Facing off, Norman Bilbrough

This Thing in the Mirror: Self Portraits by New Zealand Artists
Claire Finlayson
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.95,
ISBN 1877333182

This Thing in the Mirror has a foreword by television presenter John Campbell, and the opening statement, “This is a book of beautiful honesty.” He makes a few good points in a rather obvious and exuberant vein and tries, unnecessarily, to get the reader to be as enthusiastic as he is. Claire Finlayson, he says, “writes wonderfully well”; her writing is also “gettable”. But the book doesn’t need Campbell’s exhortations. Finlayson is an excellent writer who presents her material with humour and scholarship; she’s interesting and accessible, and she doesn’t need any PR to precede her.

Unlike Campbell’s inflated first line, hers captures one’s interest immediately:

Imagine how dreary it would be if we could conclusively measure the stretch of the human spirit, the shape of each other’s thoughts and the pace of another’s galloping emotions. Theatre would die, novels would lose their juice and portraiture would be bled of its tight-lipped mysteries.

 

Before I read this book, self-portraiture in New Zealand seemed to me non-existent as an oeuvre. It was like an absent or unknown cousin to the ubiquitous renditions of our landscape – a landscape that was either interpreted realistically or abstractly. And I have always believed that New Zealand painters – with the exception of McCahon – are generally poor abstract painters, seeming to disguise a paucity of subject matter, craft and vision under this interpretation. It’s as if our artists are fearful of committing themselves to a subject as demanding as a face. It’s very easy to get sick of poor – and depopulated – abstractions.

But Claire Finlayson has a slightly different and more charitable view:

in New Zealand, heroic empty landscapes have formed the backbone of our art history. This, in part, seems to concur with the process of national maturity – before the process of who we are can be examined, the easier question of where we are needs to be explored.

 

Reading this book, and appreciating the paintings in it, one realises (with an amount of relief and gratitude) that the examination of who we are is proceeding apace – and in a healthy and reassuring manner.

Finlayson’s introduction and the commentary that follows are so full of rich and pertinent discussion about self portraiture, and about the artists and their individual work, that I was continually referring and deferring to it when I came to review the book. Anecdotes, stories, fragments, and vital parts of the artists’ lives abound: Jeffrey Harris learning to paint by studying books of paintings by Chagall, Munch and Van Gogh in the Christchurch Public Library; Frances Hodgkins’ agent being really disappointed to find she was a woman – “short and thickset … around sixty years of age” – a reaction that forced poor Frances to wear a red wig to conceal her white hair; and Robin White’s father presenting her with a hammer, a plane and a nail punch when she left home, a practicality that is somehow reflected in the detailed and no-nonsense style of White’s three portraits.

Then there are the tales associated with Rudi Gopas who taught at Ilam from 1959 onwards and who spoke (vehemently) in a thick mid-European accent. He made a particular impression on Richard McWhannell who regarded Gopas as a mentor until coming under Woollaston’s influence. Gopas became very petulant – and dismissive of his favourite student – advising him to go home and paint a homage to the Nelson painter, which McWhannell did. He also had advice for Dick Frizzell: “Frizzell, I zink I know how you can improve zis painting …. Lie it flat on zee ground, sprinkle it with turpentine and rub it vigorously with zee rag ….” As for Gopas’ own self-portrait (1965), it seems to owe too much to Rouault: a work that is more a painterly statement rather than a revealing depiction. Unlike the majority of painters in the book, Gopas seems to want to express as little as possible about himself.

Then there are the artists’ comments, invariably entertaining, often quirky. Alan Pearson, born in Liverpool and now living in the Australian bush, was always concerned with cultural dislocation, and whether he belonged in New Zealand or not, “but I could never truly belong to the English: their Gothic spirit and their reservations are inclined even to kill the whistle in the newly-acquired kettle.” And Michael Shepherd reports: “Most of my life I’ve walked backwards into the future. I’ve never been where I should’ve been! I’ve always been a deeply retrospective man – I don’t know quite why.”

I encountered artists I did not know, such as Nicola Jackson, J S Parker, Simon Richardson and Hariata Ropata Tangahoe, and those whose work I was unfamiliar with. Then there were the artists whose work I had been out of sympathy with, such as Jeffrey Harris. But Harris is represented by three portraits that show a considerable range of technical brilliance – from the schematic yet intense 1970 portrait, to the excellent pencil drawing of himself and his family (1975-1977), to the almost mellow yet brooding middle-aged face painted in 2002.

It’s impossible to offer encyclopedic comment on all 33 artists represented, but I was moved, or arrested, in some way by the majority of the works. Mary McIntyre’s portraits have a startling impact; her Secret Life with Two-headed Dog (2000) is an eccentric and accessible portrait accompanied by powerful symbols from her private life. Like Nigel Brown, she includes topical and biographical detail in her portraits: no doubt a difficult task but, in these paintings, they are powerfully evoked. Jacqueline Fahey is also a painter who uses comment on the world (as well as her possessions) as significant contributions to an overall portrait of herself.

Tony Fomison shows a self full of emotion: his portraits are naked with a kind of expressive uncertainty; whereas Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus present images that are guarded and design-conscious. Their portraits are strong, yet restrained. W E Sutton is deferential to the Canterbury landscape: a plain of tall, wind-blown grasses reveals the man. And Grahame Sydney displays a young, pale and slightly belligerent self in a room he inhabited (probably) with decaying birds – subjects for his other works.

Many paintings I enjoyed simply because of what they evoked of persons, the person that was the artist: a meticulous Robin White; a naked Alan Pearson rampaging as a ratcatcher; watchful Simon Richardson reflected in a microwave; a respectful Dick Frizzell, paying homage to the Phantom. And a painting I greatly liked: Olivia Spencer Bower’s view of herself, painted in 1950. She was a woman who could get away with wearing mannish clothes and smoking cheroots in conservative Christchurch: a woman of “intrepid and independent spirit”. What a delicious, cool and charming portrait it is.

This is a superb book, full of visual surprises and pleasures, and erudite, perceptive and entertaining comment. And it catalogues a kind of new maturity in the way we dare to see ourselves. It’s a book that deserves to win an award.

 

Norman Bilbrough’s novel A Short History of Paradise will be published later this year by Penguin. 

 

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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