holidays are well and truly over - if you're an adult, that is. But school's still out and for the last couple of weeks' the Gallery's been holding its popular school holiday programmes.
Last week's classes were based around one of the artworks in our current Call Waiting exhibition: Ndebele by Terry Urbahn. Inspired by his diorama with its mashup of cultural themes, they made their own dioramas - of their bedrooms.
Tutor Kate Sellar passed on these pictures of some of the children's work - take a look at what they've created: I love how this one includes a window with a beautiful country view. Feathers on the walls, brightly-coloured carpets and curtains - these are some seriously stylish bedrooms!But I think this one's my favourite: funky mismatched patterns, a view out onto a sunny porch and a tiny white dog sitting by the fireplace.
The Gallery runs school holiday programmes throughout the year - keep an eye on our What's On pages for updates.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Meet the interns: Kyla Mackenzie

Late last year Kyla Mackenzie joined the Gallery team as one of our two Marylyn Mayo interns (you can find out more about the internships here). I asked Kyla to tell us a bit about herself and the project she's working on, which involves delving through a large collection of artworks that have barely been seen - until now.

Kyla in the conservation lab. Photo: Jennifer French

Tell me about the project(s) you’re working on during this internship.

This Marylyn Mayo internship involves photographing, cataloguing and researching a selection of mainly works on paper by former Elam teacher John Weeks. From 1927 to 1928, 'Johnny' travelled with a friend through North Africa, particularly Morocco, but also Algeria and Tunisia. These North African works form part of a recent gift from the Peter O'Connor Estate to the Gallery. This archive from Weeks' studio includes hundreds of works from his travels through Europe, as well as New Zealand subjects. Only a handful of people have seen any of these works, so I feel quite privileged.

What's your background? How did you come to apply for the internship?

My background in the arts is varied and ranges from working in dealer galleries, the community arts, and free-lance art biographical research. I also worked for a few years in the British Watercolours and Drawings and later, the Paintings Department at Sotheby's in London. That was an eye-opener. There were many works by travelling British artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The specific phenomenon of the 'West' seeking novel material in the 'East' was also a subject I studied prior to my M.A in art history and is helpful in contextualising Weeks' enthusiasm and artistic output.

What interests you about this subject/project?

There are many areas of interest for me in this project and more will emerge.
I have a soft spot for works on paper. Weeks used, in particular, watercolour, pencils, inks, and pastels, which he employed in quite diverse and compelling ways.

It's always satisfying to research little seen works. These images are by an important New Zealand modernist, felt by many to have been over-looked thus far. Weeks played such a pivotal role in New Zealand's history of art and former students still have very fond memories of him. He lost, and we lost, three hundred of what he regarded to be his best works in an Elam fire in 1949. However, we have now gained a valuable resource, many images of which informed much of his future oeuvre. Weeks regarded his (often risky) North African travels as a great adventure, and very satisfying in terms of visual material. Weeks was a great colourist and clearly delighted in the light and colour of North Africa which is a pleasure to see.

What are the challenges you’ll be facing?

The photographing of hundreds of works is actually quite physical work and a new experience all round for me. There is also a great deal of material both visual and textual. The numbers of works in the boxes remain unclear at this point, and there is limited time to go through it, consider it, research it, present it to the Gallery team, and write about it. The brief is, however, to cover as much as is possible in the time.

John Weeks, Asni, c.1927-8, watercolour and pencil
John Weeks Archive, E.H. McCormick Research Library, gift of The Estate of Peter O’Connor, 2010.

What do you hope to get out of it personally?

I want, as do all interns, to build on skills and experience already gained and to acquire further hands-on experience in a satisfying project. I'd like to see if this material allows for more research and writing. There are woefully few paid internship opportunities in this country to develop skills in the public gallery world, so it is a rare thing indeed. (To be able to eat over the summer was of considerable personal advantage also!)

What was the application process like?

I found it fine and an enjoyable challenge in itself. Prompt referees certainly ease the process. There is quite a bit of hard-copy documentation required, which includes a piece of writing relevant to the project. The interview, however, was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, despite having volunteered at the Gallery previously. Fortunately, any weak jokes were kindly overlooked...

John Weeks, Oudaghir, c.1927-8, watercolour, pencil and red ink
John Weeks Archive, E.H. McCormick Research Library, gift of The Estate of Peter O’Connor, 2010.

Monday 17 January 2011

Happy Anniversary Day, Southland!

Peter Peryer, Bluff, 1985, gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1989

Here's hoping the bottom of the Mainland is putting on some good weather - today could be the first day the province is united in celebrating its anniversary on the same day! What's more, it marks the 150th anniversary of Southland's founding.

You can read more about Southland's history and the ongoing controversy about when to observe the holiday here and here.

(Any Southland folk reading this - would love to hear from you!)

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Visitors from far away

Happy New Year! I hope you’ve all had a relaxing holiday break.

The Gallery had some special visitors at the end of last week – a group of students and their teacher from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, who got a behind-the-scenes tour of our works on paper conservation lab.

Since 1996, Professor Fred Hagstrom has been visiting the Gallery every two years, bringing with him about 25 students. The Gallery visit is part of a 10-week tour of the South Pacific including the Cook Islands, New Zealand and Australia.

“Most people in the United States don’t know much about art in this part of the world,” says Hagstrom.

So he’s brought his students to the other side of the world to learn about it in person. Themes they’re discussing include artmaking and its relationship with nature, and different cultural contexts surrounding art. For example, the group started their trip in Rarotonga, where they studied tivaevae and other traditional art forms. Unlike most Western art, tivaevae are often made for a specific person and therefore not for sale.

Fred remembers seeing Patterns of Paradise: Tivaevae on one of his first visits to the Gallery – and this year’s students were able to see works from the same show in the current Call Waiting exhibition.

As well as exploring the three exhibitions currently showing in the NEW Gallery, the students visited the conservation lab to examine some of the works on paper in the Gallery’s collection. This functioned as an introduction to their next unit on printmaking – they got to see close-up examples of intaglio, mezzotint and relief prints before they begin learning how to recreate the techniques in the studio.

Professor Hagstrom says the Gallery’s collection of prints and works on paper is impressive - “You’ve got some terrific examples in your collection”. Of chief interest were works by old masters like Durer and van Leyden, but the students also studied pieces by Gordon Walters and Fatu Feu’u.

Wherever they are, the Carleton students are expected to be sketching as part of their drawing course. Professor Hagstrom has taught them to make and bind their own sketchbooks, which they carry at all times, effectively becoming a “mobile course”.

Before moving on to Australia, Professor Hagstrom and his students will head north for a marae stay in Waipoua, complete the Tongariro crossing, visit Te Papa and the Abel Tasman National Park.

What a fantastic way to study! You can find out more about their travels here - and more about the work our conservators do here.

Next time Professor Hagstrom is in Auckland he’ll be able to visit the redeveloped Gallery. This time around he had to be content with a stroll around the outside. “I think the new plaza area is lovely. I like the contemporary architecture in this part of the world and it’s a great example,” he says.

Thanks for your visit, Carleton folk! Looking forward to seeing you again in two years’ time…

Denis Dutton

The Gallery is much saddened to learn of the passing of Professor Denis Dutton on 28 December 2010 at Christchurch.

Born in 1941, Denis has been a distinguished professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury since 1984. His 1999 book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution was an innovative introduction to the relationships between aesthetics and our current understanding of art.
Dennis abhorred cant and was famous for his Bad Writing Contest that argued against rhetoric as a useful mode of art interpretation.

One of his most important innovations was the establishment of his website Arts & Letters Daily in 1998. As an aggregator of the best essays and book reviews in English about the arts, politics, humanities and the sciences, this website was internationally renowned for its content and the punctilious nature of its teasers. Some comic commentator once noted that Denis’s teasers could be more interesting to read than some articles.

Arts & Letters Daily remains an influential aggregator of information. Its format deliberately alludes to the design of 18th century tabloids. I recommend it.
The site’s motto was Veritas odit moras, line 850 of Seneca’s version of Oedipus. This text means Truth hates delay.

A few years ago, I spent a day with Denis viewing his outstanding private collection of Melanesian art. He was as knowledgeable on the subject as a museum curator who specializes in the subject. He was a generous teacher and a brilliant scholar.
Denis's reputation remains an emblem for both philosophy and art scholarship to all of New Zealand’s universities. His eulogy published in the New York Times registers how much his significance as an innovative academic was known internationally.

Caption: Portrait of Denis Dutton

Photograph by Martin Woodhall for the Christchurch Star at Christchurch in 2002.