Where’s Colin? Roger Blackley

Landscape Paintings of New Zealand: A Journey from North to South
Christopher Johnstone
Godwit, $69.99,
ISBN 186921247

Christopher Johnstone begins his survey of New Zealand landscape paintings in the 1860s, the period when an exhibiting culture emerged to support amateurs, patrons and the earliest professional artists. He takes us through to the present. Each of the 103 featured paintings is generously accorded a full-page colour reproduction, with relevant commentary on the facing page. While there are some relatively well-known pictures from public collections, one of the real strengths of this book is its widespread deployment – courtesy of dealer galleries – of “fresh” works in private ownership. Intriguingly, the paintings are sequenced not according to stylistic or other historical criteria, but rather by the geographical location that each depicts. As the title informs us, we are on “a journey from north to south”.

An opening map of New Zealand indicates the fair-handedness of Johnstone’s coverage of both main islands, although, by joining up the numbers on the map, the “journey” is revealed as quite a zigzagging operation. The plates themselves introduce another type of zigzagging – through time rather than space – as a direct consequence of this ordering strategy. As in a museum database, where alphabetical listing can yield strange collisions of uneasily coexisting images, here the turning of pages swings us backwards and forwards across a terrain of some 140 years. While the process encourages us to compare works of differing styles and periods, the artist-oriented commentaries seem not to address these juxtapositions.

Ahead of the sequence of plates comes a seven-page introduction. Here Johnstone refers to fascinating connections between artists, views, locations and chronology, but explains that these “are mostly left to the readers themselves to spot, and to contrast and compare if they wish.” He identifies his “overarching themes” as the quality and beauty of the paintings; the calibre and reputations of the artists; the “beauty spots” and regions depicted; and an emphasis on pure landscape, and its corollary, the avoidance of landscapes that feature people, and the man-made and historical events.

While landscape traditionally occupied a lesser rung than “history” painting within the academic hierarchy of genres, 19th century and later artists increasingly blurred these distinctions. The “purity” of these New Zealand landscapes seems highly questionable, for the majority decidedly emphasise the man-made in the form of roads, fences, telegraph poles, sheds, houses and churches, not to mention manufactured pastures dotted with grazing animals. In other words, they are historical images of a country under construction by its European conquerors. Exceptions such as Colin McCahon’s magnificently empty Otago Peninsula – so different from George O’Brien’s earlier vision of an inhabited place – relate to a Pakeha mythology of a “timeless” land awaiting the intrusion of modernity, rather than to the actual appearance of the peninsula.

Together with overt cityscapes, there is a notable absence of works suggestive of former or continuing Maori presence in the land. Apart from several canoes and the odd spectator figure, the major Maori contribution to these landscapes relates to their naming. In the face of compelling visual evidence such as Justin Boroughs’ image of the massive earthworks of Maungakiekie – a great fortified pa created in the era of the Taj Mahal and Palace of Versailles – Johnstone prefers to interpret the site as a Pakeha monument to its “donor”, Sir John Logan Campbell, whose memorial obelisk crowns (the now treeless) One Tree Hill.

In the introduction, Johnstone argues that all landscape paintings are essentially autobiographical, relating as much to the artist as to the place depicted. The same could be said of an historian selecting images and texts, whose decisions of inclusion and exclusion necessarily determine the resulting history. One telling element in any anthology is the relative weighting of individual artists. McCahon, generally considered the most significant New Zealand painter of the 20th century, is represented by a single work. Rita Angus has two, as does Peter McIntyre; Charles Blomfield and Peter Siddell have three each, while the obscure Edwardian painter Charles Howorth enjoys a total of four works, including the final plate in the book. Since Howorth currently has no real art-historical profile, the generosity of the selection suggests a revisionist agenda.

Howorth is certainly an interesting case to consider, given the gulf between his contemporary renown and the judgment of posterity. From considerable popularity in his own day, Howorth’s works now appear in low-rent art auctions and conservative dealer galleries, all but dismissed by serious collectors. Here, however, Howorth is positioned as a forebear of the substantially represented Kelliher Prize-winning stream of New Zealand artists. Their images of a rural or wild New Zealand were – like Howorth’s – crafted for an urban market, especially the wealthier echelons that enthusiastically supported landscape-related leisure pursuits such as high-country tramping and sailing.

Johnstone rightly stresses the social cachet surrounding the Kelliher phenomenon, and it is certainly interesting to trace the stylistic links embracing artists as varied as Ian Scott and David Barker, but the preponderance of such works makes for a decidedly conservative result. It effectively overlooks a range of modernist challenges to the mimetic representation of natural effects – including McCahon’s fusion of landscape and abstraction – as well as postmodern contributions such as Tony De Lautour’s alterations of appropriated paintings from the era of Howorth. One of McCahon’s abstracts could still have functioned as a “view” of Muriwai, and similarly one of De Lautour’s “tagged” versions of the southern lakes.

Johnstone’s texts are the fruit of considerable research, often presenting the voice of an artist or critic sourced from newspapers or other periodicals. The power of contemporary writers to open critical vistas on earlier periods is evident in the anonymous critique by “Lay Figure” of Howorth’s Scene on the Buller River, on exhibition in 1911 at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts:

It is a beautiful picture in its own style, a style which will find favour with nine-tenths of the visitors to the exhibition. Let the remaining one-tenth sniff superciliously – I can quite imagine Mr Howorth being content with the approval of the big battalions.

 

This suggests that, as a self-conscious populist, Howorth may be of a sort with his Kelliher-prize descendants.

Unfortunately, the precise sources of this and many other marvellous quotations are missing. Footnotes would have provided the cleanest and best means of ensuring such documentation, but another strategy might have employed the bibliography. Johnstone’s bibliography is restricted almost entirely to books, which means that there is no entry for Howorth. Why not give this artist his bibliographical due, by naming the precise source of Lay Figure’s dismissive praise? And why not include within an expanded bibliography the periodical literature that furnished many other quotations? The book’s educational potential would be considerably enhanced were students given the possibility of accessing original sources for themselves.

I suggested earlier that the extensive representation of privately owned works is one of the book’s particular strengths, the result of an independent scholar working closely with art dealers. But there was also a Trojan horse. Girolamo Nerli, famed in New Zealand as the teacher of Frances Hodgkins, is among Australasia’s most prolifically faked artists. One such dud even landed as a jacket illustration on the recent monograph by Michael Dunn, while another seems to have been reproduced here as a painting by Nerli of the famous Lion Rock at Piha. Unfortunately, this stolid picture reveals none of the adventurous paint handling that made Nerli’s work such an inspiration for younger Australian and New Zealand artists.

As a collection of New Zealand places, the book undoubtedly exerts considerable appeal, for it is a painted equivalent of the perennially successful books of landscape photographs. As a history of landscape painting in New Zealand, it is less satisfactory, largely because the geographical sequencing undermines any understanding of stylistic relationships. Perhaps this doesn’t matter too much; perhaps I should just relax into the undeniable quality and beauty of some exceptional works. These include magnificent exhibition watercolours by Alfred Sharpe and William Mathew Hodgkins, a late outdoor sketch by John Gully that is simply sensational, and a superb twilight view by John Gibb – the very first painting to be acquired for the collection of the Canterbury Society of Arts. The low-key impressionism of James Nairn and Edward Fristrőm is represented by a particularly charming example each, as is the Canterbury plein-air modernism of the Lovell-Smiths. The work of Doris Lusk, Margot Philips and Richard McWhannell has great appeal. But why, oh why, does the book finish with that decidedly mediocre Howorth? (Answer: because it depicts Southland.)

 

Roger Blackley is the author of Two Centuries of New Zealand Landscape Art.

 

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