Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A hanging offence

At the formal opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery last week (which by the way was a model for how to reintroduce a cultural institution to its diverse communities after a long break) there was one rather curious aside in the speeches. Neil Roberts, who was a long-serving curator at the Gallery and is now an art consultant, got a bit back at him. He had apparently dissed the current curators in a letter to the editor of the Christchurch Press. So what was his problem? Roberts was upset that the Petrus Van der Velden painting The Dutch funeral of 1872 had been exhibited without its frame. Emotions can run high in Christchurch, especially as the painting in question has always been one of the City's loved 'old masters'. For Roberts the de-framing of the work was an insult to the artist (though you’d think it was probably more of an insult to the framer). In reality, if anyone is to blame, it's probably the Italian architect and exhibition designer Carlo Scarpa. It was Scarpa who stripped elaborate large frames off historical paintings in an effort to bring them into the present so we could take a fresh look at them rather than rely on the usual masterpiece signals of gold and carving. While it may have been been provocative to remove the Van der Velden frame and hang The Dutch funeral next to Colin McCahon’s Blind V, it’s a provocation of the best kind and brings both works into an interesting and useful dialogue. Besides nearby are enough other paintings with elaborate gold frames to remind us how the abandonment of close hanging and the rise of the white cube has removed much of the reason for creating them in the first place.

Image: left, Colin McCahon Blind V and right, Petrus Van der Velden The Dutch funeral hanging in the Christchurch Art Gallery