Old-world show celebrates social conventions

16:00, Nov 20 2012
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ITALIAN TREASURE: Carlo Ceresa (1609–1697) Italy, A man with a child, oil on canvas, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, purchased 1956.

In many respects they feel lonely and landless these paintings – these chubby cherubs, bejeweled lords, costumed ladies and beatific Madonnas.

Purchased by a colony's museums and galleries – sourcing a cultural heritage from "back home" for their citizens' betterment – they now float unanchored, surrounded by a wealth of New Zealand art.

Bringing together work spanning five centuries of European painting, from the 14th to the 19th, from five New Zealand public collections, Mary Kisler does a fine job with Angels and Aristrocrats in giving these paintings company and context.

While her assertion that they form an important part of our history is not really substantiated, through smart, thoughtful arrangements and excellent writing she gives them a place in a wider art history.

Compared to the museums of other new world countries, New Zealand's holdings of old masters are slight. Kisler doesn't overstate these works' importance. Instead she celebrates the social milieu and conventions from which they spring. This is an exhibition as much about fashions as it is art.

Nor is Kisler's silk purse made out of a sow's ear. It may only occasionally wow, but there is plenty of interesting work – from the terrific Bruegel fair scene from the Auckland collection, to the slopping, stormy seasickness of an early Turner maritime scene. In two works George Dawe gives us dramatic swooning theatre, his Achilles a nest of writhing muscular flesh, with drapery strategically placed. His self-portrait is fresh and direct.

Angels and Aristocrats is studded with works that surprised me anew and from which any artist can learn. There is high Italian drama of Felice Ficherelli's 1638 depictment of the racy story of Antiochius, Prince of Syria, and his stepmother, with its extreme chiaroscuro, mathematical exactness and ability to enclose a whole story in one picture.

Whilst Kisler has clearly been selective, the show remains a mixed bag. The landscape section of the exhibition provides large tracts of dull, craggy stormy scenes I can't get interested in. By contrast the portraiture section – sympathetically given its own room as if this were a society party – is packed full of gems. It pays testament to the strength of 17th and 18th century English portraiture, and is anchored to the local by John Webber's portraits of Captain Cook and Poedua of the Society Islands. More of this kind would have been welcomed. Kisler's frame remains the familiar one, not straying earlier than the 14th century or far into the 19th.

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