Reviews: resources, books, museums

Friday Review: Beloved at the DPAG

Beloved: Works from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery 12 Dec 2009-30 Oct 2011

What it is: An exhibition on favourite works from the DPAG’s collections, ranging from Medieval madonnas, through NZ classics such as Goldie, right up to contemporary mixed-media sculpture.

As a bit of background, you should know that DPAG has an amazing art collection which includes a fantastic selection (probably the best in a NZ museum) of European art, including such costuming favourites as Gainsborough, Tissot, and a selection of Pre-Raphaelite  artists.

The DPAG is also a beautiful museum: easy to navigate, elegantly designed, well situated, and eminently suitable for displaying art.

Not surprisingly, I was extremely excited about having the opportunity to visit and to see the Beloved exhibition.

The Good: All my favourite artworks were on display: the Tissot, the Gainsborough, the Reynolds, the Monet, the Forbes (if the direct links don’t work, search by artist last name), as well as some less well known charmers, and some more challenging modern art (do check out the Don Driver).

The Bad: The exhibition ran into the usual problem seen with ‘favourites’ exhibitions: too broad a scope of artworks, not enough of each kind of artwork to provide flow throughout the exhibition.

The curators chose to hang the ‘blockbusters’ (Goldie, Angus and Machiavelli) at the entrance to the exhibition, and then attempted to group other artworks thematically.  This met with limited success: the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts works  were confined to an odd corner in the same room as the modern sculpture, the plastic tentacles of one leering at the shocked goddesses in the other.

The Ugly: Electric orange and red and blue walls.

White walled museums are considered rather old-fashioned and boring, especially among NZ museums, which tend to be very forward thinking and innovative.  There is a reason that so many paintings are displayed against neutral walls though: they look good.  Even the very avant-garde Te Papa compromised and used pale greys and pastels when displaying exhibitions of Constables and Impressionists.

DPAG, however, decided it was time to push the envelope further.  They picked really, really, bright, saturated colours for the walls in the Beloved exhibition.  Occasionally it works: Goldie’s All’e Same t’e Pakeha (1905) stands up to its red background magnificently, the hyper-realism of Goldie an excellent foil to the demanding wall.

Alas, most of the other artworks could not hope to compete.  The 18th century art, in particular, receded into insignificance against the blinding orange of the walls: the elegant women and scholarly men defeated by the vivid tones.

Turners and Gainsborough struggle to stand out*

On the bright side (no pun intended), this meant that in order to see and appreciate the artworks, one needed to get close enough to them so that they were the only thing in your field of vision, encouraging an close perusal of each work.  In most cases this was fabulous: the Gainsborough portrait of the Countess Talbot, in particular, is exquisite up close, and DPAG very obligingly doesn’t have any barriers between the audience and the artwork.  In some cases however, the artworks needed to be viewed from a distance to get the full effect, and this was ruined by the overly-strong backgrounds.

The verdict:  DPAG had an idea, they tried something brave, it might have been a master stroke, but it just didn’t work.  Despite the drawbacks, if you are in Dunedin, you should see the exhibition.  It’s free, it’s in the centre of town, and the works, taken individually, are incomparable.  However, I’m  still holding out for an opportunity to see all of my beloved artworks without competition from the walls and other, less amicable, pieces.

*DPAG has extremely strict photography rules, so this was the only image I got permission to take.

2 Comments

  1. The museum downtown here has very cherry colored walls in the european art exhibit, it kind of works for me. I love the line about shocked goddesses. heh.

    • I’ve seen some coloured walls that really worked – but there has to be a bit of muting to the colours, or the paintings have to be really strong (the Goldie looks great)

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