CONVERSATIONAL: Pieter Hugos The Honourable Justice Unity Dow lambda print photograph (I-Sang 2006/31), and right, Sir Joshua Reynolds Alexander Montgomerie, 10th Earl of Eglinton oil on canvas, Sir Abe Bailey Collection (I-Sang 1659).

DIALOGUES: CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN ‘OLD’ AND ‘NEW’. Historical, Modern and Contemporary works of art from the Iziko Art Collections. Curated by Haden Proud. At Iziko National Gallery until April 12. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews

ONE OF the ongoing problems facing curators of galleries with large collections and not a whole lot of wall space is how to get the old masters to talk to the new and vice versa. But there’s a solution, one also found in cooking – pairing. Pairing can extend, complement, intensify, enhance and contrast dishes, taking them to new, more satisfying taste levels.

In the case of the visual palette, it can inject new energy into the old, making an exciting mix for the viewer. It does not have to be as complex as that of the foams and jellies of molecular gastronomy – it can be as effective a coupling the “right” wine with a dish.

In this sense the curator of Dialogues is a chef of seemingly unlikely ingredients that share “a commonality in terms of either formal concerns or in theme and content”. The solution may be simple, but it takes a curator with a particular clarity and a strong sense of history to pull it together. Some of the connections are straightforward, others subtler.

On route to the main room that houses the major part of the exhibition, you pass the recently acquired sculpture by Mary Sibande, this year’s Standard Bank winner. It sets the tone for the exhibition. Sibande’s The Reign, a massive form of a dark horse with its heroic rider, dwarfs the smaller, sleek 19th century oils by George Stubbs, Charles Towne and Lynwood Palmer of race horses commissioned by their owners.

Two of those are of horses named Son-in-law and Rosaletta which belonged to Sir Abe Bailey from whose collection much of the work in this exhibition is drawn. While Sibande’s work may be coveted by galleries and collectors alike, many of the “sporting” paintings would have been looked down on by the elite. The fantasies of Sibande’s domestic worker grandmother who inspired her sculptures would have been ridiculed had she dared to share them with her “madam”.

The blue colour of the dress worn by the sitter for Scottish painter George Henry’s newly conserved The Blue Gown is the most obvious connection with the blue of Andrew Verster’s 1979 abstract panels, Untitled. But curator Proud points out that the connection is deeper than the use of pigment. Henry’s title, The Blue Gown, which does not refer to the sitter, is deliberate and suggests his connection and interest in the emerging Fauve painters of the time and their liberation of colour. Colour that reaches saturation in Verster’s Untitled.

It is not just the sumptuous red clothing and dramatic dark backgrounds that connect the portraits from the lens of Pieter Hugo and the brush of the 18th century Sir Joshua Reynolds. They are not so much studies of the individual, as studies of positions of power born from both the past and the present. Both represent types of aristocracy.

In Hugo’s outsized photographic portrait, the Botswanan judge, Unity Dow looks out impassively and is shown- looking rather androgynous in full judicial regalia complete with horse-hair wig, lace kerchief, robes and white gloves. Dow represents power achieved through an earned position. Whereas the painting by Reynolds of the Earl of Eglington, who was murdered on his estate, may be wigless and apple cheeked, but his title assures his noble standing.

Exhibited pieces go as far back as an unknown medieval icon of The Adoration of the Magi, which has been twinned with Cecil Skotnes’s painted woodcut titled Icon VIII.

Paintings by 20th century artists Jean Lurcat, who painted Passage d’Hiver “Winter landscape”, and Stephanie Watson, who painted Goldmine SA, are connected via their architectural abstractness and restrained palette.

Included is a Spanish theme that draws on a number of international artists whose works cluster around a large central work of a Spanish lady by the Australia painter George Coates. These include Irma Stern’s portrait of a woman from Sea Point wearing a mantilla, two etchings by Manet of felled matadors and a chalky skyline of Spanish buildings by Gregoire Bonzaaier.

Look out for Gina Heyer’s oil on panel, Recurrence, a new acquisition that is paired with the 19th century artist Johannes Bosboom’s Church Interior. Their connection is both through the use of interiors and similar tonal ranges. Recurrence is of a passageway of deep ochres and blacks, which presents as a photograph. Its surface is slick with a finish reminiscent of the unctuous surfaces of old canvases. All a perfect example of the curator as conductor of a revitalised way of seeing. Go see.

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