Sourcing the golden goose, Hugh Roberts

Elements of Modernism in Colin McCahon’s Early Work
Gordon H Brown
Art History Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, $15.00,
ISBN 9780475122032

Toss Woollaston: Origins and Influence 
Tony Green
Art History Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, $15.00,
ISBN 9771176304001

Colin McCahon in Australia
Rex Butler
Art History Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, $15.00,
ISBN 97711765882

A Nation’s Portraits
Roger Blackley
Art History Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, $15.00,
ISBN 9771176588005

In 2002, Gordon H Brown gave the inaugural lecture in the Victoria University Art History Department’s “Art History Lecture Series”. By the time Tony Green gave the second lecture the following year, they had become the “Gordon H Brown Lecture Series” and they have continued down to the present as a stimulating, occasionally provocative attempt to bring the relatively rarefied world of academic art history to a wider audience. From the very beginning, the Art History Department has published these lectures in handsome, illustrated volumes, and collectively they are beginning to comprise a useful introduction to a range of issues in contemporary New Zealand art history. This review looks at four individual lectures.

Brown’s Elements of Modernism in Colin McCahon’s Early Work and Green’s Toss Woollaston: Origins and Influence are an interestingly complementary pair. One is an attempt to sketch out what access the young McCahon could have had to the real wellsprings of artistic modernism in his formative years as an artist, while the other is an attempt to argue against over-reading the importance of such influences for the development of Woollaston’s oeuvre. This is one of those “what did they know and when did they know it” questions which all art historians are to some extent required to entertain but it is perhaps one which is particularly fraught for the historian of “provincial” artists such as McCahon and Woollaston. There is at once a desire to show that the “province” is not as remote, dammit, as all that, that the provincial artist is not divorced from the main streams of metropolitan culture and is, therefore, to be taken seriously as a participant in the broader history of western art and a contradictory desire to demonstrate the provincial artist’s independence, to show that he or she is something more than a mere imitator of imperfectly understood metropolitan models.

A famous crux in New Zealand art history to which both Green and Brown make reference is Flora Scales’s lecture notes from her time at Hans Hofmann’s School of Art in Munich. Scales shared these notes with Woollaston and Woollaston showed them to McCahon. This is an irresistible nugget for art, historical analysis; Hans Hofmann goes on to become not only a major player in the American abstract expressionist scene but an influential teacher with such illustrious students as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Ray Eames. To tie Woollaston and McCahon to Hofmann is a master stroke in the art historical game of “Six Degrees of Jackson Pollock”: to get McCahon and Woollaston into his ambit is almost to be able to imagine a world in which McCahons hang beside Mondrians, and Woollastons pop up around the corner from Warhols at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Green spends a good while pouring cold water on this line of thinking. He points out that Scales was not, in fact, taught by Hofmann but by Edmund Kinzinger and that all but one of the lectures Woollaston and his wife Edith faithfully transcribed from Scales’s notes were almost certainly Kinzinger’s and not Hofmann’s (the one which probably is Hofmann’s may be a letter he sent to Kinzinger). His aim is, in part, to establish Woollaston as an independent thinker:

The Scales episode … was of only limited and temporary use to him. He was a far more committed artist than those who usually consumed such art school methods. He could never be considered a perpetual student, an amateur, or a hobbyist.

 

Brown, by contrast, wants the Scales letters to work to forge a connection not so much between McCahon and Hofmann (and Hofmann’s acolytes) as between McCahon and the artist Brown takes to be the true fons et origo of Hofmann’s understanding of what constitutes modernity in art: Cézanne.

These arguments (and related ones, chasing down the various colour theory and practical art treatises the two read) seem inevitably to claim both too much and too little. Too much, because artists are great magpies when it comes to their encounters with art theory: they take what they can see a way to make use of and often care very little for the context in which they originally found it. The transmission of abstract, theoretical precepts about art among artists is a giant game of telephone. How securely can we link McCahon to Cézanne by way of Hofmann? Does Hofmann’s “push/pull” theory of colouristic dynamism really unlock some hidden secret about Cézanne’s work that would not have been available to McCahon from reproductions of the works themselves? After all, Hofmann himself claimed that “painters must speak through paint, not through words”, and his writings are characterised by rather sweeping and mystical claims about the spiritual power of art which, while flattering to the young artist’s sense of purpose, can hardly be said to be special keys to unlock a hitherto inaccessible modernist technique. Helen Frankenthaler, who studied directly under Hofmann, claimed to find him incomprehensible and not to have learned anything “particular” from him. That, of course, is the privilege of the metropolitan artist; both to have access to a figure like Hofmann, and for it simply not to matter much one way or the other.

Too little, though, because, as Coleridge put it in trying to deflect attention to his own plagiarisms, “truth is a divine ventriloquist”. If there is any “fact” about Cézanne’s use of colour or the modernist artist’s duty to honour the two-dimensionality of the picture plane, then who cares, in the end, who conveys that fact to the young provincial artist? The interest in Hofmann is, in this light, a kind of magical thinking; contact with “the master” somehow confers a mystical bond with High Modernism’s vital powers. Green, for all his scepticism about the Scales connection, is, in fact, more invested than Brown in this belief. Why should we care that Scales’s lectures were by Kinzinger rather than Hofmann? Was there any useable fact about modern art to be found in Hofmann’s writing that couldn’t also be conveyed by Kinzinger? Or, indeed, by a myriad of other sources: newspaper and magazine articles, books of art criticism, conversations. There is a reason that some ideas seem simply to be “in the air” in a given period, and in the end the patient tracking of “sources” can only ever be a very partial record of their diffusion.

Rex Butler’s Colin McCahon in Australia is also about the diffusion of an artistic legacy, but he takes an approach which saves us, in large part, from the problem of painstakingly tracing what is conveyed from one generation of artists to another. For Butler, the answer is a resounding “nothing”. Butler’s essay is intellectually sparkling and a pleasure to read, all the more because it is fully aware of its own teasing paradoxes; I’m not sure, in the end, if we are expected to believe its claims. Butler draws on an analogy with Kierkegaard’s claim that we must believe in Christ independently of whatever it is that we hold Christ’s teachings to be in order to argue that artistic “greatness,” similarly, exists solely in our shared belief in its existence in a given oeuvre. McCahon’s paintings:

attract us, move us, compel us, not because they are full of universal and timeless truths ‒ this is the humanist cliché about great art ‒ but because they are empty; opening up a place for us to fit in and to allow us to see ourselves reflected in them.

 

The question which remains unanswered, though, is why any one artist offers us a better opportunity for such “reflection” than another.

And speaking of “seeing ourselves reflected”, Roger Blackley’s A Nation’s Portraits is a plea for the portrait to be taken seriously as a genre that should take its rightful place alongside our most prized artistic treasures. Full of fascinating tidbits about the long and rich history of portraiture in New Zealand (were you aware how deeply contemporary Maori had prized Lindauer’s portraits of Maori notables, or how frequently they visited his gallery to view them?), his central argument suffers from a failure to squarely recognise both that there will always be portraits that interest us solely because of the historical importance of their subjects and that there has never been a blanket rejection of the portrait from the canons of modern art. From Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, through Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and on to Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Lucien Freud, the portrait has been happily welcomed into the most hallowed of modern art’s halls. Blackley himself acknowledges the central place Rita Angus’s self-portraits have in the canon of New Zealand modern art. To argue that portraits can be great art is to push at an open door. But once we all agree on that point, we’re no closer to figuring out how to reconcile our competing artistic and historical interests in any single institutional structure.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches at University of California, Irvine.

 

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