City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

The Exhibition of the Century: Modern Masters from the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

4 April–5 July 1998

ARTISTS Karel Appel, George Baselitz, Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Jean Brusselmans, Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Constant, Enzo Cucchi, Willem de Kooning, Maurice de Vlaminck, Robert Delaunay, Jean Dubuffet, Jan Dibbets, Luciano Fabro, Lucio Fontana, Gilbert & George, Philip Guston, Asger Jorn, Donald Judd, Wassily Kandinsky, Dick Ket, Anslem Kiefer, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pyke Koch, Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis, Herman Kruyder, Henri Laurens, Roy Lichtenstein, Morris Louis, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, Claes Oldenburg, Giuseppe Penone, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, James Rosenquist, Mark Rothko, Robert Ryman, David Salle, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Julian Schnabel, Gino Severini, Frank Stella, Charley Toorop, Ger van Elk, Vincent van Gogh, Jan Wiegers, Carel Willink SPONSORS Telecom, Saatchi and Saatchi, Ernst and Young PUBLICATION essys Rudi Fuchs, Gregory O'Brien, Jonathon Manē-Wheoki, Damian Skinner, TL Rodney Wilson, Wystan Curnow, William McAloon, John Hurrell

Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum is one of the world's great museums of modern art. The Exhibition of the Century features sixty-six paintings and sculptures from its collection. Billed as a 'walk through the twentieth century’, it includes big names, among them Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Gilbert & George, Anslem Kiefer and Julian Schnabel. All the major modern-art movements are here, including expressionism, cubism, abstraction, abstract expressionism, minimalism, and pop. The earliest works are Vincent Van Gogh's Kitchen Gardens on Montmartre, Paris (1887) and Paul Cezanne's Mount Saint-Victoire (1888). The most recent work is Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality (1988)—a painted wooden sculpture of a pig attended by cherubs. 

'Walk through this show and the names scroll past like saints in a Renaissance fresco—a stellar cast, a roll-call of Greats. By rights, their works ought to feel like fossils, remote and dusty. Yet, what stays with you after you leave this show is a sense of high-heartedness, even intimacy: against a backdrop of world events as awful as any have ever been, the objects sing out like flowers in a bombsite’, gushes Justin Paton in the Listener.

The show features multiple works by abstract-art pioneers Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. In National Business Review, John Daly-Peoples writes, 'The three Mondrians and five Malevichs are highlights of the show. Mondrian's works seem to be the cornerstone of abstraction … What we see in these works is the careful and deliberate construction of paintings that move from a refining of nature to providing an alternative.'

This show is a coup for City Gallery—the sole New Zealand venue. Director Paula Savage brags, 'it is the most influential show ever to come to New Zealand’. Its arrival is the result of City Gallery’s developing relationship with the Stedelijk, whose Director, Rudi Fuchs, was recently named as one of the fifty most powerful people in the art world by the American magazine Art News. City Gallery and the Stedelijk collaborated on The World Over in 1996, which was the first major European presentation of Colin McCahon's painting. After that, collector Jenny Gibbs gifted the Stedelijk McCahon’s North Otago Landscape (1967), making it the first McCahon painting to be placed in a European-museum collection. It is included in The Exhibition of the Century, hanging between a Mark Rothko and a Philip Guston. When he opens the show, the Dutch Minister of Culture Dr. Aad Nuis announces that a McCahon retrospective will be mounted by the Stedelijk in two years. Director Savage says this ‘illustrates further the Gallery's commitment to placing New Zealand firmly on the international cultural map.'

City Gallery undertook a $2.3m reroofing and waterproofing project over the summer to ensure that the Stedelijk collection, valued in the millions, could be shown. And the collection is only touring because the Stedelijk itself is undergoing renovations. (Under a different title, the show has also been shown in Japan and Korea, and will return to Amsterdam after Wellington.) But Fuchs wanted to do a different show for City Gallery, thinking a masterpieces show was boring. Fuchs says: ‘Actually I initially suggested that we do something else, a different kind of show, something more critical, which could also have involved Malevich and Mondrian but in a different kind of presentation, and maybe have left out the Van Gogh and the Cezanne'. Savage convinced him otherwise. She says, 'The more I thought about it the more I realised that there would never be another opportunity to get the exhibition here.'

The Saatchi and Saatchi TV ad for the show, directed by Paul Arden, emphasises the idea of a journey through the century. It frames a succession of gallery patrons in period costume— from WW1 soldiers to hippies—who stare into the camera as though examining a work of art. The Gallery and the agency receive many calls about the ads.

The Exhibition of the Century arrives hot on the heels of the Virgin in a Condom media controversy at the recently opened Te Papa. Tania Kovats's sculpture, included in the touring show Pittura Britannica, provokes outcry and demonstrations. Contact magazine writes, 'For $12 you could see the Virgin in a Condom exhibit at Te Papa—or you could spend it at the City Gallery to see sixty-five works by modern masters, from Picasso to Van Gogh. Tough choice? Not really.’ The unspoken competition between City Gallery and Te Papa is also noted by John Daly-Peoples in National Business Review and by Fuchs in an Art New Zealand interview. He says, 'I understand now that there is some kind of competition. If it were a business they would say it was very healthy, and in a way it is healthy.’

Not everyone is happy. In Art New Zealand, Miriam Harris criticises show, particularly for its lack of women artists. 'There was only one woman artist, hiding behind the androgynous name of Charley Toorop … The Exhibition of the Century displays a virtually all-male cast handing along the baton of artistic innovation from one generation to the next. It is as if feminism and its ground-breaking influence upon Western society's fabric and movements such as postmodernism never occurred.'

However, the gender imbalance does little to dent public interest. The Gallery sets up an 0800 hotline for people wanting more information on the show. For the first time, it offers a interactive audio guide in the form of a portable CD player. The texts, written by Jenny Bornholdt, are read by actress Miranda Harcourt. The public programme includes a lecture series ‘Shaping the Century’ and a concert series ‘Music and Modernism’ presented in conjunction with Victoria University's School of Music.

The show is extended for two weeks due to demand. With over 84,500 visits, it breaks the Gallery's former record of 48,000 for 1995’s Robert Mapplethorpe Retrospective. Savage says, 'Previous art exhibitions in New Zealand with large attendances relied on historical art to attract visitors—we have done it with art from this century. We have proved there is a growing audience for contemporary art in New Zealand.'

Justin Paton concludes his Listener review: 'The century is almost over, visit this show to see how it looked.'