Lands lost and found, Martin Edmond

E Mervyn Taylor: Artist, Craftsman
Bryan James
Steele Roberts, $59.99,
ISBN 1877338559

Trevor Moffitt: A Biography
Chris Ronayne
David Ling, $49.99,
ISBN 1877378100

Joanna Margaret Paul: Drawing
Jill Trevelyan and Sarah Treadwell
Auckland University Press and Mahara Gallery, $49.99,
ISBN 1869403681

The Art of Robyn Kahukiwa
Hinemoa Hilliard, Edward Lucie-Smith, Jonathon Mane-Wheoki
Reed, $75.00,
ISBN 0790010135

Each of these four books bears witness to a lost land. Each comes from a province of that lost land; each is distinct, yet intimately connected: there are subterranean or above-ground paths between them, the people who live, or lived, in them can pass from one to another. The books also overlap in time, though without being strictly contemporary with each other. Like all lost lands, this once and future Aotearoa-New Zealand is made mostly out of yearning – the yearning for rediscovery that loss brings.

E Mervyn Taylor, a working-class boy from Auckland, apprenticed as an engraver of jewellery between the wars, became in his prime a central figure in the proto-modernist, nationalist, bourgeois and mildly bohemian culture that flourished, particularly in Wellington, in the two decades after WWII. He produced art in many media, including wood sculpture, watercolour paints, ceramic tiles, even glass, as well as exploring a variety of ways of making prints; but his best, and best-known, works are woodblock prints.

Trevor Moffitt, Gore born and Waikaia raised, was a direct inheritor of a pioneering, vernacular, mostly oral, rural and South Island way of life, whose customs and values he adhered to all his life while translating them, mythologised, into paint. He was also, for the first stanza of his adult life, a secondary school teacher who achieved remarkable things, especially at Burnside College in Christchurch, then the largest institution of its kind in the country.

Joanna Margaret Paul was a pure representative of a strand of the fragmented counter-culture that succeeded the milieu Taylor inhabited – also the context, as the oldest daughter of publisher Blackwood and artist Janet, in which she grew up. She exemplifies the mystical, the feminine, the peripatetic, and the frugal aspects of that counter-culture, as well as testifying to its eclectic and, at its best, intensely creative engagement with the world.

Robyn Kahukiwa, Australian-born, convent- (though not Catholic-) educated in Sydney and Adelaide and, like Moffitt, a sometime secondary school art teacher (at Porirua), in her polemical and rhetorical stance towards taha Maori and its ongoing and paradoxical relationship with taha Pakeha, exists in a world that some might say is not so much lost as caught between being and becoming; yet it remains lost to the precise degree that it once was but remains not yet. As the only one of these four artists still living, her example is open-ended in ways the others are not.

Bryan James’s E Mervyn Taylor: Artist, Craftsman and Chris Ronayne’s Trevor Moffitt: A Biography are both traditional romantic lives of the artist in a form which Richard Holmes has suggested was invented with Dr Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744). This is a genre of heroic narrative which tells how the artist/hero overcomes the obstacles life puts in his way in order to triumph, not in life, but in art. However, both books essay a naive version of the form and both are saved by their innocence. Even if, as they list the making of works, their exhibition and their sales or lack of sales, their good or not so good reviews, they sometimes approach the tedium of an unreflective chronicle, each also possesses the charm of oral histories, in which we hear the unexpected and wonderfully ordinary locutions of colleagues, friends, family. This is particularly true of Ronayne’s Moffitt, constructed almost entirely from spoken voice interviews.

Here, perhaps, the similarity ends. Taylor’s work, much of which was originally intended as book illustration, is copiously and beautifully illustrated in James’s book. The black and white woodcut images are particularly striking and make the book worth buying for themselves alone; while the text that winds alongside is well constructed, unobtrusive and of a modesty and integrity as unquestionable as those of the artist himself.

It was strange for me, 1950s-born, to leaf through this book on first receiving it: I knew nothing about E Mervyn Taylor while his work was as familiar as toast. Even the ceramic tile mural outside the Masterton Post Office, which I saw on occasion in the 1960s, is there. Furthermore, Taylor, almost single-handedly (he had help from Russell Clark and George Woods, among others), invented the way children of my generation saw Maori myth and legend illustrated. These – the public murals and the mythic images – seem sadly dated now, while Taylor’s more naturalistic or representational works still look contemporary, although others might disagree.

By contrast, Ronayne’s take on Trevor Moffitt suffers, as a text, from a slightly improvisatory feel, as if strung together from a variety of sources to make a journalistic deadline; and yet the story itself is so fascinating, and the figure of Moffitt himself so vivid, poignant and intriguing – an original and authentic Southern Man – that you forgive the occasional slackness of the writing. On the other hand, the paucity of decent (especially colour) reproductions of works from Moffitt’s vast oeuvre, and the lack of documentation of those that are reproduced (sizes are not given), is a serious deficit. In this case, while we get an engaging if not particularly intimate view of a rambunctious life, we simply don’t see enough of the work that life served.

This is a great shame because Moffitt was a remarkable painter and one whose images have not yet been seen as widely as they might in time be. He painted in series and, clearly, these need to be viewed in some detail to be appreciated: for his earliest, MacKenzie the Sheep-Stealer, he acknowledged a debt to Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings, but it is an intellectual not a painterly debt. There are later series, each in itself a painted novel, on miners, on rabbiting, on salmon and big-game fishing, on being a solo father, on the Stan Graham saga, on animals in paddocks, on freezing works, on the Hokonui whisky makers versus the Prohibitionists, and several on the human condition. There are also an undetermined number of nudes. Ronayne refers to Moffitt’s desire to people the landscape, but it is also the case that he was a major landscape painter in his own right, and I would have liked particularly to see more of these paintings. On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t a bad thing to be left wanting more.

Joanna Margaret Paul: Drawing doubles as an exhibition catalogue for a show mounted at the Mahara Gallery in Waikanae last year and now touring the country. The generous selection of nicely reproduced images is book-ended by two essays. The first, by Jill Trevelyan, lightly touches in some of the biographical background while focusing intently on the practice; Sarah Treadwell explores questions of space and architecture in relation to Paul’s drawings. Both essays go further into matters of interpretation than any of the other books reviewed here, and yet I was left with the sense that Joanna Margaret Paul, poet and writer as well as artist and film maker, was the best interpreter of her own work: this sense is derived from those quotes the two authors use in their well-calibrated essays.

There is a burgeoning feeling of reverence around Joanna Margaret Paul; the reverence she had for life, that she attempted, sometimes exceptionally well, to express in her drawings, seems to possess her admirers as well. That this might be contradicted by a slightness in the work is a concern for some of these admirers, but the fact is that, in many if not all of these drawings, there is an uncommon sense of the numinous impending, or about to impend, on vision. Something about the way she drew suggests a profound analogy between the curve of the eye and the curvature of space, so that you feel a palpable intelligence attempting to reconcile, in tangible form, these two arcs. It would be good now to see an exhibition of the paintings that survive among the 5000 or so works left in her studio when she died.

The Art of Robyn Kahukiwa likewise foregrounds the images the artist has made (and selected herself), while reducing the textual component of the book to three relatively brief introductory essays and a fairly sparse commentary by the artist. Hers is, by any measure, an extraordinary career, and one moreover that seems to be becoming more prolific with the years. From her beginnings as a neo-realist painter with affinities to the likes of Smither and Illingworth, Kahukiwa has shown herself able to assimilate a diverse array of local and international influences – including, say, Gauguin and McCahon, Basquiat and Binney – while making art that looks both culturally specific and yet like something only she can do.

Kahukiwa identifies the moment of her coming to herself as an artist in the belated connection she made back to her mother’s people, the Ngati Porou of the East Coast of the North Island. Curiously, the art that she made immediately after this grounding in identity resembles the frieze paintings of renegade Scots-Australian painter Ian Fairweather. Fairweather’s later painting developed in almost total isolation on Bribie Island off the Queensland Coast, but it was ultimately fuelled by a long study of the arts of Asia; Kahukiwa’s breakthrough was achieved in relation to her own tribal art, made mostly by male carvers, which she, perforce, had come to as an adult.

Another significant admission is that many of her works aspire to the condition of sculpture, a statement borne out by those she has chosen to illustrate and particularly the ones from the last 10 years or so. Yet Kahukiwa, like Paul and like Taylor, has explored many different media in her drive to expression, and it seems unlikely that she would ever settle for one medium over another. When you look at the gorgeous paintings from her 2004 New Zealand Natives series, you are glad this is so.

In the early 1950s, Mervyn Taylor was awarded an Association of New Zealand Fine Arts scholarship that he wanted to use to illustrate the major legends of Pacific peoples, beginning with George Grey’s Polynesian Mythology (1855). He spent the money in the first instance living and working for an extended period at Te Kaha in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The project never came to fruition but, while Taylor was in Te Kaha, both Cliff Whiting and Para Matchett, then adolescents, watched him work and decided to become artists themselves; Whiting later boarded for a year with the Taylors in Wellington.

It was his lifelong friend Ralph Hotere who advised Trevor Moffitt to give up his day job as a teacher and live fulltime as an artist; Moffitt and Hotere first met when Moffitt was boarding with Arnold and Rangi Wilson at Karetu while on section at Kawakawa during his years of teacher training. Robyn Kahukiwa’s introduction to a wider public came after two Pakeha directors of provincial galleries – Neil Rowe in Masterton, John Perry in Rotorua – commissioned the work that became the Wahine Toa series. These images were later (1984) published in a book with words by Patricia Grace.

Connections like these suggest that what is lost to us in an historical sense – not just those particular milieux and moments out of which an artist’s work comes but a sense of one world that includes all of these moments and milieux – can nevertheless be regained outside time, as it were. Or, put another way, no world is truly lost that remains reproducible in book form.

 

Martin Edmond’s most recent book is Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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