So far away and so smug

How can we experience art properly if we don't see it firsthand? And what effect does this have on our insular national arts culture?

Knowing how to look at paintings comes with patience and study. Everyone understands this. Our difficulty lies in access. How can we possibly know about paintings if we live so far away from the originals that we must make do with reproductions? And what is the likely effect of this distancing on the artistic culture of a society?

Books of illustrations, however well produced, however faithful the colour reproduction; slide shows on the lecture room wall; copies marketed for framing and domestic decoration: these artifacts cannot serve as effective substitutes for the immediacy of contact that comes from engagement with the real work, and the opportunity it affords us to be absorbed mentally and emotionally into the painted space. Understanding and interpretation come from the nourishment that immediacy supplies. The work as created by the artist, and left behind as it was when it was finished, is the unique source of the pleasure that we take in it, and then take away with us.

From this perspective, we live in New Zealand on a starvation diet, while in Europe they feast. An hour or so crawling around the internet sites of just two cities—London and Paris—illustrates the distance that separates our two tables.

At Tate Modern, an exhibition of late works by Mark Rothko brings together half of the Seagram Building canvasses, plus the sequences of Brown and Grey and Black and Grey works from his final years. At the National Portrait Gallery, quite apart from the constantly revolving exhibitions of works from the national collection, they recently staged a show of portraits by Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticist painter who along with his friend Ezra Pound, brought Futurism of a sort to Britain in the years immediately before the First World War. The timing of this show dovetails well with a major exhibition of Futurism which is this winter’s great innovation at the Beaubourg, and which will travel in the New Year first to the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome and then to Tate Modern for the northern summer.

But Paris also features a show at the Pinacotheque of works by Rouault from the Idemitsu collection in Japan, 35 portraits and a dozen engravings by Van Dyke at the Jacquemart-Andre Museum, and an exhibition of works by Picasso alongside paintings by grand masters such as Velasquez at the Grand Palais.

In London the National Gallery is staging an exhibition of portraits: Renaissance Faces, Van Eyck to Titian; there is Michael Landy at the Thomas Dane Gallery; Francis Bacon at Tate Britain; Lucien Freud at the Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert; and a show Aime Maeght and his artists at which the Royal Academy has brought together works by the great dealer’s artists including Matisse and Giacometti, Bonnard and Alexander Calder.

Globalisation has supposedly done much to make the world smaller, and no doubt it feels like this if you live close to one of the great centres of art that is capable of bringing works together from across the world. The 35 portraits in the Van Dyck exhibition in Paris, for instance, come from 27 different collections, from St Petersburg to California by way of Budapest, Petworth, Madrid and Memphis. Idemitsu’s Rouault collection had never before been out of Japan. Even the relatively insular Wyndham Lewis show, which consisted of some 55 works covering the period from 1911 to 1949 was drawn from more than 40 collections. The curating, promotion, publishing, insurance, and transportation costs of these exhibitions are immense. It all adds up to an exhibition world from which we in New Zealand are far removed, and in which we cannot compete, and so cannot therefore participate.

But the costs to us do not end with this exclusion: they reach to the very heart of the growth and development of our own artistic culture. Tate Modern’s Rothko show is a good illustration of how and why.

The Seagram Murals, which are the central attraction of this exhibition, were originally commissioned in 1958 for the restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram Building in Manhattan. Rothko withdrew from the project once he had come to the realization that the setting, ambiance and context of a restaurant were inappropriate for the works, which he eventually distributed among the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Tate Britain in the United Kingdom, and the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Japan. They are famous late period Rothkos: deep, deep pools of sombre colour—red on maroon, black on maroon—composed of mixed media on canvas.

The depth of these works has been achieved by layers of paint that lie behind the surface colour and act on the attention and imagination of the spectator much as a concealed magnet might be imagined to work on a heavy metal object: never actually physically moving it into contact, but holding its attention, dragging on it, compelling its focused concentration. Under the spell of muted colour, the spatial effect of large canvasses, the window-like apertures suggested by frame shapes in the almost liquid facades, the observer is drawn into the work, and endures and enjoys a sequence of possibly troubling, powerful emotions: self-examination, resistance, struggle, surrender and calm. Another set of different but equally troubling responses is extracted by the works in brown, black and grey of 10 years later, close to Rothko’s death.

I think it is impossible to enter into any these works without confronting them in person. (The otherwise fine reproductions of these paintings in the catalogue of the exhibition illustrate this well: they are mere colour prints on paper, the works robbed of their power.) And without this personal engagement it is hard to understand the meaning, which has to do with perception and the nature of reality, because so much of what is in the paintings is concealed from sight, and can only be “seen” if the spectator is absorbed into the texture of the work and becomes a part of it. What Rothko himself called: “a place contained and absolutely mine.” (His emphasis.) And without an understanding of the meaning, the works are diminished if not emptied of much of their appeal. For the arena of painted art of this quality, “you had to be there” is not just good, it is indispensable advice. A requirement.

The Futurism exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris speaks with similar eloquence of the poverty to which distance and exclusion condemn us. The art history content of the show—where futurism originated, when and with whom it came to Paris a hundred years ago, how it might be said to have fused with cubism, then Vorticism, its later links to dada and the surreal, and so on—might be read in any reasonably competent history of twentieth century art movements. But what can not be understood in isolation is the sheer breath-taking power of so many of the canvasses that have been assembled for it. For instance, the 12 works by Umberto Boccioni brought from MOMA, and from Hanover, Osaka, Wuppertal, Munich, Milan and the Estorick collection in London that are only one small part of the show, bring into sharp focus the part played by colour in perspective, movement and meaning that can only really be understood by engaging directly with the painting. And to see these works hung alongside (as they are) Metzinger’s Woman with a Spoon (Le Gouter), Leger’s Nude in a Forest, Carra’s Swimmers, Delaunay’s City of Paris, and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 is to enter into the sheer raw energy and power of these disturbingly beautiful paintings.

Can a national culture of art develop, flourish and expand without direct contact with the wealth of creativity that has preceded it? I think that the best of our young artists know the answer to this question, and head off overseas at the first opportunity. And they do it not just to look and to see, but also to learn and to work. But is what is true of them also true of our art culture more generally? Over the past quarter century or so, New Zealand literary and aesthetic culture has been deeply self-absorbed, nationalist in outlook, preoccupied with the idea of a cultural identity that is thought amenable to discovery and administrative development.

This is especially so of the gate keepers in art administration, publishing and criticism: cosy worlds of comfortable agreement within a culture of cut-throat art politics. The impression given is of a country that believes it can somehow ‘go it alone’ in art, unattached and so free. In addition to the inevitable shortage of talent in a small society, it is an outlook that has made so much of our contemporary art dull and uninteresting, created for a contemporary audience and market that is now only tenuously connected to international standards of excellence, and, through lack of access, is not sure  how to look at paintings, and so how to discover what they might mean. Literary culture remains robust not necessarily because our current stock of writers is particularly good, or our literary publishers particularly discerning, but because readers have access to the world of books in a way that is not true of painting. We cannot see the works because they are not here, and with very rare exceptions, like the Bridget Riley show of recent years, they will not come.

Escaping from this may not be easy. Are we more isolated now from the centres of great art than we have been in the past? Yes, in the sense that great exhibitions are assembled and dispersed as never before, and once missed cannot be visited. And yes, also, in the degree to which, as an audience, we have come to imagine that our own art is good enough, and that we do not need the riches of the greater world to set benchmarks, both to what is made, and how it should be judged. Exclusion, as we know from other aspects of our society, is a terrible and damaging experience. Our current exclusion by distance and cost from the globalised exhibitions of great art could mean that in our isolation our own artistic culture may languish.