A recent $120 million expansion of the Auckland Art Gallery has made the country’s best art gallery a whole lot better. The elaborate old mock-chateau galleries have been gutted and, though elegantly integrated, now play second fiddle to a superb new glass-cube atrium supported by kauri-wood columns that fan out to form an organic, forest-like canopy. The gallery feels open to the street and integrated with Albert Park behind, allowing everyone to see the atrium’s keynote sculpture, which changes annually.

There is a significant international collection, but the emphasis is on the world’s finest collection of New Zealand art. Works on display are frequently changed, but might include anything from original drawings by artists on Cook’s expeditions and overwrought oils depicting Maori migrations through to site-specific installations.

Europeans depicting Maori

Romantic and idealized images of Maori life seen through European explorers’ eyes frequently show composite scenes that could never have happened, contributing to a mythical view that persisted for decades. Two works show contrasting but equally misleading views: Kennett Watkins’ 1912 The Legend of the Voyage to New Zealand, with its plump, happy natives on a still lagoon; and Charles Goldie’s 1898 The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand, modelled on Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and showing starving, frightened voyagers battling tempestuous seas.

Much of the early collection is devoted to works by two of the country’s most loved artists – both highly respected by Maori as among the few to accurately portray their ancestors. Gottfried Lindauer emigrated to New Zealand in 1873 and spent his later years painting lifelike, almost documentary, portraits of rangatira (chiefs) and high-born Maori men and women, in the mistaken belief that the Maori people were about to become extinct. In the early part of the twentieth century, Charles F. Goldie became New Zealand’s resident “old master” and earned international recognition for his more emotional portraits of elderly Maori regally showing off their traditional tattoos, or moko, though they were in fact often painted from photographs (sometimes after the subject’s death).

Pakeha depicting New Zealand

It took half a century for European artists to grasp how to paint the harsh Kiwi light, an evolutionary process that continued into the 1960s and 1970s, when many works betrayed an almost cartoon-like quality, with heavily delineated spaces daubed in shocking colours.

Look out for oils by Rita Angus, renowned for her landscapes of Canterbury and Otago in the 1940s; Colin McCahon, whose fascination with the power and beauty of New Zealand landscape informs much late twentieth-century Kiwi art; and Gordon Walters, who drew inspiration from Maori iconography, controversially appropriating vibrant, graphic representations of traditional Maori symbols.

You may well see one of the gallery’s most expensive works, Tony Fomison’s 1973 painting Study of Holbein’s “Dead Christ”. It’s typical of his later, more obsessive, period, combining the artist’s passion for art history and his preoccupation with mortality.

Maori artists

More recent acquisitions are strong on art by Maori artists. You’ll usually find some of the excellent contemporary work by painter Shane Cotton, dark pieces by New Zealand’s most lauded living artist, Ralph Hotere, and sculptor Michael Parekowhai, whose bull-on-a-grand-piano entry for the 2011 Venice Biennale turned more than a few heads.

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