Figuring out art history, Damian Skinner

FigureWork: The Nude and Life Modelling in New Zealand Art
Sandra Chesterman
University of Otago Press, $59.95,
ISBN 1877276375

The Image Always Has the Last Word: On Contemporary New Zealand Painting and Photography
Laurence Simmons
Dunmore Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864694121

The issues raised by Sandra Chesterman’s FigureWork: The Nude and Life Modelling in New Zealand Art are reflected nicely by a current McDonald’s television advertisement. The son, Jason, desperate to raise funds for the $1.95 specials, offers a group of beret-wearing artists the chance to sketch his father in the shower. The father’s bellow of surprise when he discovers he is an unwitting life model doesn’t raise any ethical problems for these students of the human figure, who just keep on drawing. The ethics of the relationship between artist and model are at the heart of FigureWork, and this offers Chesterman a way to think through the problems of the nude without rehearsing well-known (and possibly stale) ideas about how shifty images can be. But as she reveals, the interaction between artist and model – which is economic, social, artistic and cultural – does open directly onto the question of what’s at stake when you represent something as loaded as the human body.

Chesterman’s book is wide ranging, moving from the ancient Greeks to the end of the 19th century in the first chapter, and then exploring more slowly the story of the nude’s place in 20th century art – including its demise in the late 1970s, and revival in contemporary figurative painting. FigureWork’s central theme of the life model gathers pace from the 1920s and 1930s, a period offering Chesterman a generation of models who are still alive and artists who grappled with a modernist art that found the nude a useful social and aesthetic device. The key artist is Evelyn Page, and Chesterman details the controversy of these paintings – including the demands of the model in Summer Morn that the painting be removed from display in the Robert McDougall Gallery.

But the chapter titled “The Naked and the Nude” is the heart of the book. Chesterman tracks the impact of modernism and then postmodernism on life drawing and the nude, which withered away alongside academic art. She also discusses the feminist critique of representation that provided a parallel reason for reforming the nude’s traditional role in art practice. The chapter ends with Christine Webster’s Black Carnival, and the conundrum of the model’s vulnerability to the often harrowing issue of public identification in a small country. There is a fascinating discussion of Peter Entwistle’s experience of being the subject of Possession and Mirth, while also working professionally at the gallery where it was being exhibited; and the embarrassment of colleagues having “to share their viewing of the body with the living subject standing nearby, thereby breaking the codes by which such viewing traditionally takes place.”

There is much to like about FigureWork, from little details – Chesterman uses works by international artists in collections of museums in Aotearoa, rather than more famous art works located overseas – to major aspects: the engagement with social history which the story of the life model brings into focus; and the presentation of paintings and drawings not often found in more general art histories – mostly, as Chesterman notes, because landscape was the more important, and more public, tradition in art in Aotearoa. But in some ways I found that Chesterman’s focus on the social history of the nude and the life model overwhelmed the art history that is equally important for understanding these art works.

Flicking through the illustrations of the chapter titled “Loosening the Drapes”, there is a rapid emergence of modernist styles (Louise Henderson and Toss Woollaston), which is never really explained. Chesterman says that “By itself nudity could be a problem, but coupled with modernism it was a great deal too much for some, as Edith Collier had found out years before.” Sure, but I want to know whether the nude is a particular location or subject for modernist practice in Aotearoa, as it was internationally? Does the nature of the modernism produce change with the presence of the body? Or does the nude get treated in the same way as a landscape? Here the social history of the life model overwhelms the art history that would explore modernism, and the particular forms of it produced by the artists represented in the book. We don’t find out enough about these artists as artists – grappling with the practice of painting as well as the society to which they belong.

2

If Chesterman’s book is art history leavened by social history, then Laurence Simmons’ The Image Always Has the Last Word is theory leavened by art. The title, as Simmons tells us in the introduction, comes from Roland Barthes, who has pursued “the opposition – or better the complex relationship – between words and images”. Simmons tells us, too, that his book “is not an ‘art history’ in the traditional sense”, but rather “an attempt to explore important issues of feminism, subjectivity, sociality, representation, and what has recently come to be called ‘visual culture’.” In Simmons’ essays, doing art history is a balancing act between understanding the image/text relationship as a problem of specific art works – the paintings of Rita Angus or Colin McCahon, say – but also something that is happening in his own writing, and which must be self-consciously tackled.

Simmons himself identifies three qualities that distinguish his book from art history as it is more commonly practised in Aotearoa. The first is a questioning of “the subject in, and of painting”. This means an unwillingness to accept an original subjectivity or consciousness at work on either the side of the artist or the viewer, but instead a desire to understand subjectivity as an active, shifting process that is intimately tied up with representation, and questions specific to painting and photography. The second is Simmons’ concern with “the edge, the frame, the limit” and oppositions such as centre and margin. This concern is also found in Simmons’ decision to use historical works from the Renaissance, say, as a way of understanding 20th century abstract art. Lastly, Simmons identifies his interest in theory as the key aspect of his book: “In one way or another, all the separate studies in this volume draw upon ideas associated with the work of Jacques Derrida, now commonly and collectively known as ‘deconstruction’.” But Simmons doesn’t simply apply theory to art, bashing the visual with the literary. He looks closely at art works, and seeks out the ways that theory and art change each other.

To my mind, the essays in The Image Always Has the Last Word are most powerful when discussing canonical works and artists – partly because the essays have themselves become recognised as part of a critical canon. I’m thinking of a chapter like “Tracing the Self”, about Rita Angus’s self-portraits, which is a timely rejoinder to the reading of these art works as transparently autobiographical in the catalogue of the 1982 retrospective exhibition. Or “after Titian”, about Colin McCahon’s Entombment (after Titian), in which the work’s visual character is convincingly shown by Simmons to effectively unpick and complicate the relationship suggested in the work’s title. These paintings do appear different after Simmons has finished with them, showing indeed that “they are far more problematic or challenging as works than they once seemed – far less secure and stable repositories of the values and ideas of cultural tradition than some defenders of the canon still seem to think they are.”

The only false note I could detect was the subtitle, which indicated the essays were On Contemporary New Zealand Painting and Photography. The interpretation of these works and artists is very contemporary, but the art itself mostly isn’t. Angus, McCahon, Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, and Les Cleveland are all modernists of different kinds. Only Richard Killeen and Megan Jenkinson are part of contemporary art. This means that just two of the seven artists featured in the book can be  labelled as contemporary. It is an odd and unexplained gesture.

It is also a small criticism of no real importance. Simmons’ book is sharp and, in a sense, inspiring in that it encourages a pursuit of art history that isn’t simplistic and overly casual about the struggles involved in writing about art. There is a relentless intelligence on display here, which is doubly impressive when combined with Simmons’ attention to art works, and his refusal to turn them into fodder for a theoretical position. The Image Always Has the Last Word illustrates why literary criticism has had such a powerful effect on art history, and it makes me glad that Simmons has taken the time to think, and look – although I am sure he would say that the two can’t be separated – at selected moments of 20th  century art in Aotearoa.

While FigureWork and The Image Always Has the Last Word can’t really be compared in terms of approach and audience, they indicate a healthy diversity and sense of a serious commitment to art history publishing in this country – a far cry from the glorified “calendars” with hard covers that constituted the majority of art publications only a few years ago. It would seem that this is a good time for art history, and that means it is a good time for art works, whether they are part of the canon, or only just finding their way out of the storeroom.

 

Damian Skinner’s book Don Binney: Nga Manu/Nga Motu – Birds/Islands is reviewed on p1.

 

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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