The stories pictures tell, Roger Blackley

New Zealand Portraits
Richard Wolfe
Penguin Books, $80.00,
ISBN 9780670071777

The Power of Portraiture: Representing Leadership in New Zealand from 1840 to the Present 
Erin Griffey (with contributions from Brad Jackson and Paul Tapsell)
Gus Fisher Gallery and David Ling, $40.00,
ISBN 9781877378287

It is a younger Richard Wolfe, the dark-haired version I recall from the past, who seems to stare out from the cover of his new book. Actually, it’s a small self-portrait by Samuel Butler, made some years after Butler’s stint in New Zealand, but the resemblance provokes reflection on the relationship between author and work. Wolfe’s opening essay quotes Oscar Wilde’s succinct utterance by the painter of Dorian Gray’s portrait:

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.

 

In a similar fashion, collections of paintings can be approached as coded self-portrayals of the collector.

Wolfe’s handsome book offers “a cavalcade of outstanding portraits of New Zealanders”, in the familiar form of full-page blurb opposite full-page icon. In keeping with Wilde’s dictum, Wolfe focuses more on the artists and their careers than on the portrait subjects, negotiating a nice balance of private and public portraiture. Indeed, a portrait need not possess an identified or even identifiable subject, as the anonymous portrayals by Grace Joel, Edward Friström, Raymond McIntyre, A H O’Keeffe and others attest. Anonymity is itself the subject of Robyn Kahukiwa’s Unidentified Maori Woman 1990, and of Heather Straka’s Donor VI 2007. Of the latter, Wolfe comments: “This is a finely crafted and highly theatrical portrait, but the question confronting the viewer is: a portrait of whom?” And if the subject is entirely fictional, is it still portraiture?

Wolfe argues that portraiture is a universal genre of art, and perhaps the oldest. The urge to depict ourselves and others, and to locate meaning in such depictions, now finds massive expression in the countless millions of digital images stored in computer data-bases. Wolfe instead celebrates the resilience of the “hand-made image” in the face of photography’s popular triumph as a portrait medium, while acknowledging the latter’s inevitable impact.

Given that photography is the elephant in the room of painted portraits, attention to painters’ responses to, and uses of, the new medium is welcome. Wolfe quotes from an 1873 commentary on the Auckland Society of Artists’ exhibition, where a writer (actually Alfred Sharpe) proclaims that Helios and the photographic lens are “the true pre-Raphaelites of the present day”. We learn that the Scottish artist John Irvine, active in Dunedin from 1863, was “one of the earliest artists in New Zealand to combine his traditional practice with the new medium of photography”, but there is much more to this story than the elimination of the traditional portrait sitting. While photography was crucial for realising posthumous painted portraits, it also allowed contemporary Maori chiefs to be unknowingly depicted by Gottfried Lindauer and others. And there are many hybrid works – effectively over-painted photograph – posing as paintings in museums, marae and private homes.

Erin Griffey’s The Power of Portraiture documents an exhibition staged to coincide with an international conference on leadership, exploring “how official portraits function to articulate and justify ideals of leadership”. This was a brave undertaking, for if portraiture can justifiably claim to be a neglected genre within New Zealand art history, the prize for the most spurned category of all must go to the official variant. Its natural habitat is the corridor of power, rather than the public art gallery, and its function is largely ceremonial. But when it moves into an art gallery, the official portrait often experiences difficulty in performing as a work of art. The stultifying official portraiture displayed in Gallery M of the National Art Gallery on its opening in 1936, a fledgling national portrait gallery, is now firmly lodged in Te Papa’s storeroom. And while royalty in over-the-top regalia could star in Te Papa’s quirky exhibition “Masquerade” (2001), such works would be unlikely to make the cut for a contemporary national portrait gallery.

The opening essay by Brad Jackson, Professor of Leadership at the University of Auckland, describes the various powers – heroic leadership, formal authority, artistic communication and critical reflection – that are supposedly invested in official portraits. At the same time, he characterises New Zealand’s culture as “negalitarian”: that is, as one that repudiates the very concept of heroic leadership. Inadvertently, perhaps, he alerts us to the likelihood that reverence need not be the only or even natural response to bombastic portrayals; instead, the negalitarian spectrum of reception would likely extend through ambivalence or amusement to disrespect and even overt hostility.

Paul Tapsell explores the roles that portraits play within the Maori world, whether preserved heads and carved ancestral imagery, or European portrait technologies adopted for Maori ends. He argues that symbolic portraiture can include an ancestral cloak or weapon that is not only named after the ancestor but, in ritual contexts, actually is the ancestor. This is a fascinating glimpse into a world parallel with that inhabited by official Pakeha portraits.

Griffey’s essay stresses the British origins of the New Zealand portrait tradition, and her selection reminds us that British artists continued to undertake important commissions such as Sir Edward Halliday’s 1955 icon of Sir Edmund Hillary, displayed at his 2008 funeral and gracing the cover of this book. But what precisely is an “official” portrait? The public portrait is official by definition, while private portraits can easily achieve official status when donated to public collections. “Commissioned” seems to serve here as a synonym for “official”, but can a self-commissioned portrait such as Raymond Ching’s Barry Turner – which has never entered a public institution – really qualify as “official”? Mr Paramena and Mrs Paramena are self-commissioned portraits of an obscure Maori couple that were acquired by Te Papa as superlative examples of the art of Gottfried Lindauer. They are certainly among the potent works of art in this collection, but are they really official portraits of renowned leaders?

Artists’ portraits of other artists, and of themselves, are usually the most vibrant category within portrait collections. Such works are excluded here, ostensibly because artistic leaders have already received a modicum of attention, but this exclusion can only emphasise that the portrayal of the powerful does not necessarily equate with powerful portraiture. This is the crucial issue at the heart of national portrait collections: the relationship between the social importance of the portrait subject, and the artistic merit of the depiction itself. Thomas Carlyle, the ideologue behind the foundation of the British National Portrait Gallery, proposed the collection of authentic depictions of historical heroes – works in which the artist had confronted a living subject. Rather than an Australian artist’s poor 20th-century copy of a portrait of Captain James Cook, Carlyle would demand the contemporary John Webber portrait currently off display and in Te Papa’s storeroom.

Unfortunately, the binding and print qualities of Griffey’s book do not reflect kindly on the local industry. Deadline pressures may account for the misspellings, including some proper names, and the descriptive commentaries that depart from what is evident in the reproduction. Sir James Fletcher is supposed to have the Kawerau mill and Mount Edgecumbe behind him, whereas the painting (which may not be by the stated artist, Sir William Dargie) shows none of this. And in a commentary on a really bad 1965 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that usually inhabits the Auckland council chamber, Griffey proposes that the skies looming behind her “may be interpreted as New Zealand, Aotearoa, thus positioning Her Majesty as protecting and ruling as sovereign”. Strangely, what we can see is Windsor Castle glowing under golden sunlight.

 

Roger Blackley is the author of A Nation’s Portraits (2005).

 

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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