T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T J McNamara: Artists' gloom and doom part of gallery splendour

By T.J. McNamara

Lamia by John William Waterhouse at Auckland Art Gallery.
Photo / Natalie Slade
Lamia by John William Waterhouse at Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

Auckland's art scene has had a busy, complex year that is remarkable in a city of this size. The outstanding event was the reopening of the Auckland Art Gallery. Always a lovely place, it is now the equal of almost any city gallery in the world.

It is a fitting part of the Super City and the former Auckland City Council's great legacy to the combined metropolis. Yet the glory lies not only in the building, imposing as it is, but in the collection.

The first hang of the permanent collection shows holdings of early and modern New Zealand, British and European work. The first major one-person exhibition (which opens today) will be the work of John Pule, Pacific artist, novelist and poet.

The gallery has seen a constant flow of visitors. Many are locals who have come to see old favourites such as the fruit of Charles Goldie's study in the Louvre, the grand pastiche of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand that he painted in conjunction with Louis Steele.

Much reproduced, it is very dramatic but still controversial in the way it deals with what may have been carefully navigated, well-prepared voyages.

The heartbreaking child's funeral in Cornwall, Of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven by Frank Bramley, is another work that stays in everybody's memory. Now it is beautifully displayed.

Among the memorable New Zealand paintings are Tony Fomison's terrifying meditation on death, the grim variation on Holbein's Dead Christ, and Colin McCahon's images about the land and spirituality, Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury with, at its centre, what poet Allen Curnow spoke of as "The stain of blood that writes an island story."

There is a good deal of McCahon's work in the gallery, including a painting that is both profound and beautiful and incorporates the painter's often overlooked ability to handle colour. It is The Care of Small Birds, done in 1976, incorporating Motutara Island off Muriwai with the distant horizon of the sea beyond.

The island and the cliffs are stylised into black blocks like obstacles, with a sunset glow over the vivid sea. Against the light is a flock of birds, the gannets that inhabit the island.

In the upper part of the painting, surrounded by light, is a necklace that symbolises precious things and indicates the birds are a great treasure. Like so many symbols in McCahon's work, the light is beyond obstacles - here the black stacks of rock. It is associated with the young birds that must have faith to make their first jump from the rock to take flight. In much of McCahon's work the landscape is used as symbolism and it is incredibly expressive here.

Upstairs in the rooms given over to the rich collection of 19th-century British painting centred in the Mackelvie Collection, there are a number of paintings which do that special Victorian thing of being inspired by literature, especially poetry.

What Coleridge called "The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens" is illustrated in a painting, The Legend of Sir Patrick Spens, by the Scottish artist James Archer, done in 1870.

Victorian academic painters had considerable skills in conveying weather and atmosphere. A superb example is the bleak winter snow in Sir John Millais' work, Blow, blow thou winter wind, hanging beside Archer's painting.

Archer's work is darker; a gloomy, portentous seascape with "the new moon/ with the old moon in its arm", which is a sign of bad weather. The women in the foreground are the wives and lovers of Sir Patrick Spens' crew who have been lost in a storm on their way back from Norway where they went to fetch "The king's daughter of Norway" to be the bride of the Scottish prince.

Another painting based on a poem is Lamia by John William Waterhouse, inspired by a John Keats work. The painting is the perfect expression of a historical style. It was painted in the 1890s when the femme fatale was a fashionable theme in art and literature and follows the style of the Pre-Raphaelites with just a touch of Royal Academy classicism.

The young woman with very little on has the pale, English kind of beauty associated with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, but she is deadly. Following a pact with the god Mercury, she has been able to transform herself from a snake into what Keats called "... a lady bright/a full-born beauty new and exquisite". The snakeskin lies nearby.

A young man passing by, the Corinthian Lycius, will carry her off, but on her wedding day she will be revealed as a serpent and he will die of shock. Waterhouse rather specialised in paintings of men lured to their doom. He was almost forgotten, but his work has recently become much in demand. At auction, the painting would probably fetch a great deal more than Archer's work and must be one of the most valuable in a collection that is one of Auckland's greatest assets.

For gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/gallerylistings

- NZ Herald

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