Story of European art right here

Artbeat column no 433 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 26 January 2009

“The Whole European Art Epic – only in Dunedin” could be the headline.  You’d need a subheading somewhere “in New Zealand, that is” to avoid charges of misleading advertising. I pointed out that in this country, only in Dunedin can you trace the whole story of European art from its remote origins all the way to the present, through original works.

I suggested promoting this to targeted audiences. The relevant holdings are in the Otago Museum, the Dunedin Public Library and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. There would have to be co-ordination and arrangements for access. But it could be done.

I was inspired by the Otago Museum’s plan to exhibit lifelike casts of the features of its mummy on January the 28th.  There’s more needs saying about that. I said she lived during the Ptolemaic period, that is, 323 – 30 BC, going from the newspaper report. An Otago Museum information sheet is more specific.

The linen wrappings were radio-carbon dated in 2001 to 2,358 years before, plus or minus 53 years. That means she died (probably) between 410 and 304 BC, a narrower time band and a little earlier than the date I gave. This makes sense art historically because the mask and lid images are still Pharaonic rather than late Ptolemaic.

I also note K Sutherland’s letter, (ODT 22/1/09) saying the donor, Bendix Hallenstein “probably paid a pittance for it in a time when antiquities were ‘stolen’ from their homeland”. Obviously K. Sutherland doesn’t know what Hallenstein paid in the 1890s and there’s no reason to suppose it wasn’t a fair price. He bought if from a German Consular agent in Luxor, not off the back of a camel.

As for ‘stealing’ it from its homeland, how does the fact that something was made in some territory give that place ownership of it? These are ideas which have gained currency in recent years, are often poorly based in fact and even more compromised in logic. If followed to their extreme no country could enjoy the productions of another.

How absurd. How uncivilised. Nations have much to learn from each other, including their works of the ancient past. This is a poor response to Hallenstein’s gift. I hope he’s not rolling in his grave.

Hallenstein’s own descendants had a better idea. In 1973 his grandchildren Mary, Dora and Esmond de Beer made a gift to the art gallery marking the centenary of Hallenstein Brothers, the firm which Bendix established in Dunedin. It’s a painting by Zanobi Machiavelli (1418-1479), a minor Florentine painter of the early Renaissance. I mentioned it last week in connection with the Reed collection’s illuminated manuscripts, pointing out it made a contrast and marked a new beginning.

The Reed fragments included a picture of the Crucifixion made in France in the 1400s and Machiavelli’s Madonna and Child is dated c.1452/3. Although they were made about the same time the fragment typifies Medieval painting while the Madonna marks the rebirth of a more technically sophisticated art which had been known in Classical times. This is the specific meaning of “Renaissance” which also marks the beginning of what, in the long view, is the modern era – our own.
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If you look at the people in the Crucifixion you can tell the males are male and the females female, partly by their dress and partly because some of the men have beards. Perhaps the males are given more prominent noses, apart from Christ, while the women – on the left – have smaller noses and more oval faces. But, by and large, they are all fairly alike. While some of their postures and gestures suggest particular reactions and perhaps some indication of differing personalities, they all look much of a muchness.

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But if you look at Machiavelli’s Madonna you see the face of a real individual. He certainly had a model. It has been argued – by me – she may be Lucrezia Buti, the nun who posed as a model for Fra Filippo Lippi, with whom Machiavelli worked.  Fra Filippo famously seduced Lucrezia and they had a son, the painter Filippino Lippi. The argument is plausible, although I wouldn’t want to push it too hard. But never mind who she is, you can tell she’s a real person an individual.

While Machiavelli is a minor master this is an exceptional work. It’s much better than his usual standard and gives a fair impression of the achievement of much greater painters such as his libidinous colleague. This too you can see by looking at the nearly contemporary Madonna in the public art gallery by the Master of San Miniato. There’s enough material to make these comparisons and contrasts for two and a half millennia, right here in Dunedin.

The proposed 550-800 seat theatre has survived a close vote. That’s appropriate. It should be considered with other projects.


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