Even before you arrive here, you are guaranteed to be swept off your feet: a massively enlarged version of Alfred Burton’s Milford Sound: Cascade from Mitre wittily tumbles down the steps to Level 4. You must bravely navigate the cascade, as a real treat awaits you!
This must be Strutt! His View of Mt Egmont, Taranaki is not only a real rarity – very few paintings of this theme and calibre actually date from so close to the times of the New Zealand Wars – but it is also a beautifully conceived and executed work.
There’s the structure – with its nikau palms inviting the viewer into the composition, the drama of the foreground firing figures and the scampering herd of cattle beyond. There’s the fraught, contested politics – who is occupying the Taranaki land, who is challenging this and why? There’s the dominant landscape feature of Mt Taranaki itself, melting into the horizon. And then there’s the impeccable ‘facture’ of a top-notch academic painting – the recipe of glazes that Strutt applies to capture the local light. In some ways the painting is quite old-fashioned (in previous centuries Claude Lorrain and William Hodges would have saluted it), but the theme is of the then very current theatre of war, the consequences of which we are still grappling with today.
Now that’s an impossible ‘apples and oranges’ question, with photography dominating Ngā Toi/Arts Te Papa, indeed, enjoying an unprecedented profile in the museum.
‘Artist in focus’ Carleton Watkins, an American 19th century photographer, certainly captures something of the ‘Sublime’ and the sense of ‘Manifest Destiny’ found in the great paintings of the awesome, still unconquered America by Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. Our expectations are set high, and we are not to be disappointed as New Zealand Photography Collected fills the galleries that follow.
Ooh and aah!
Some photographs positively sing out with their beautiful luminist effects, in short the ‘ooh and aah’ factor. ‘Pure Monet!’ I exclaimed on seeing Muir & Moodie’s Crooked Arm, Smith Sound, thinking of the Frenchman’s 1890s paintings of morning light on the Seine.
(Several of those awesome works were shown at Te Papa in 2008 and were, by the way, profoundly influenced by photography). Not quite a century later, I remain awed by Brian Brake. His work is impossible to argue with; it is breath-taking and unerringly composed; for once ‘iconic’ (especially when applied to Mitre Peak) is the operative word. ‘This is New Zealand!’ we exclaim.
With the dramatically lit carved details of the pataka Te Pōtaka, we in turn exclaim ‘This is Aotearoa!’
Best family photograph?
Te Papa is all about families. Viewing some of these photographs surely makes some of us relive our own childhoods; I personally grew up in the transition from black and white to colour (photography in the 1960s, TV in the 1970s). While the candidates are very diverse, Spencer Digby Studios’ group portrait of the Honorable Robert Semple and his grand-daughters won me over.
Here is an immaculately dressed and obviously successful gentleman, attired in a tailored suit and wearing an appropriate buttonhole. As a fiery socialist miner, trade unionist, Labour MP and finally when depicted here a senior cabinet minister, he could strike fear into people’s hearts. But in this photograph is no longer of ‘Bob the Ranter’ or ‘Fighting Bob’ but, emphatically, ‘Grandpa’, very much at home in the company of this bevy of polite and attractive girls.
Best bad photograph?
Remaining with the family theme, Berry & Co’s Woman holding infant boy, shows how accidents can be powerful in photography, and to a modernist eye are worthier of attention than conventionally attractive works.
A sense of an unremarkable but nicely loving mother is evoked, while the tot’s gaping mouth and blurred features have an unintended, but positively Francis Bacon-like impact, the last thing you would normally expect from such a photograph.
Best captions for photographs
Photographs often demand ingenious or witty captions. I thought I’d have a go with a couple but I’m sure readers can do better with these and others:
‘Purring, sleek and stylish, my dear, just like you!’
‘They’re OK I guess, but I wish they’d given us free Moro bars instead!’
This photographic exhibition is truly comprehensive. Its hanging of matching and complementary images is next to unerring. The works themselves inspire awe and admiration; I for one am a soft touch for stately stands of trees in raking light, complemented by Ionic columns – long live Pictorialism!
But a number of the photographs on display, as you might have guessed above, invite irreverence and sometimes even a good laugh. They’re meant to. ‘Relativist’ scholars may question this, but there’s enough ‘reality’ in many photographs to capture our eyes, minds and memories in a more powerful and immediate way (‘snap!’) than a painting, sculpture or installation is ever likely to do. For me, as a historical curator, the balance between the Victorian, modern and the contemporary was admirably struck. Finally, just what is Gavin Hipkins’s Shaman, that large and slightly indecent fetishistic object that occupies centre-stage as we enter Ngā Toi/ Arts Te Papa?
Not just photographs
So captivating are these that a very casual visitor may be just about excused for calling Ngā Toi/ Arts Te Papa ‘the photographic exhibition’. But there is much more to it than that, Strutt for starters. Open home is an ironic, contemporary take on the lifestyle that many Kiwis aspire to, but with ownership increasingly (and sadly) out of their reach. The main talking point is Derrick Cherrie’s Studio.
It is already dividing visitors, enchanting some and irritating others. What is the scale of the (presumably) artist occupant of this elegant, cedar-clad edifice? Are they half adult height (and width) as the doors and stairs would imply or, judging from the main room, impossibly stretched and etiolated, eight-foot tall Giacometti-like figures? How can you get into the Studio? Don’t even go there…
This must be Francis Shurrock’s wonderfully elegant sculpture of the Snake, which is made of plaster, but is painted to resemble bronze, enhancing the creature’s charming, slithery evil.
Ngā Toi is always well thought out in what is installed where, avoiding abrupt dislocations for the unsuspecting visitor. I appreciate how contemporary photography leads seamlessly through – past the ever popular Whare Toi on your left – to Open Home. Moving in the other direction, particularly pleasing was the transition from the quirky early modernism of Para Matchitt’s much-loved carving The family to the wackily ‘home-made’ installation of furniture, vessels and ‘things’ by Karl Fritsch, Martino Gamper and Francis Upritchard, which is entitled Gesamtkunsthandwerk.
A lot separates them over very nearly half a century. Modernism, post-modernism, neo-modernism and possibly even post-post modernism have all intervened. A massive dose of changing aesthetics and intellectualism has too: Gesamtkunsthandwerk, indeed! But what unites Matchitt and the Fritsch/Gamper/Upritchard collaborative is an ability to find humour in art and its making, something that earnest artists, art historians and curators alike all too easily forget. I have endeavoured, however feebly, to apply a touch of this to the blog, and promise more of the same in the forthcoming ★Ngā Toi/ Arts Te Papa Quiz★ Watch this space!
At the opening of the new season of Ngā Toi / Arts Te Papa, a major book was launched directly relating to it but with many more photographs included. It is: Athol McCredie, New Zealand Photography Collected (Te Papa Press, $99.95). It is available from the Te Papa Store and all good bookshops. Enjoy! For further information and a direct ‘buy’ link, go to: http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/TePapaPress/FullCatalogue/Art/Pages/NewZealandPhotographyCollected.aspx