Wednesday 31 August 2011

123 years ago ...

Poster advertising the opening of Auckland Free Public Library, 1887
E H McCormick Research Library, Archive Folder PH01/3

As we race towards the reopening of the Gallery this week, it’s hard not to think about how this building’s original opening day must have caused similar levels of excitement and anticipation.

Initially designed to accommodate Auckland’s public library, art gallery and municipal offices, the building’s first opening ceremony took place on 26 March 1887, when Auckland Public Library opened to a great deal of fanfare.

Sir George Grey, who was instrumental in the creation of both the Library and the Gallery, spoke at this event: ‘Often, worn out and tired, I have imagined when the day came how triumphant I should feel.’ (words which ring true to current Gallery staff!)

Unknown photographer, Sir George Grey c1863

Auckland Art Gallery opened nearly a year later, on 17 February 1888. In addition to the 14,000 books and manuscripts he had gifted for the establishment of the Public Library, Grey now donated his collection of paintings, which formed the basis of the Gallery’s permanent collection. These works hung behind Governor Sir William Jervois when he declared the Gallery open, saying:

‘I look forward to the day when this building will be too small for the Auckland Gallery of Art and the gifts of Sir George Grey and other generous people who have helped to form it... I doubt not, however, that for many a long year the fine structure in which we are assembled will afford ample space for the display of many works of art both of ancient and modern painters, which will be owned by the Municipality of Auckland.’

Josiah Martin, Auckland Free Library and Art Gallery 1887, Auckland Libraries, A11347

Jervois didn’t have to wait long for the day that the building was too small for the rapidly-growing Gallery. In 1888 it occupied a single room and was run by the city's Librarian, Edward Shillington, but by 1893 the first addition was built to house the Mackelvie Collection.

Over the past 123 years the Gallery has grown steadily, and its heritage building has grown and changed with it. In the 1880s, the opening of the Auckland Public Library and Art Gallery was seen to ‘mark an epoch in this city’s progress commercially, financially and intellectually’ – the current redevelopment project also shows us how far we have come since those early days.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Eye-opening experiences

Friend of the Gallery Warwick Brown shares his memories of the Gallery building in today's instalment of 'If these walls could talk...'

Having been born in 1940 I remember the Auckland City Art Gallery building when the southern end still housed the Old Colonists’ Museum and the library. The former was infrequently visited and the displays never changed. I often wonder what happened to the exhibits when this museum closed.

I visited the Art Gallery as a schoolboy, and it seemed very old-fashioned and atrophied to me. My earliest vivid memory is of the Henry Moore sculpture show in 1957. Moore was already my hero, and, as I had never seen a full-size piece, the maquettes on show seemed monumental to me. I spent hours at the exhibition and returned at least three times, jostling with the big crowds.

This experience was followed in 1958 by the excellent show of British art toured by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was my first opportunity to view a body of modern work from outside New Zealand, and it further opened my eyes, as it did for many others.

Unknown photographer, Mackelvie Gallery Sculpture Court, 1953
silver gelatin print, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Archive Folder PH 01/15

I remember the alterations done to create a mezzanine floor, the new curving staircase guarded at the bottom by a sculpture of a nude seated man, hands on knees. On that mezzanine I will never forget the wonderful show of big, fluted, painted canvas works by Don Peebles. They seemed to me then, and do still, to be works of international importance.

Of the many great experiences I have had in the gallery since, the two big McCahon retrospectives first come to mind. After studying the one in 1972 (Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition) on two occasions, I decided McCahon was an invention of the art critics, who were putting one across the public. Thankfully, by the time of the second one the scales had fallen from my eyes.

What else? Frank Womble’s fantastic Zpace Zhow of assemblages, paintings and collage in 1978. Gavin Chilcott’s wonderful painted dining room in the 1980s. The Boyle family’s reconstructions of reality in the 1990s. So much more.

Boyle Family, The Gisborne triptych, 1990
painted fibreglass, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1990

One thing I really miss is the annual show of emerging artists, drawn from around the country. To a young collector they were a great help. Why were they discontinued?

Warwick Brown

Monday 29 August 2011

Woollaston's Wellington

Since blog posting two of Toss Woollaston’s paintings held at Auckland Art Gallery, I wondered how whether people are familiar with his 1937 Wellington landscape?

Rita Angus’ painting Cass of a year earlier gets attention for its lyrical image of backcountry hills and its honed realism but Woollaston’s Wellington is as fascinating. Maybe it is the mix of angular geometry and gritty shadow. The moodiness of Woollaston’s palette intrigues me. What other local painter was using rose-madder and puce-violet with a lapis-lazuli blue? I once talked with Toss about the colours that he used in Wellington and we laughed about anti-regionalist his view of inner city Wellington was. In a sense, Wellington is the opposite of Cass.

Toss Woollaston first described his recently completed painting in an issue of the magazine Art in New Zealand in the same year: 'That picture was a piece of almost spontaneous painting, and is not so much a likeness of Wellington as a symbol of my personal reaction to it. I must say I don't admire Wellington's domestic architecture, and as I looked over the scene I felt that I must express the actual chaos of Wellington's buildings by an almost abstract symbol of chaos.'

Woollaston had visited Wellington to meet publisher Harry Tombs and stayed with the painter Thomas McCormick at his Hill Street home. The view is from the house’s back window. Like Robert Field’s paintings of the same period, there is lots of blank space between the brushstrokes. Woollaston, like Cezanne, demarcates the blank space volumetrically. One’s eye imagines the spatial completion of each object.

When looking at Woollaston’s paintings from the 1930s and early 1940s it is important to remember that his work was among the most innovative New Zealand painting of the time. Up until the early 1970s, the physical scale of his work was modest. Nevertheless, it packs a graphic wallop.

Toss Woollaston (1910-1998)
Wellington 1937
oil on paper mounted on card
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1960

Friday 26 August 2011

Upper Moutere by Toss Woollaston

I have been looking daily at how our forthcoming display of modern New Zealand art will look on Saturday 3 September. The Gallery's new lighting system is the best technology that the artworks have ever been served by. It is pleasing to see what new lighting can improve how works are perceived. With a combination of wall washes and spotlights we have modulated both the ambient and direct light sources.

A painting that I hope visitors will enjoy seeing is Toss Woollaston's Upper Moutere from 1946. This is not a painting that has been seem frequently yet it is a powerful example of how Woollaston would look at a view that he was totally familiar with in such an energetic manner. Although it is painted with oil paint it has the spontaneity of watercolour

Toss wrote: 'I like to paint looking, with the light, towards the subject in clear weather. I am not a "weather" man - I am not interested in atmosphere… I'm interested in what I see, and seeing it in the clearest conditions you can get - no mysteries of that sort.'

During the spring of 1945 Toss Woollaston and his friend Colin McCahon both lived in the Nelson area. World War II had just ended and they were encouraged that there was a more positive future for their family and for their vocation as artists. When Woollaston and McCahon met at this period they discussed art, especially the work of Paul Cezanne, which they studied from a recently published book. Cezanne taught them a lesson: to look at your own landscape so closely that you can visually represent its identity. Upper Moutere fascinated Woollaston and he painted it many times over the next forty years.

Toss Woollaston (1910-1998)
Upper Moutere 1946
oil on board
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
purchased 1959

Thursday 25 August 2011

Figures from Life

Gallery Director Peter Tomory once said that Toss Woollaston's Figures from Life was the first modern portrait in New Zealand. He was both right and wrong.

Modern portraits really began here in New Zealand with the arrival of James Nairn and Petrus van der Velden in 1890. Their example was paralleled by Grace Joel at Dunedin.

What Peter meant, I think, was that Figures from Life was the first modernist portrait in New Zealand. That would be much closer to the truth. In 1936, it was a radical work.

The Woollaston has always meant much to me because I recall seeing it for the first time as a child reproduced on the cover of Tomory's book on New Zealand painting. I stared at it for hours. It intrigued me then and it still does now.

When the Gallery reopens in just over a week Toss Woollaston's Figures from Life will be on show for the first time in some years. I have taken a lot of care to ensure that it looks terrific. I have used a coloured archival over-matt so the pastel paper ground has the best possible surrounding. As well, I have had a new frame constructed that is much more appropriate to the painting. The red umber frame has a smudgy and worn rusticity that is nothing like the decorator style frames which are still so much in fashion. It looks better for seeming to be more home-made.

Woollaston adored this work, it is his first major portrait. It shows his fiance Edith with their friend Rodney Kennedy. Rodney was a long-long friend and he helped organise Woollaston's first solo exhibition in 1936.

The dry paint is sketchy, using colours that express feeling rather than the colour of flesh. This was a provocative approach. It energised Colin McCahon, who, by gifting it to the Gallery in 1954, ensured that this is the first artwork by Woollaston to enter the Gallery's collection.

Toss Woollaston (1910-1998)
Figures from Life, 1936
oil on paper
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of Colin McCahon, 1954

Tuesday 23 August 2011

'Marvellous, moving, magnificent...'

Some members of the Friends of the Gallery have written to us to share their own memories of the Gallery – below is a selection, with recollections ranging from spine-tingling emotion to gluttonous buffet-hogs!

"Far and away my most memorable time was at Te Māori - Te Hokinga Mai. My friend and colleague at the Auckland Teachers College Wally Penetito arranged for a contingent of us to be involved – it was marvellous, moving, magnificent. Those truly remarkable taonga - it made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

"It was a landmark for Māori and Pakeha - we were all so proud. It changed people’s thinking. We all took our students (the trainee teachers) through and many went more than once. I know I did.

"Often you would see Māori speaking to their tupuna/ancestors. A window was opened to another world that was right here in our own country – it was like glimpsing a parallel universe."

Maris O’Rourke

Visitors explore the Te Māori exhibition

"There is no greater pleasure than a walk around the Auckland Art Gallery and then a discussion of what you've viewed over coffee in the cafe. My memories of Grahame Sydney's exhibition (On the Road: Paintings by Grahame Sydney, 2001) and the memories this raised from my South Island soul will live forever in my memory."

Susan F. Stevenson (nee Graham)

Installation view of On the Road: Paintings by Grahame Sydney

"I will always remember Friends functions where lovely food was served. We always had to dodge a certain gentleman who would always be there and eat himself silly. This was supposed to be a 'finger buffet' but he ate the equivalent of a three course meal!"

Gill Knight

Buffet table at a Friends event, 2005 - please the gentleman depicted is NOT the one mentioned in the above anecdote!

Thank you to the Friends who contributed these stories - feel free to share your own in the comments!

Friday 19 August 2011

My Gallery

As a born and raised Aucklander, the Gallery was a recurring presence in my childhood. My earliest memory of it is only half-formed: flickering images of intimidating carved wooden figures. A quick talk to my mum confirmed we did indeed go to see the exhibition Te Maori Te Hokinga Mai: The Return Home – I was only four years old at the time but it clearly made an impression.

The first exhibition I really interacted with, though, was Rembrandt to Renoir: 300 Years of European Masterpieces from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, as a 10-year-old. It was a Sunday family outing and we dressed smartly for the occasion. I remember the paintings displayed against black walls and being taught by my parents how to view the impressionist paintings from a distance so they ‘made sense’.

A visit to the Gallery was a common school trip (see also: MOTAT, the Museum, Kelly Tarlton’s). Most of my recollections, however, centre around the journey rather than the exhibitions: riding on a bus, lining up outside in the courtyard for what seemed to be an interminably long time and on at least one occasion spotting a dead pigeon in the fountain. Inside? I haven’t the foggiest idea what we saw but I know we had to be very quiet, and we were not allowed to run around or touch anything. This was a huge challenge for my hyperactive self.

A quick flick through my parents’ bookshelf reveals the catalogue for Love and Death: Pictures from the Collection (1993-1994) so it’s highly likely I was carted along to that too, and I know I saw at least one of the McCahon retrospectives that were held in the 1990s.

In sixth form I started studying art history and a visit to the Gallery was no longer something that was organised for me, but something I instigated. After a term studying pop art, I bowled on up to the Andy and Friends exhibition with my mother and a friend feeling extremely smug for already knowing so much about many of the artworks. How clever I thought I was to be able to appreciate pop art, while my poor bourgeois mum preferred ‘old-fashioned’ landscapes and portraits. We also popped over the road to the NEW Gallery to see Stories We Tell Ourselves: The Paintings of Richard Killeen, where we found more of a middle ground.

Everything changed again when I turned up to university in my scruffy jeans and realised how much I really had to learn about art. Of course, I knew what I liked, but often my reasons for enjoying a painting were nothing to do with execution, technical excellence or profound subject matter. While other students gazed intently upon a Very Serious History Painting and scribbled down notes, I would be sniggering at artworks like Cornelius Johnson’s Portrait of a Lady.

Cornelius Johnson, Portrait of a Lady, 1633
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with funds from the M A Serra Trust, 1977 

I challenge you to look at this woman without a titter. I love her gormless expression, the absurdity of her broad-shouldered attire and the odd composition that sees her sitting beneath a vast amount of empty space. Maybe I wasn’t the most academic of scholars, but I did learn the importance of having an emotional reaction to an artwork.

After graduating I have to admit I forgot about my gallery. I did make it in to see Rita Angus: Life and Vision and the preview of Julian and Josie Robertson’s Promised Gift (which you can see in its entirety when we open on 3 September) but most of the time it fell into the ‘one of these days’ basket when planning my weekends.

So there you have it – a potted history of my interactions with the Gallery. The thing that stands out when I look through the exhibitions history is how much I have missed. Like many Aucklanders, I’ve spent years professing my earnest intentions of visiting the Gallery more often and never quite got around to it. Countless exhibitions full of artists I now count amongst my favourites have passed me by and I regret this.

So how about you? Were you an avid gallery-goer, or were you only ever dragged in kicking and screaming? In 15 days’ time, we’ll be giving Aucklanders a whole new set of memories, but right now I’d love to hear how the Gallery has looked through your eyes over the years...