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International Works galleryPrevious Exhibition
Collecting Modern goes behind the scenes of Te Papa’s collection. It tells the story of how the National Art Gallery – Te Papa’s forerunner – built its collection of international modern art during the 20th century.
Four key periods of collecting are explored. Together, they reveal how changing institutional priorities, shifting ideas about modern art, and individual tastes shaped collecting choices.
This exhibition is by no means immune to such influences. It, too, reflects the tastes and interests of its curator and ideas about museum practice at a particular moment in time.
The early years
In 1936, New Zealand’s National Art Gallery (Te Papa’s forerunner) opened its doors on Buckle Street, Wellington. Most of the initial collection was donated by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, which had been collecting for more than 30 years in anticipation of the new gallery. Other works were donated by private supporters or funded from public subscription.
The creation of the international art collection was motivated by a desire to expose New Zealanders to contemporary art from ‘mother country’ Britain. The paintings chosen were conservative compared to the avant-garde art being made in Europe at the time. No works by Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse, or Goncharova were to be found here.
Nevertheless, many of the early acquisitions respond to modernism in their experimentation with colour, form, and subject matter.
Ernest Heber Thompson: An artist advisor
From the late 1940s, the National Art Gallery (Te Papa’s forerunner) employed a London representative to recommend art works for the collection. Ernest Heber Thompson (1891–1971), an expatriate New Zealand artist, was first to take the role. Under his influence, international collecting became a little bolder, though it remained focused on British representational works.
Heber Thompson was a respected member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, with a broad knowledge of the New Zealand and British art scenes. He arranged the acquisition of works by several key 20th-century British artists, including Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, and Jacob Epstein.
Heber Thompson had an eye for works with strong emotional resonance and technical skill. His choices were not necessarily radical, but they nonetheless nudged conservative New Zealanders towards a more sophisticated appreciation of what international modern art had to offer.
Mary Chamot: The avant-garde touch
In 1965, Mary Chamot (1899–1993) became the London representative for New Zealand’s National Art Gallery (forerunner of Te Papa), taking over from Ernest Heber Thompson. The works showcased here give us a glimpse of how her taste and sharp eye helped build a bolder, more sophisticated collection of international modern art.
Born in Russia to English parents, Chamot developed an expert knowledge of Russian avant-garde art and British modern painting. She later worked as a curator at London’s Tate Gallery.
Under Chamot’s guidance, New Zealand’s National Art Gallery acquired works by leading European artists of the 20th century, including Josef Albers, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Stanley Spencer, and Natalia Goncharova.
From the late 1970s, the National Art Gallery (now Te Papa) began to confront some of the gaps in its collection of international modern art. Many artists who had emerged as the most important figures of the 20th century were not represented at all.
By this time, the prices demanded for paintings by artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were staggering – out of reach for our small country. The solution was to turn to more affordable works on paper by some of these ‘modern masters’.
The strategy proved canny, producing a rich collection of interesting and unexpected works by famous artists.