Heritage collections offer unique chance to trace artistic traditions

Artbeat column no 432 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 19 January 2009

Isolated fragments cast adrift or small incidents in a familiar, epic tale? Does art lose its significance when it’s vastly detached from the times and places of its making? Two recent developments in the city’s heritage collections raise this old conundrum. There’s a good answer for Dunedin although it’s taking us time to realise it.

The Otago Museum is staging a little drama with its mummy. (ODT 14/1/09) That’s the ancient Egyptienne in her sarcophagus which Bendix Hallenstein presented in 1893. In fact she’s not so very ancient because she comes from the Ptolemaic period, the time when the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy ruled the ancient kingdom of the Pharaohs. Even so, she’s no modern Ms. She lived and died somewhere between 323 and 30 BC.

The museum has been investigating her for a while, have confirmed she is female and determined she was about 35 when she died. They have also made a 3D scan of her skull and prepared casts which will show fairly accurately what she looked like. They will unveil these on the 28th of January when the public will probably find she didn’t look much like Elizabeth Taylor who played the role of Cleopatra, Ptolemy’s most famous descendant, in a film.

This is all fascinating but I’m also interested in the mummy’s attachments. It wears a mask and the sarcophagus, or coffin, has a shaped and painted cover, each bearing a likeness of the person within. Or are they likenesses? We’ll know better on the 28th  how lifelike the portraits are. I’m inclined to think not very; that these are more type-pictures than personalised representations, even though this is in the time when such things first existed and they are sometimes found on just such objects.

The tradition of personal portraiture began with the ancient Greeks, was brought to an early perfection by the Romans, of all people. It skipped from Rome to Egyptian funerary masks where it later became the basis for what we know as icon painting.

The Otago Museum owns the only Egyptian mummy in New Zealand. You might think it is so far out of its context that is almost meaningless. But it is not quite so isolated as you might suppose. The same institution has a substantial collection of Attic ware, ancient Greek pots painted with amazing naturalistic figures of animals, people and gods, the most substantial of its kind in New Zealand and the vehicle of an art ancestral to the late portraiture of the mummies. The tradition was lost during the middle ages but rediscovered in the renaissance.









The Public Library’s Reed collection has also been in the news. When you read this the exhibition A Splendid Gathering will have closed. It showcased a recent acquisition. It is a leaf from a fifteenth or sixteenth century Spanish Lectionary, written in Latin, resplendent with a richly decorated border. This represents European art from the middle ages when knowledge of linear perspective had been lost and art became more symbolic, less personal, even when depicting people.








You can see this in the rather flat, patterned use of the flowers and foliage in the border of the leaf. Actually, this is late in the tradition when the flowers are beginning to spring forth again, into three dimensions. But the character of Medieval art is more apparent in three fifteenth century cuttings from a French book of hours in the same exhibition and also in the library’s collection.


One shows King David at prayer in a tiled courtyard; another the crucifixion; yet another a burial scene. King David has a wonderful, pointed, yellow hat. There is grief, mirth, a lot of humanity here, but the people are stereotypes, not individuals.

European art would change again. At this time it was already changing, if not so obviously in this genre. The Library’s magnificent capital “R” shows this in the life-like depiction of animals and a face. Go across the Octagon to the public art gallery and look at Machiavelli’s Madonna on the ground floor and you will see the new art in full swing already, in a painting from the 1450s. And from there you can trace developments to the present just by looking at the gallery’s holdings.

Years ago Robert Hughes pointed out that in Australasia old European works are often so out of context as to be nearly incomprehensible. In Dunedin - and so far as New Zealand goes, only in Dunedin - they are not. Here you can trace the whole tradition from Classical times to the present, albeit stepping lightly. I have long advocated exploiting this luck by promoting it to targeted audiences. It needs co-ordination, some publicity, little else. Join the dots and you get the bigger picture. And only Dunedin can offer this in New Zealand.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times  http://www.otagodailytimes.co.nz