Thursday 21 April 2011

Saint Bartholomew

Associate curator Jane Davidson-Ladd, who started this blog as a companion to the upcoming exhibition on the Gallery’s architecture, has recently taken parental leave. I have assumed responsibility for delivering Jane’s other babies, her exhibition projects, into the world. Quite a responsibility – but I’m very excited about being involved in this phase of the Gallery’s life as we prepare for the reopening of our beautiful building.

I love Jane’s idea of using this blog to collect stories about the life of the Gallery and all the people and artworks that have contributed to its history. I thought I’d begin my contribution with the story of how I met Saint Bartholomew.

The Gallery’s collection includes pieces that were made over 500 years ago as well as works made last year; and one of my most memorable art encounters came from the sort of startling juxtaposition that can be achieved when such a range of treasures is exhibited under a single roof.

20th Century Modern, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2003

I visited the Gallery in 2003 to see the Picasso painting in 20th Century Modern when I stumbled upon the oldest painting in the collection: Antonio da Venezia’s Saint Bartholomew c1376. It only happens occasionally that you are actually dumbfounded by a work of art, but this was one of those occasions. What really amazed me was not only the incredible age of the object in front of me, but the wonderfully human expression on this venerable gentleman’s face.

Antonio da Venezia, Saint Bartholomew, c1376

In New Zealand, we don’t often get to experience such a weight of history – one of the few exceptions is the feeling of standing at the foot of the almighty Tane Mahuta (who predates Bartholomew in age by at least 600 years). Saint Bartholomew is a painstakingly preserved relic that provides a direct link through human history. While the painting originated in a very different time and place, it still reminds me of how little people seem to have changed over all those years.

Bartholomew wears an unimpressed expression (which seems reasonable, when you discover how gruesome his death was) and the way he has been painted is strikingly similar to the raw, direct style of some of the paintings I had been looking at in 20th Century Modern, such as our own Frances Hodgkins’s lovely Spanish Shrine of the 1930s.

Frances Hodgkins, Spanish Shrine, 1933-5

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