Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Art matters

Visited the exhibition of England's great(est?) landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837) at Te Papa. He is, imo, a 'meteorologist's artist'; vast billowy clouds predominate his sweeping expansive panoramas. Very moody and (no pun intended) atmospheric. His adroit demonstrations of the effects of various lighting (eg. sunlight diffused through clouds) and shadows (tracking sun's journey throughout the day), plus some quick sketchy human figures - nothing more than a few brief brushstrokes - prefigure the late 19th Century impressionists. Notable also were some of the elaborate gilded frames, frillier than a bridal gown. In some cases overshadowing the paintings enclosed - the frames were fancier and more eye-catching than the pictures, themselves.

My only gripe was the low level illumination (necessary to protect the artworks against damage from long exposure to light). The dim hazy yellow light obscured much of the fine detail (until peering up close) and made his cloudscapes seem far darker and foreboding.

Still at Te Papa, Ngai Tahu's exhibition of Maori art, Mo Tatou (On behalf of us all). At first glance, a fairly brief but comprehensive survey of South Island pre-European art. But underneath rages broiling controversy about the 'original inhabitants' of Te Waipounamu: were Maori first to arrive/settle there? A thorny question, and one impossible to intelligently speculate upon without evoking the Waitaha, Moriori and Uruao (ie, non-Maori) traditions. Ngai Tahu are reluctant to expound on these matters.

Were these early artists truly Maori? The historical artistic evidence suggests perhaps not. Most perplexing are the simple bird-like figures and sharks, reminiscent of prehistoric art painted on cave walls in Southern France. All of the paintings are in strict profile, etched with rough outlines and sparse, if any, ornamentation. There is no similarity (stylistically, iconographically, symbolically) between these rudimentary sketches and ANY known Maori art (to my knowledge), particularly those that characterise the classical and later periods. There is complete disregard to perspective, orientation, and narration (depiction of a 'story' or 'event') - all of these features abound in Maori design throughout the ages. Imo, they bear closer resemblance to the inexplicable Moriori painted figures of the Chatam Islands, which illustrate humans and local wildlife. To assume such a contentious position, however, would be to reinvent or reinterpret 'history' as we know it. Perhaps we'll never know until further evidence accumulates or until art historians, so far intimidated into silence by local Maori, are courageous enough to speak up and stand by their convictions.


Lindsay said...

"..some quick sketchy human figures - nothing more than a few brief brushstrokes"

But they take years of practice to place so precisely and deftly. Perhaps the most skilful part of his paintings.

Should be posted on another thread but I thought your Queen was a very beautiful, gracious woman.

phil said...

Thanks Lindsay, re Dame Te Ata.
Much appreciated.