Artists have always built on the work of the past, and New Zealand’s artistic heritage spans over 1000 years, for both Māori and Pākehā cultures. But the most recognisable and relevant expression of that heritage today is in work made over the last 400 or so years.
Māori taonga created before the colonial period (about 1840) are known as customary - made according to pre-European custom and valued today as expressions of an essentially Māori world. Māori value taonga generally for their mana (status): of their age, their successive owners, ancestors whom they represent, as well as qualities of artistic execution. However, art and culture are inseparable in the Māori world, and until the arrival of Europeans, Māori knew no concept of art as a practice in itself.
Historical European art of enduring influence includes the prints made by Dutch and Flemish masters of the seventeenth century. They mark the popularisation of a secular art, with subjects such as landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.
Artistic academies of the eighteenth century formalised these subjects into genres and helped establish a canon of art history against which generations of artists have measured themselves.
Current display of works on paper: Two early Dutch engravers: Hendrik Goltzius and Lambert Suavius
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), engraver, print publisher, draftsman, and painter, was one of the outstanding figures in Dutch art during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries noted for his sophisticated technique and the ‘exuberance’ of his compositions.
He was born in Germany near the border of the Netherlands, and had a malformed right hand from a fire when he was a baby, which turned out to be especially well-suited to holding the engraver’s burin. He established his own print workshop in Haarlem around 1578. Some of his business was in engraving the work of contemporary artists, such as St Jerome in the desert after Jacopo Palma. But unlike other printing houses of the period, Goltzius focused on producing prints of his own designs.
After 1598, Goltzius gave up the printmaking business to concentrate on painting. But the engravers he had trained such as Jan Saenredam continued to engrave his designs for many years.
Lambert Suavius (c.1510-1567) was born in Liège in the southern Netherlands and initially trained as a goldsmith, but he was also a printmaker, architect and poet. Like many Flemish artists, Suavius was influenced by Italianate and classical models. His restrained, Mannerist style can be seen in these engravings of elegantly elongated figures in graceful draperies.
Suavius’ prints are remarkable for their smooth, shimmering surfaces achieved by his slightly unusual engraving methods. As well as the engraving tool, the burin, Suavius used a glazier’s stylus with a diamond point to produce the subtle shifts of light and dark on his highly sculptural figures. With this method he could define shading with dense networks of exceptionally fine lines.
This engraving includes many attributes of sight, one of the five senses: a bespectacled artist at his easel painting a semi-nude Venus as she regards herself in a mirror; scientific instruments of observation including a telescope, astrolabe and orrery; and a cat and an eagle, animals with keen sight. All are illuminated by the sun, source of light and vision.
Goltzius makes a case for the cultural importance of the artist by showing painting as an activity of intellectual equivalence to the science of measuring the globe with scientific instruments. Less seriously, a sly eroticism pervades the image. Nude Venus is surrounded with phallic shapes – the artist’s brush and maul stick, the scholar’s callipers, and Cupid’s quiver and bolster which are bloated imitations of his own small penis. Another scholar examines a flask of liquid – recalling a motif, common in Dutch art, of a doctor examining the urine of young women for signs of pregnancy. These details suggest that Goltzius’s image is also about artistic creation. Venus with her swollen stomach is presented as the site of erotic and ultimately reproductive powers that the painter transforms into a different sort of creation on his canvas.