Alan Pearson: His Life and art
Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1991, $75
Biography is one thing and hagiography quite another. Sadly, Denys Trussell has failed to realise the difference in his readable, provocative but deeply flawed biography of the painter Alan Pearson. My disappointment is great, for not only do I admire Pearson’s art but I believe that no other figure has been, so unfortunate a victim of the art establishment’s Salon des Refusés. Excluded from surveys of modern art by Gil Docking, Elva Bett and Michael Dunn, Pearson could be forgiven for believing he was a victim of a conspiracy of silence. He certainly deserved – and still deserves – a critical champion to set matters straight. It fell to Denys Trussell, concert pianist, poet, critic and renaissance person, to undertake this task. His credentials seem glittering and are handsomely endorsed in the introduction by T.P. Garrity of the Hocken Library who asserts that no contemporary painter ‘could have been better served than by Denys Trussell’.
Having read this book, I must disagree. Being a critical champion implies having the capacity for criticism as well as championship; beyond a reference to a drawing which the painter’s wife, Alison, considered ‘mediocre’, there is no hint of this. Good biography should, moreover, maintain a dialogue between detachment and empathy, qualities that Elric Hooper recognised in Margaret Lewis’s Ngaio Marsh. There is no sense of detachment in Trussell, while the empathy merely embarrasses. Two examples related in successive pages say it all. Of Nellie, Pearson’s little daughter, Trussell writes: ‘Her advent was wanted, her birth difficult and dangerous, her nature intelligent, imaginative and exacting’. Five years ago, Pearson ‘jolted his whole skeleton’ when he caught his head on the lintel of a security door at the McDougall Art Gallery. ‘This renewed his awareness of the skeletal frame that it was both the living rock of the body and the symbol of its death’.
I would forgive Trussell if he were a more acute critic of Pearson’s art because that, not headbanging, is where his considerable talent lies. Again, I was to be disappointed. Trussell lacks the technical and formal vocabulary of the trained art critic or historian. I would have traded a hundred pages of his writing for a few by the urbane and sensible Edward Lucie-Smith who befriended Pearson on his visit to Britain in 1981. What we get from Trussell is often gush akin to Rodin’s blue-stockinged worshippers of both genders, pardonable a century ago but ludicrous today. Pearson’s often superb portraits demand examination of his ‘searching, restless hand, tracking down the geometry of the sitter’ through photographic documentation and verbal analysis. Instead, there is abstruse discourse on how the Schopenhauerian ‘will both clashed and mated with the phenomenal manifestation of itself’. This essentially restates the familiar duality of inner and outer selves which portraiture is all about. An intellectual overlay adds nothing to the portraits, especially not Pearson’s, where the quality is in the drawing.
Quality Pearson certainly has, and critics and historians have been mingy not to recognise it. His Expressionism has a power and authenticity not least because he benefited from an art school training which imparted the discipline of drawing and painting rather than stressing the fulfilment of personality or else an arid, content-free modernism. Pearson is a very ‘various’ artist, never content to be formulaic and forever responsive to his environment, be it Italy, the Waimakariri Valley or Covent Garden. The last is evoked in the zingy vermillion of Covent Garden Balcony which blasted its neighbours off the wall at the Canterbury Society of Arts recently. By contrast, there is subtle control of tonalities in the Portrait of the Painter, Reginald Nicholas. Passages of Trussell’s book acknowledge such points, sometimes quite perceptively, as in his comparison of Pearson with Philip Clairmont. But every third or fourth sentence goes over the top, transporting the reader and Pearson to heavenly realms by the final chapter: ‘Individuation, having come to ripeness in Alan’s painting, now enters its apotheosis as a universal psyche’. This makes Abstract Expressionist bombast (‘Our quarrel was with Michelangelo’) look modest.
While this is not questioning the generosity of Trussell’s admiration, everyone else is orchestrated to play second fiddle to this most musical of artists, with the women in Pearson’s life emerging as the largely unsung heroines. It would have been a decent gesture to have recognised the artistic talents of Pearson’s two sons, Alan jr and Justin. For a biography that is often so very public, the absence of family photographs is peculiar. The many illustrations in monochrome are not sourced, an irritation to the art historian, as are the frequent inaccuracies. Post-Modernism does not ‘fashionably eschew’ content in painting but, on the contrary, has revived it; ‘the High Renaissance essence’ is certainly not ‘distilled perfectly in Botticelli’; Sickert’s dates are wrong and Van Gogh was not his mentor. A redeeming feature is the production quality of this book, for which the Hazard Press is to be congratulated.
To paraphrase the pop song, ‘nice pictures, shame about the text’, Trussell’s literary skills would be well employed in a short appreciative essay for the retrospective catalogue which I hope will eventuate one day, but here they render Pearson a grave disservice.
Mark Stocker, who studied art history at several British universities before coming to New Zealand in 1986, is a lecturer in Art History at the School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury.