An admirable thematic approach, Mark Stocker

A Concise History of New Zealand Painting 
Michael Dunn,
David Bateman, Auckland, 1991, $89.95

A history of New Zealand painting written by a scholar is well overdue. Michael Dunn, longtime Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Auckland, is well suited to the challenge. The introduction states that his aim is to provide a short, accessible account of the main developments. This he does admirably. Dunn avoids an outmoded chronological account and instead adopts a thematic approach. Obviously there is an element of overlapping while some styles make strange bedfellows, notably Lois White’s Deco classicism and W A Sutton’s Regionalism. However, imposing order on individualism is a thankless task and Dunn’s categories, such as the colonial landscape, images of the Maori, Regionalism and Neo‑Expressionism, are a satisfactory construct. Production quality is excellent with fine illustrations and few typographical errors apart from the occasional ‘asymmetrical’ slip. Inclusion in the bibliography of Anne Kirker’s New Zealand Women Artists would enhance the scholarly value and will, I hope, appear in a revised edition. However, most readers will enjoy the book as it is, be they dealers, dabblers, collectors, Bursary History of Art students (a cast of thousands), or, indeed, Australians.

In the opening chapter on landscape, Dunn stresses the modest status of works by Buchanan, Fox and Heaphy, which were more didactic than artistic. ‘The diagrammatic clarity, at times even crudity of such works need not be interpreted in any way as a response to the so-called characteristic light of the places’. Dunn is not the first to extinguish the ‘sharp clear light’ mythology surrounding New Zealand painting, but he does so clearly and sharply. The development of an art market in the 1870s is subsequently discussed and I share Dunn’s view of Eugene Von Guerard, who ‘shows an understanding of the sublime that distances his conception from the picturesque qualities’ of Gully or Hoyte. I was not the only visitor to the Auckland City Art Gallery exhibition Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art to be stunned by the pairing of Von Guerard’s Milford Sound and Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw.

The chapter on images of the Maori reflects the significant place this theme now occupies in New Zealand art history. Dunn’s account hovers between even-handedness – the liberal ascendant – and political correctness, the liberal in retreat. He acknowledges how Gottfried Lindauer’s portraits in the context of the Te Maori exhibition ‘took on a deeper meaning’, a mana, which ‘stirred some life from their severe, formal demeanour’. I am less comfortable with Dunn’s belated admonishment of Frances Hodgkin’s portraits of Maori (‘not above using big mournful eyes’). He later states that from a current perspective Russell Clark’s images of the Tuhoe ‘can seem somewhat patronising in tone’. Well, are they or aren’t they? Is there any use in awarding gold or – er – black stars to dead artists facing today’s tough tests of non-racism or non-sexism? Dunn was nearer the mark in 1979 when he admired the ‘poignancy’ of Clark’s juxtaposition of dead trees and Maori figures. This alluded to the latter’s ‘closeness to the land’ but also to ‘the changing pattern of their life-style, increasingly subject to European ways’.

Dunn’s tone is consistently careful, yet his opinions of artists are often perceptive. His summary of Petrus van der Velden’s achievements is apt: ‘landscape as a visual metaphor of human hope and feeling … imbued with his own melancholic outlook’. By contrast H Linley Richardson shows ‘skill as a portraitist which can lend credibility to images that otherwise have a somewhat vulgar sense of tone and colour’. The discussion of Colin McCahon is welcome in view of the ecstatic gush and semiotic jargon that bedevil him. Indeed, I would commission from Dunn the authorised biography, the more so as others will surely claim they knew McCahon better!

A concise history has many pitfalls. Just when a theme becomes interesting, it is time to move on. Overseas readers would want to know the reasons for ‘signs of anger’ in the work of the radical Maori artist, Emare Karaka. Explanations for the strength of feminism, much more evident in New Zealand painting than in British, would also be of interest. Artists who lend themselves to words, such as Tony Fomison and Alistair Nisbet-Smith, are generously covered in the Neo-Expressionist chapter (the surprising and unfortunate exception is Alan Pearson). Conversely, Don Peebles, who is rigorously concerned with purely pictorial problems rather than outpourings of angst, is accorded a paragraph but no illustrations. I regret the omission of Peter McIntyre, the most popular topographical artist alive today as well as New Zealand’s greatest war artist. For too long he has been the victim of modernist silence and élitism. Earlier I would have enjoyed longer analysis of conservative but technically excellent semi-impressionists such as Margaret Stoddart, Cecil Kelly and Archibald Nicoll. Irritatingly, in the final chapters on Neo-Expressionism and Post-Modernism, an Auckland bias is manifest (and don’t get the reviewer wrong, he devours his Metro). Yet it is churlish to brood over omissions or questionable emphasis, especially as the introduction recognises that ‘obviously much has been left out’. My hope is that Dunn’s qualities will not make his book definitive for too long but will instead inspire similarly accessible though more detailed studies of New Zealand painting in its manifold aspects.

 

New Zealand seen by the French 1769-1846
National Library of New Zealand, Wellington, 1991, $29.70

Muroroa, New Caledonia, the Rainbow Warrior – recent French involvement in the South Pacific has not been a happy one. I could not banish these thoughts when I played ‘the intellectual game’ which this catalogue invites of asking: what if de Surville had landed before Cook and what if a thriving settlement at Akaroa had preceded the Treaty of Waitangi and the proclamation of British sovereignty? In the event the French shifted their focus to eastern Polynesia by the mid-19th century, but this followed a ‘not unfruitful’ involvement with New Zealand which makes the current climate seem so regrettable.

What were the fruits? Charts, scrutiny of flora and fauna, images of the Maori, landscapes: ‘all remain as testimony to an intense and for the most part a sympathetic scrutiny’, writes Roger Collins in his catalogue to the exhibition New Zealand seen by the French 1769-1846, held at the National Library recently. A display of French atlases of the Pacific accompanied it; together they further knowledge of a still underrated aspect of national heritage.

Collins observes that the French ‘give continuity and bulk to the early 19th-century visual record, briefly replacing the English as these islands’ chief iconographers’. Now that old master quality is seen by art historians as less important than iconography and visual communication, the interest of the exhibits is all the greater. Attempts to make the Maori intelligible to a European audience led to portrayal in terms of Neo-classical ideal beauty, with the hostage Ranginui (1771) adopting a statuesque pose. De Sainson’s Rangui (1827), engraved by Maurin, is regarded by Collins as one of the most impressive portraits of Maori, its restless energy, introspection and intelligence all hallmarks of Romanticism. Thus he is not being ‘too provocative’ in comparing it with David’s unfinished head-and-shoulders portrait of Napoleon. We see Realism at its most literal in Dumoutier’s plaster busts of Maori modelled from the life (1841), loaned by the Musée de l’Homme, Paris. These represent ‘the most strictly dispassionate and accurately scientific visual records created before the advent of photography’. Other exhibits include landscapes rendered increasingly exotically for European consumption and superb engravings of a saddleback and a red gurnard, reminders of the era of Redoute and Audubon. The survey concludes with Meryon, one of the greatest 19th-century European artists to have visited New Zealand. His Naval Ministry (1866) with its surreal flying canoes and whales located in a Parisian townscape has been linked to his insanity. However, its relevance to ‘New Zealand seen by the French ‘is also clear, reflecting Meryon’s yearning for an ideal past, with nature undefiled by culture.

Perhaps an academic meticulousness has excluded the liveliness that any bigger exhibition geared towards the public might require. I would have enjoyed a longer introductory essay which pinpoints exactly the distinctive contribution of the French and how this complements the English vision. But this is icing on the gâteau and I hope for more exhibitions and catalogues of this calibre.

 

Mark Stocker is a lecturer in Art History at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury.

 

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