Freedom & Structure

photorapher David Frost

Photographer: David Frost

The coming month is a time of exhibition changeovers at MTG, ahead of the summer season. Our Linkway gallery is being painted in preparation for ‘Deco Kimono’; meanwhile the major exhibition upstairs, ‘Freedom and Structure: Cubism and New Zealand Art 1930-1960’, is in its final weeks. If you’d like to catch this display of stunning modernist paintings here, before it moves on to Waikato Museum, make sure to come in by Sunday 12 November.

Freedom and Structure has been very popular with school and tertiary groups, many of which tied a visit in with their own projects. I’ve enjoyed discussing the beginnings of abstraction in Western art with them – it was an exciting time of rapid change as artists experimented with painting what the eye couldn’t normally see. Buildings and other solid forms became transparent, objects could be viewed from multiple perspectives at once, while others were simplified down to their essential elements of line and shape.

In many societies around the world, including iwi Maori here in Aotearoa, art had long depicted things beyond what the eye might see; while to artists in the European tradition, this was a revolutionary development. They were no longer bound to centuries-old conventions of mimicking the visible world, such as by creating the illusion of depth within a flat canvas.

The six Pakeha artists represented in the exhibition all produced compelling works in the Cubist style: enjoying both the freedom it gave them from such conventions, and the structure it provided when exploring different ways of painting.

This particular balance of freedom and structure remains stimulating for many – as a group of artists and I found in a drawing workshop held in the gallery space. After an introductory tour around the exhibition, we gathered around a still-life arrangement that was set up by Michael Hawksworth, artist and lecturer at EIT. Michael encouraged us to resist any compulsion to create a ‘faithful’ image of the objects, but to move around them and incorporate several perspectives within our drawings, using our minds more than our eyes to create a cohesive picture.

We had a great time channelling our inner cubists among cubist paintings, and I’m looking forward to more creative sessions in our galleries.

Of course, freedom in image-making leads to more ambiguity – such as the 1957 painting by Louise Henderson. As noted in a text message to Hawke’s Bay Today (Wednesday October 25), it can seem like we’ve hung the work the wrong way up, due to the artist’s signature being printed upside down along the top edge of the canvas. Yet within the artwork, Henderson has painted simplified forms of buildings, with clearly recognisable rooflines and chimneys rising into the sky.

The curator of the exhibition, Julia Waite of Auckland Art Gallery, described how Henderson had left the work unsigned at the time of painting, and only added it shortly before she passed away. While it can’t be verified that she signed it upside down unintentionally, we all agreed that the work should be hung according to the orientation of the image, not of the signature.

  • F.A.W.C! Electrolux Masterclasses, Saturday 4 November, Century Theatre. Tickets available from Eventfinda.
  • Freedom and Structure, exhibition of New Zealand cubist art. Last day Sunday 12 November
  • Kids Drop-in-Zone, craft activities, colouring and a story corner available every weekend and during school holidays.

Jessica Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay



photorapher David Frost

Photographer: David Frost

Since going free, it’s been lovely to see lots of grandparents with their mokopuna in the museum over the school holidays. Many are enjoying reading books together or completing some of the craftwork in the Kids Drop-in-zone. Seeing grandparents helping young ones find all the items in the activity trail has been a common feature around the museum this week – with a fair amount of fun, laughter and sharing going on along the way.

There’s an unconditional love and bond in these inter-generational relationships with a beautiful blend of wisdom and experience coupled with awe and wonder. Something that highlights the very special and unique relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren is a small activity in our Tenei Tonu gallery. There’s a korowai in this gallery where people can leave messages to loved ones and we’ve noticed this week just how many of them start with Dear Grandma, Nana, Poppa, Granddad and so on.

The changing nature of our world with less hands-on crafts, skills and tactile activities, to one based on digital technology has also changed the relationship between these two parties. Where once grandparents would lead the way, showing children how to make and fix things, now grandchildren are racing ahead in the digital world.

Museums play a role in supporting real exchange between these two age groups – one where kaumatua can take the lead and explain objects, different times and share personal or family stories. Museums let the cups in grandma’s china cabinet take on a new life as items that are precious enough to be shown in a museum. I’ve no doubt, based on snippets of conversations I’ve overheard, that the Thermette is a special item in the Time For Tea display that fosters an opportunity to lead and explain how it works or share some great memories of when and where they were used. Museum displays can allow each party to take their turn at leading, with grandchildren showing their grandparents how to use and navigate digital technology in gallery spaces.

And these experiences and moments are something that museum’s help foster. A place where grandparents’ storytelling brings to life the things they are seeing in front of them, which doesn’t often happen in the same way in any other environment such as school or home.

Things that are foreign concepts to the younger generation, such as formal tea parties, may well be a nostalgic real-life memory for their elders. And with the global move away from plastics, perhaps a simple school lunchbox will be the same thing for younger generations when they become the grandparents.

This is a design challenge in museums – thinking about how our galleries and displays can work across generations. These two groups can have very different expectations about what museums should be and offer. Generalising terribly, older groups often expect museums to be reverent spaces for quiet contemplation and learning, with a general understanding of behaviour around objects and collections e.g. no touching. While younger people expect noise, life and colour, to touch and play with everything. Our challenge is trying to knit these expectations together and create an experience that works across the generations.

Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay