Glamorous facelift, Stella Ramage

Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting
Gil Docking (with additions covering 1970-1990 by Michael Dunn and 1990-2010 by Edward Hanfling)
David Bateman, $100.00,
ISBN 9781869538040

Publishers presumably ask themselves some questions before undertaking a new book. What is it about? Who is it aimed at? Why is it needed? If such questions were asked in this case, it is hard to discern clear answers.

Back in 1991, when Bateman published a 20th-anniversary revised edition of Gil Docking’s Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting, it was content to update that classic four-chapter reference work from 1971 by adding a fifth by Michael Dunn to address the subsequent two decades. This edition retained the original title, despite the extra 20 years, probably because the original had achieved, after multiple reprints, a level of brand recognition. However, in now adding a third tier to the structure, with a sixth chapter by Edward Hanfling to take us to 2010, and significantly now retitled Two Hundred and Forty Years etc, Bateman seems to be aiming for something rather different: a new kind of open-ended history. Do the publishers envisage an ever-fatter tome emerging every 20 years with a new chapter appended by a contemporary expert, while each previous addition shunts inexorably one link down the chain of Aotearoa’s art history? Each would become, as Hanfling writes with reference to Docking, “of interest now as a historical document”. Each would demonstrate the author’s “values and beliefs” at the “specific moment at which [it] was written”. In his introduction to the new edition, Hanfling considers this “an exciting and novel way of writing a history”, and gamely looks forward to “someone else adding their piece in twenty years’ time”. Hmm.

Certainly this approach reminds us of the historically embedded nature of all texts, including those of our own moment. But a problem arises when temporally disparate texts are yoked together, as here, into a single book. With its crisp new design, modern font and unified format, the new edition may give innocent readers a misleading impression of overall continuity. In reality, the methodology of asking a new author every 20 years to add their tuppence-worth has led to such crashing internal discontinuities and omissions that the book’s usefulness as a reference is severely limited. Moreover its updated style combined with inadequate framing commentary has the unintended effect of appearing to endorse uncritically the older texts, whose historical character is masked by the glamorous facelift. This is an alarming prospect for those new to the topic, given the embarrassingly scant attention given by Messrs Docking and Dunn to Maori and Pacific artists, and the absence of editorial reference to more recent scholarship that might have balanced this.

For instance, Docking’s chapter four (“New Impulses”), which covers the 1930-1970 period, mentions only Hotere as an indigenous modernist painter; there is no Buck Nin, no Katerina Mataira, no Para Matchitt, no mention of the seminal influence of Gordon Tovey and his indigenous art-teacher scheme which engendered the vibrant Maori modernism of the 1950s and ’60s, and which has been so well described by Damien Skinner. Likewise, although Dunn’s 1991 chapter briskly acknowledges “a resurgence of Maori culture” and a resulting “growing identity in contemporary art”, indigenous artists are relegated to a tiny ghetto headed “Maori and Polynesian painting”, comprising four names and just two illustrated entries (for Maori artists Kura Rewiri and Emily Karaka). While one wouldn’t dream of meddling retrospectively with the historical character of these chapters, neither is it acceptable to re-release them in a flash new suit of clothes without a bit more editorial discussion and a post-colonial health warning. Hanfling’s appeal to period authenticity, while valid, is insufficient to redress the weight and centrality given to the outdated chapters.

For the core of the current book is still Docking’s monumental survey of New Zealand painters from 1769 to 1969. Despite its Eurocentrism, partiality and somewhat laboured recounting of artists’ to-ings and fro-ings, this was a heroic undertaking and still provides an erudite overview of various strands of New Zealand’s art history. But, quite apart from the ethnic absences discussed above, Docking’s choices for inclusion and exclusion can be, as Hanfling acknowledges in his introduction, “surprising from the perspective of the present”. Shay Docking, for instance, is loyally given an extensive essay by her husband that is three times longer than his entry for Ralph Hotere, while Doris Lusk – whose iconic Pumping Station (1958) adorns the cover of the new edition – receives a mere 28 lines. While these were fair reflections of Docking’s point of view at the time, it raises the fundamental question of the intended audience for this new expanded edition of 2012. Is it intended for new students who – seduced by the gorgeous design – may wish to treat this book as “an entry point to New Zealand art”, or does it assume an already well-informed readership capable of adjusting the focus on their hindsight spectacles? If the former, then Hanfling’s introductory provisos are insufficient to provide a frame of reference with which to assess the earlier chapters as “document[s] of that time”. If the latter, then is it not likely that they already own one of the venerable older editions?

Aware of the problem, the publishers and Hanfling have made a valiant attempt to re-cast the book as a survey of the history of New Zealand’s art writing rather than a survey of New Zealand’s art history: “a fascinating look at what was being thought about and written about New Zealand paintings over forty years ago”, as the jacket blurb explains. Unfortunately, this argument is unconvincing. A history of art writing in New Zealand could well be instructive, but it would surely consist of excerpts from many writers (McCormick, Curnow, Keith, Pound et al), not three, and it would incorporate considerably more contextual analysis.

The argument that these texts stand as samples of pristine historical authenticity rather than current reference is further undermined by the decision to add dates of death for deceased artists who were still living at the time of original writing. Poignant though these are, they introduce a confusing temporal wobble much exacerbated by concomitant editing of the text to dislodge the dead from the present and reinscribe them into the past tense. These clumsy posthumous revisions make for a crunching of mental gears for a reader who is dutifully treating the text as a document reflecting a particular moment. It is disconcerting, for example, in the new edition to hear an authorial voice from 1970 ventriloquised into saying, “Jan Nigro was … she reacted … She dealt” (my italics reflecting the 2012 updated wording) when Jan Nigro is, for Docking in 1970, alive and well and continued to be so for a further 42 years. Docking’s assessment of her long career necessarily stops at 1970, but bundling her unceremoniously into the past at that point is premature, to say the least. A better solution would have been to let the author’s tenses stand, but place square brackets around dates of death to signal them as a later editorial addition.

But the book’s teetering three-level incremental structure over 40 years presents problems for the quick as well as the dead. Long and varied careers are inevitably misrepresented due to lack of continuity between segments. Thus Richard Killeen has two separate entries, split between Docking and Dunn over a 21-page gap, from his early “disturbing suburbia” paintings to his signature 1980s cutouts. No editorial cross-reference connects them. But at least Dunn gave Killeen the benefit of an update. Dunn’s own entry for Robin White is abruptly truncated with a brief reference to “more recent prints” from her life in Kiribati, so that an uninformed reader remains ignorant of her return to Aotearoa in 1999 and her large-scale collaborative barkcloth projects since then. Again, judicious deployment of editorial devices such as square brackets or italics would have allowed brief reference to subsequent careers without disrupting the book’s intention to be an authentic snapshot of art writing of the period.

Several editing slip-ups snag the eye: Docking’s introduction to chapter four has WWII beginning in 1930 rather than 1939; in the same chapter Thomas Hart Benton’s name acquires a comma that splits him in two; later, Ralph Hotere attends a Dunedin “Collage” rather than College. There are others. Minor typographical errors are forgivable in a first edition. But when carried through two major re-editions, they display a sloppiness that cannot be excused by citing fidelity to the historical text – these are just typos, after all, and should have been fixed long ago. It suggests that Bateman’s editors – despite the aforementioned fiddling with tense – have never bothered to re-read the text in its entirety. And if so, what does that say about the centrality still accorded to Docking, who still constitutes the vast bulk of the book?

So, given that you may already own or have easy library access to previous editions of this book, is it worth paying $100 for just one new essay, Hanfling’s deliberately provocative take on painting post-1990? Despite the reservations expressed above, the answer may well be yes, if only for the sake of the art. Almost all of the old monochrome reproductions have been replaced, and many paintings have been rephotographed. The reproduction of an expressionist landscape by Rudolf Gopas, Shoreline (1962), for instance, undergoes an interesting evolution over the course of the three editions. It began as a hodgepodge of unsatisfying greys in the original 1971 book; for the 1991 edition, the same monochrome image was used, except that a sharp-eyed picture editor quietly turned it right way up, which considerably improved its structural balance if not its rationale; only in this new edition does it finally burst into yellow-blue-lime exuberance, making sense of Docking’s exposition of Gopas’s transition from fauvist figuration to abstract expressionism. Even where the earlier editions boasted colour plates, their chromatic accuracy was unreliable. Hence new colour reproductions can be a revelatory surprise. One example among many is Ross Ritchie’s engrossing The 90th Garden (1965). This is not only a playful exploration of the conventions of genre but also a homage to art history from Titian to Woollaston via Toulouse-Lautrec. The colour plate used for the earlier editions was overwhelmed with lurid reds that swamped every nuance; the delicacy of the new reproduction is a delightful corrective. In his introduction to the new edition, Hanfling reminds us that “Looking at pictures is one of the most pleasurable things in life, and people look at pictures and find pleasure in them for many different reasons.” That is this book’s saving grace.

 

Stella Ramage is studying for a PhD in art history at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction and Review
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