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Angels and Aristocrats

Behind the scenes

Blair Jackson and I attended the opening of Angels & Aristocrats at Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Friday 27 April. It's spectacular.

The space previously allocated to Beloved a show of DPAG's collection now exhibits a good proportion of their key European paintings in the context of others related and from the same time from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Whanganui.

Thinking back to the late 1980s when the new Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa's its brand name) was proposed, I recall well the energetic discussions held from south to north about the notion of a distributed national collection. It was a compelling concept and part of what was then promised – among other things – was greater tax-payer support for this through the proposed National Services division. Well, that was then and this is now (and we all know Te Papa has its own funding issues).

What Angels & Aristocrats offers some 22 years later is a brilliant model of co-operation and collegiality. The expertise and sheer curatorial grunt is Mary Kisler's and congratulations to her and to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki for supporting her efforts and for overseeing the tour of this selection of paintings from the four main centres + Whanganui (an important collecting institution in the nineteenth century in a then wealthier place). But other curators were involved, making files, images and records available, discussing finer details and talking through the selection at each venue.

Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot Soldiers in a village Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna oWaiwhetū; purchased with the assistance of Adriaan and Gabrielle Tasman, 1996

Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot Soldiers in a village Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna oWaiwhetū; purchased with the assistance of Adriaan and Gabrielle Tasman, 1996

For while retaining a good block of core paintings, Angels & Aristocrats will change its contents slightly from place to place. I, for one, intend to see it in every venue.

In Dunedin, it's intelligently hung; sight-lines are fantastic with key works given distance and status; and the wall colours enhance rather than compete with what's on show. The eighty paintings here demonstrate how rich our public holdings are and just how much the nation's art collections are indeed distributed. Christchurch's Gerrit Dou, The Physician, 1653, is a real gem in the Dunedin context; Te Papa's John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Mrs Humphrey Devereux, 1771, has not looked as good for many years, if ever. It was a treat to see the range of landscape and religious paintings we have in Aotearoa New Zealand.

When Kisler's book came out in 2010 it was marvellous in its own right, but nothing beats an exhibition of the real thing to bring home the richness and spectacle of art. Further, as Chris Saines said at the opening, 'These are not the 'Queen's Pictures'; these are ours – yours and mine.'

The exhibition is free and touring to the four main centres. Initially, Christchurch Art Gallery was to have been its second venue, with Auckland last (a nice gesture on its part, too). Alas, we'll now be the last... we're very much hoping Mary will be able to bring together a version of 'Angels & Aristocrat's for Christchurch when we're ready to open again (and always hoping this is sooner, rather than later).

But don't wait for it here – and do go and see it more than once.

You can see the five works of ours that are in this exhibition here.