The tradition we call “art” has steadily declined since the late 19th century. Did I really just write that? And why have I been studying and writing about modern and contemporary art all these years? But the proof of my assertion can be found at Auckland Art Gallery in Degas to Dalí, an impressive display of 19th- and 20th-century art from the National Galleries of Scotland.
The most recent painting, the last you come to in the exhibition, dates from the 1980s. It is by the much-celebrated German-born Englishman Lucian Freud. Nothing wrong with the sentiment – a naked and a clothed man lie together on a bed – but as a painting it is rancid.
Retrace your steps to the first room of the show. To the right of the entrance you will see Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Landscape at Coubron (c1870) and Gustave Courbet’s The Wave (c1869). These are contrasting pictures – Corot is melt-in-themouth, Courbet is meaty – and they are far from being the best by either painter. But both are wonderful, and if the curators eliminated the other 77 works and called the show Courbet to Corot, I would be perfectly happy.
Look to the right in Corot’s painting, and let your eyes linger on the clouds, then on the background hills and trees, then stroll forward to the river and the large central tree: it all fits the oft-applied description of Corot’s late landscapes – “silvery”. Yet there are many different tones and hues there and I wonder how on earth he conjured them into a convincing world for the eye to wander around in: a consummate picture.
Two more high points in the first room come from the French Impressionists Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. Degas had peculiar ideas about women, and is sometimes accused of misogyny on the evidence of his paintings. His men do not escape lightly, either. Diego Martelli (1879) is famous because its awkwardness – the tilted space and huddled figure – seems to say something about the man it depicts. Less remarked upon is Degas’s gift for colour. Before seeing the painting in the flesh, I hadn’t properly noticed the delectable wedges of pastel pink, blue and yellow at the top of the picture (that curved shape, if you are wondering, is a map of Paris).
Pissarro’s Kitchen Gardens at L’Hermitage, Pontoise (1874) has wonderful greens. He was at the top of his game in 1874. A good picture like this looks complete in itself, even if the landscape can be imagined extending beyond the frame. However, you can almost see Pissarro piecing together that unity, workman-like, which suggests he is a little below Corot, for whom every part of the scene seems to float into place in an instant, undetected.
Still loitering in the first room, you will find a fine marble sculpture by Auguste Rodin, The Young Mother (1885), and one good Monet out of two – the 1872 Boats in a Harbour (deceptive, because it looks a bit dull at first). There is more – but we must have a quick look at the other rooms, however much they pale in comparison with the first.
Take a long look at Georges Braque’s The Candlestick (1911). Many people still find Cubism hard to take, just stuff chopped up into unrecognisable bits. In fact, Braque was a beautifully painterly picture-maker. This Braque is denser and darker than his juiciest “analytical” Cubist pictures and beats all of the later works in the exhibition quite comfortably. A possible exception is Ben Nicholson’s Painted Relief (Plover’s Egg Blue) (1940), which has something of the same quiet, classical feeling of Corot and Braque, just in a more abstract form.
We rarely see this calibre of international art in New Zealand. (Auckland Art Gallery has good stuff in its own collection, including modernist paintings by American Helen Frankenthaler and Hans Hofmann, but never shows them.) So make the most of it: angst over the expressionists, go nuts with the Surrealists, guffaw at American Pop Art (In the Car is in Roy Lichtenstein’s best comic-book-madegrand manner, while the Andy Warhol is a droll bit of dross).
But remember: works like those will fill your head with noise. The best art in this exhibition is quiet, and the pleasures of looking are silent. Do not be duped by curatorial waffle about “conversations” between artworks; they are flecks of paint on canvas or board, lumps of marble or bronze, one next to the other, in shades of good and bad. I doubt you will dally among the later stuff. Take my advice and spend as much time in the 19th century as you can.
DEGAS TO DALI, Auckland Art Gallery, until June 10.