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

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