Artistic vision builds something special
CULTURE AND CAPITAL DAY REPORTER
Do you collect art?
Where once the walls were crowded with art from New Zealand's most influential and iconic artists, they are now bare; faded lines on the beige floral wallpaper. Ghosts of frames and canvases are all that remain of a lifetime of collecting.
In the absence of Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, the wallpaper in Milly Paris' Strathmore home is now etched like the lines on her face, depicting five decades of art.
The bare walls give a sense of finality to the life Mrs Paris had lived in this house with her lawyer husband, Les, since the 1960s, slowly expanding their art collection while they raised their son and daughter.
Even after Mr Paris died, two days after Christmas 2000, Mrs Paris remained dedicated to contemporary New Zealand art, continuing to pick up the odd affordable piece to complement the collection.
Now she can curate the works as she sees fit, replacing a ghoulish group of scary severed animal parts by Joanna Braithwaite - which warded off evil spirits at the front door - with a series of family portraits by Toss Woollaston that greet visitors with a cheery smile.
Mrs Paris' eyes glint and her face lights up as she talks about what was most important to her in life: her husband, her children and grandchildren, and her collection.
Her marriage was a happy one, she says, because they were best friends, and she can count their arguments on one hand. "When Les walked into a room, I always thought he was a bright light or a candle, and everyone was like a moth, all gravitating towards him."
She remembers everything: every piece he bought from the auction houses of Dunbar Sloane and Bethunes between cases at the courthouse, where they were hung, what kind of memories and emotions they conjure up.
Each was bought because they - either one or both - loved it. There was never a thought of "let's buy this because it might be worth a lot of money one day", although in many cases that is just what happened.
Next month most of the collection, 225 pieces in all, is up for auction at Art+Object in Auckland.
Flipping through the catalogue is like looking at a New Zealand art history chronicle. Iconic works such as Michael Smither's The Family in the Van and Gordon Walters' Karaka 1 and Karaka 2 leap from the pages.
Art+Object art director Ben Plumbly says the collection was arguably the most famous in the country and was one of a kind.
The Parises had an excellent eye and gave huge amounts of time to their collection. "They are certainly the most committed collectors I've ever come across. The collection is a testament to Les and Milly."
Mrs Paris still remembers the day her husband, who was working as a barrister and solicitor, brought home his first piece, Peter McIntyre's Maori Boy, bought from Whitcombe & Tombs.
Soon he began spending breaks in his schedule in auction houses, where he started buying works by Nugent Welch and Harry Kirkwood.
Auctioneers and bidders would recognise him, standing at the back of the room, awaiting an interesting painting or drawing in a general lot, and casually flicking up his pen from his crossed arms to indicate a bid; the law clerks always knew where to find him.
"He was in the area such a lot. He was unmistakable in his wig and gown. He was a big man, he was a tall man and very broad with it. You couldn't miss him."
Those early pieces were historical, often landscapes, and while Mrs Paris was happy to begin forming an art collection, she had a stipulation.
"I said to Les I would much rather collect paintings by living artists than somebody who has already been dead more than 100 years."
So instead they focused their collection on contemporary abstracts, pieces which had something to say.
"[The historical pieces] were images that never changed. They never changed your mood or the way you felt about them. Whereas, when we decided to collect modern abstraction, that kind of work arouses different emotions."
And so they began to fill their house with more and more art until they had every wall covered and pieces stacked against bay windows and the fireplace.
Realising their house was becoming too small for their collection, Mrs Paris began looking for a new home before striking on the idea of raising the roof of their own home, creating a huge gallery space below.
Mr Plumbly says their house would not have taken the shape it had if it was not for their art collection. "Their dedication to the collection makes it so unusual. It literally was their lives - they raised their house for it, for goodness sake!"
Among the more controversial purchases was Michael Illingworth's As Adam and Eve, a cartoonish, heavily stylised nude painting, which the artist later told Mrs Paris was a portrait of himself and his wife, Dene.
It received complaints of obscenity when it was part of an exhibition at Auckland's Barry Lett Galleries in 1965, and police tried to remove it. In 1975 it was removed, without the consent of the artist or his dealer, when it was included in a show at the Pakuranga Art Society.
Later that year the couple bought the piece from the Peter McLeavey Gallery, and hung it in their bedroom.
"It's humorous. I don't know why people took such offence at it because, yes, he has exaggerated that area, but if you look into the eyes . . . it's about the expression in their eyes. That's what speaks to you."
Her son, 8 at the time, would bring his friends in to look at it, and her mother would show it to other family members. "You could hear them tittering."
After being lent to the Dowse in Lower Hutt and City Art Gallery in Wellington, the piece was returned, this time being put in a more prominent place between works by Smither and Don Binney. "I said to Les, 'It's the 90s. People should be able to cope with this painting.' "
Fifteen of the works for auction will be on display as a preview for Wellingtonians at 30 Upstairs Gallery in Courtenay Place this week. The event will also be the launch of the auction catalogue, displaying the $3 million of art that will go under the hammer in Auckland on September 19 and 20.
Mr Plumbly says there will never be another auction of its kind, because "there's no other collection like this".
"We worry about business because we don't see collectors any more that are as dedicated as Les and Milly were. The next generation coming through are not as interested."
Mrs Paris is moving to Sydney to be closer to her son and three grandchildren, and is taking the rest of her collection with her to decorate her new apartment.
"I'll never get stuck in a rut. There's always so much for me to do, some new thing that I'm interested in.
"As long as I can move, as long as I can put one foot in front of the other, that's what I will keep doing."
Highlights from the Les and Milly Paris Collection, including works by Colin McCahon, Don Binney, Michael Smither and Nigel Brown, are on display at 30 Upstairs Gallery tomorrow and on Saturday from 10am to 5pm.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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