After a complete redevelopment the Auckland Art Gallery has an unmistakable theatrical flourish about it. The new, expansive frontage; the revolving doors; the huge hanging flower sculpture by Choi Jeong Hwa in the main foyer: the new gallery operates in an international environment where it's no longer enough for art to be left on a plinth or hung on a wall like a forgotten raincoat.

The modern exhibition has as much thought put into it as your average play, musical or Doctor Who script. And in the case of the former, possibly even more.

Take, for example, the role of curator Mary Kissler, who is whipping into shape the new gallery's first big international exhibition Degas to Dalí. This features 79 paintings from the National Galleries of Scotland featuring the biggest names of modernity: Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Ernst, Magritte, and Warhol are but a few. How does one present all that nonconformity and ideas into an exciting afternoon for Joe Punter?

Looking at old images of the Paris Salons one can see a huge gulf between the presentation of paintings then and now. For a start, says Mary, we're much less likely to fill the wall from floor to ceiling with art.

"One hundred years ago people tended to just put them on the wall and if there was gap you'd just bang in something. You were expected to have a relationship with individual works, whereas now we tend to think of it as a narrative."

This means planning an exhibition so it aids those charged with telling the public the story of the work on display. "If you imagine a room where you're giving a talk: you want to be able to say 'Van Gogh did this in this painting but if you look over here, you'll see something similar' and you point to a different painting by a different artist. There has to be a logic so you can make as many connections as possible."

The exhibition opens in March and as is expected, things are still being tweaked. Mary and the crew have created five different layouts from which to choose. Even then, however, the final positions and groupings of paintings won't be nailed down. The works will be laid out on the floor for the team to move works around and try different pairings, accompanied by staunch discussion.

It's a difficult task, but one well worth it because if done right, people who come to see the show will learn how the modern was created at the tip of a brush. Nearly every work presented in the show challenged contemporary notions of art.

One of the founders of Impressionism, Degas concerned himself with the depiction of Parisian cabaret dancers, a subject considered too uncouth to be the subject of serious art. Although, as Mary explains it, there were two sets of morals operating in European society then.

"When they set up the impressionist salons, men would take their families along and women didn't really like seeing their husbands' mistresses hanging on the walls. It's fascinating the place art had in society."

The scope of the exhibition is astounding; just about every major art movement is represented, from Impressionism to the Favues to Pop; hence the chasm between the two D's of the show's title. Although it is something of a misnomer, as the earliest painting on show is Gustave Courbet's The Wave from 1869 and it works its way through the decades until the 1980s with work by Lucien Freud, perhaps the art world's foremost chronicler of flesh.

Meanwhile Mary's fizzing at the mere thought of putting these works together in one show: "There's a lot of very very important examples in this exhibition. It's very exciting."
Most exciting for the public is the fact that until now some of these paintings have never been exhibited in New Zealand. That aloneshould ensure jaws will drop come March.

What: Degas to Dalí
Where: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o T?maki
When: 3 March - 10 June


*This article originally appeared in The Edge's publication, Live.