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New book reveals the secret lives of paintings

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The Back of the Painting

By Linda Waters, Sarah Hillary and Jenny Sherman

Te Papa Press

RRP $45.00

Publication date April

“The Back of the Painting”

Research Library Display Case

Mezzanine Level of Auckland Art Gallery

30 April – 26 August.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

In the late 1980’s the artist Julian Dashper suggested to the Auckland Art Gallery a show in which all the works would have their backs exposed to the viewer. This would have provided viewers with an insight into the secret lives of paintings. The exhibition never took place but a new book “The Back of the Painting” has taken up the challenge. Three of the country’s leading conservators Linda Waters (Te Papa), Sarah Hillary (Auckland Art Gallery) and Jenny Sherman (Dunedin Public Art Gallery) have assembled 33 art works where the emphasis is on what is on the rear of the works.

Often the rear of a painting may bear the artists signature, title of the work and date as well as sometimes adding additional material. Also adding information to the rear will be the dealer affixing a note about the sale of the work  (including the price), auction houses will also add a note about their involvement with the works sale. The owners of art works will sometimes add notes about the inclusion of the work in their collection and art institutions will document the work as well, often with a note of authenticity.

Each of the conservators has chosen a dozen varied works from their collections. Jenny Sherman’s selection is mainly European 14th to 18th century, while the two other concentrate mainly on twentieth century New Zealand art.

Each of the essays gives some background to the work itself and to the documentation on the rear  of the work. There are also several photographs which show the  state of the canvas or boards which often reveal the processes of the artists.

One work which has the most dramatic “back story” is the one which  has some of the most interesting images. The James Tissot “Still on Top” which was stolen from the Auckland Art Gallery in a brazen armed heist in 1998 and found quickly was badly damaged. Sarah Hillary explains  how the repairs took two years and there are images of the torn canvas as well as images of the laborious restoration and repainting.

The oldest work in the collection is Antonio Veneziano’s ”Head and Shoulders of a Bearded Saint” of around 1390. Th back this work reveals that not only has it originally been part of a larger artwork but the actual painting at some point has been removed from its wooden surface and then adhered to new timber. Additionally, the work has a note about the purchase in Luca in 1893 referring to it as a “Fragment of a Tuscan Picture”. Another note from the British Museum concerns the verification of its being a Veneziano work. It also seems to indicate the work was acquired at Sotheby in 1950.

Oher works have interesting connections as with the Lucien Pissarro “Landscape through trees, Tilty Woods”. Lucien the son of the more famous Camille moved from France to England in 1890 and the work bears a note from the artists widow requesting that in accordance with her husband’s wishes no varnish be applied to the work.

Ray Thorburn did not provide direct instructions about his  “Modular 13, Series 2” but the four panels of the works are held together with clamps indicating that the four abstract panels can be arranged in various ways.

The McCahon work “Will He Save Him” of 1959 as in the case of many artists works has an unfinished work on the rear along with the title “Will He Save Him”. Where the painting itself, one of McCahon’s major works of the period is executed in dark colours apart from a gleaming patch of yellow, the work on the rear has a much more luminous appearance with a “waterfall’ of blues. The change in colours possibly indicates the artist wantyinmg the colouring to be more desolate than the salvation suggested by the lighter blues.

It is an intriguing and illuminating book which helps expand ones appreciation of artworks and helps remove some of the mystique around artists and their work. Few of the essays provide earth shattering revelations about the artist or the work but they help provide an understanding of how individual artworks have their own physical history and come into being.

The choice of works for the book also reveals that the country’s art galleries have works by significant artists even if they are not major works. Dunedin has a Claude Lorrain a Monet and the Pissarro.

There will be an exhibition called ‘The Back of the Painting’ in the Research Library Display Case on the Mezzanine Level of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from 30 April – 26 August.

It will include three paintings, two which are included in the book (the Portrait of Mrs George Vaile c1853 by an unknown artist, and Julian Dashper’s Untitled 2005-06), plus a painting by Tony Fomison, Jack in the Box 1978, from the Auckland Art Gallery collection.

The gallery will initially show the backs of the works with images of the front adjacent with auxiliary material to provide context.  The works will remain like that for most of the three months but will be turned to show the front for the last week, so people can come back and see the correct orientation before the exhibition is over.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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