Looking with new eyes: the Woollaston achievement, Tony Bellette

Toss Woollaston: A Retrospective
Exhibition 1991/2

Toss Woollaston: An Illustrated Biography
Gerald Barnett,
National Art Gallery, Wellington/ Random Century, Auckland, 1991, $39.95

Viewing the Toss Woollaston retrospective is an occasion for gratification, and even wonder, that the language of painting can be so instant and non-verbally communicative. Surrounded on all sides, in the National Art Gallery’s main exhibition room, by such large encounters with colour and space, the last (or perhaps one should say the most recent) phase of sixty years of painting, a viewer might well decide that there’s nothing to say that isn’t irrelevant afterthought. The various discursive frameworks which now dictate our experience of our other artist heroes, McCahon and Angus, seem beside the point. This is as much to do with the timing of the exhibition as with the nature of the work it contains. McCahon and Angus have received their posthumous tributes, and assessments of their work are made easier by their deaths, by the knowledge that there will be no more to come. Not only that, however: having only recently and with reluctance learned to accept that we do have artists whose art confers greatness on us, we now find ourselves in a time when this is questioned and the idea of the artist hero no longer commands respect. Good for art-business no doubt, but not critically useful. And now comes the Woollaston show.

Woollaston is quoted as saying in 1968 that ‘my work was considered too modern for the 1930s, but for today it could be too old-fashioned’. Two and a half decades later, and still very much alive, Woollaston could be regarded as more old-fashioned than ever – were it not for the fact that during those years not only the artist hero idea but the very concept of the avant-garde has ceased to be meaningful. It could be argued that a concept of the avant-garde ceased being meaningful a hundred years ago, when after the first impressionist revolt a score of new styles broke out, any one of which could and did lead to Modern Art. The fact that the reaction time ‘down here’ was so long and so slow, with Cubism and Abstraction waiting until the fifties to make their presence effectively felt, meant that New Zealand artists were, when the time came, remarkably free to discriminate from among the many modernisms that preceded them. Being so far from the source offered a greater, not a lesser freedom, Woollaston could learn his Cézanne from a variety of intermediaries before he saw the real thing: from Flora Scales, who got it from Hoffman, who got it from Cézanne, with each transmission a distortion (like Cubism as taught by Lhote to a variety of New Zealand and Australian and American visitors), yet each distortion was itself an enlivening process for quick and receptive minds. The history of modem art in this country is a kind of counter-history to the authorised versions of Europe and America, and one which can throw light on them in return.

Gerald Barnett’s catalogue gives much useful information (not helped by a distracting dual footnote system), and some critical contextualising. It suggests, while it cannot be said to analyse, the counter-history which Woollaston’s work represents. Barnett notes that it offers resistance to post-modern critical discourse, that it is ‘inimical to the concerns of much current art practice and theory’. The best art always is, but that might be beside the point. What this exhibition shows, with great power and splendour, is that New Zealand artists, given breadth of eye and mind can, while shaping the visual history of their country, at the same time re-shape its informing visual traditions. Among many other benefits, Woollaston enables us to look at both Wellington Harbour and Cézanne with new eyes, and he merits our time and thanks for that.


Tony Bellette is senior lecturer in the history of art at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction
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