Reading pictures, Jane Clendon

Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840-1914
Leonard Bell,
Auckland University Press, $69.95

The language of art historical discourse has become more complex and demanding since Leonard Bell published his first book, The Maori in European Art, in 1980. Now, it seems, discussions of images of indigenous people by their colonisers have to be prefaced by assurances about the author’s ease with current theory.

The introduction to Bell’s new book, Colonial Constructs, prefaced by yet another quote from the much-quoted Julia Kristeva, sets out his theoretical position. The book offers ways of thinking about European attitudes towards Maori, as found in pictures, which themselves are shown to be part of the colonising process, motivated by, and justifying, the ideologies of colonial imperialism. Bell is at pains to dissociate himself from the view that art is reducible to ideology or that it excludes observation of a world beyond the painting – a position into which ideological examinations of art tend to collapse. Rather, he wants to look at the ideological aspect of these pictures – the background ideas they reflected or supported, the pictorial conventions they exemplified, especially those related to the indigenous people of lands being colonised – while recognising that there are other aspects not totally governed by ideology: artists’ attitudes, the actualities of what is depicted, aesthetic quality. Non-academic readers may find all this less interesting than the application of the approach to actual images.

Bell focuses on pictures of Maori by Europeans from the first settlement (1840) to World War I (1914), taken as signifying the colony’s development into independence. He selects pictures (‘visual representations’) – drawings, paintings and prints – by artists who were professional, or as professional as colonial circumstances allowed.

The discussion proceeds chronologically through a selection of individual, named artists – the traditional approach to art history. The aim of ‘investigating meanings and uses of visual representations of Maori in specific socio-cultural contexts’ is adequately served by this, insofar as it accommodates historical changes, though it risks repetition of themes and key points, some of which remain embedded in the discussion.

Bell reminds the reader that, as Gombrich stated as early as 1959 and New Zealand art writers as eminent as Hamish Keith and Francis Pound have reiterated, there is no such thing as an innocent eye: seeing and image‑making are culturally mediated. He also states that pictures can have various ‘readings’ – that is, mean different things to different people. The strength of this book is that it offers often lengthy ‘readings’ of pictures backed by impressive research (revealing its origins as a PhD thesis).

There are many fascinating points of detail. An Australian reviewer’s comment in 1845, ‘But the fine arts were never born for the new colonies’, suggests the strength of cultural cringe in colonial days and the challenge, taken up by artists only much later, to make an art appropriate to the new world. Bell is particularly thorough in adducing European models for colonial image‑making – for instance, the paintings of ‘picturesque old people, which invoked a nostalgia for the passing of the old ways’ which underlay the appeal of painters like Wilhelm Dittmer and Goldie.

Sometimes the very thoroughness of the interpretations serves to obscure rather than clarify them. Nicholas Chevalier’s Hinemoa: A Maori Maiden requires seven pages of discussion of the myth and the context of the picture’s production before it is suggested that the female (reclining in a canoe in an idealised and exotic, if not erotic, fashion) ‘could represent the land, in effect “inviting” the European viewer to take possession’. A bolder approach, starting with the assertion that this is so, would grab the reader’s attention, maybe even encouraging us to venture a view of the figure as Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, here floating on water, removed from the land, and thus shown as disempowered and alienated by the European gaze in a very direct visual way.

Colonial Encounters takes a narrower span than its predecessor, which went from first European contact to the present, but even so the number of pictures and artists in the shorter period is huge, and necessitates such a limited selection (seven artists from the 1840s and early 1850s, for example). The concentration on pictures by professionals, and produced for public use, means that the ideologies deduced from the pictures are those of public and official spheres. However, most pictures, from the colonial years at least, were by amateurs or untrained artists. As Bell notes, even as late as the 1860there were only a few professional artists in New Zealand. It would have been revealing then to consider pictures of Maori by untrained hands, by the soldiers, women, surveyors, or men of the cloth such as the Reverend Richard Taylor, whose numerous pencil sketches include personal, intimate and evocative images, typical of untrained artists’ work. Their pictures suggest different attitudes to and perceptions of Maori, more personal and less bound up with the public construction and pursuit of the colonial enterprise, though of course still defined by its discourses. Indeed, the possibilities of such work are suggested by Bell’s comments on Lieutenant Horatio Robley, whose rough, untutored style produced images that suggest different ‘readings’ from those of his more professional contemporaries.

Some of the pictures have been reproduced and discussed elsewhere, and by their inclusion in this, the most detailed treatment of individual artists’ works from such a wide time-span published to date, are given authority as key images of a canon of New Zealand art. Other pictures are new to the public gaze, but reinforce the traditional orientation of the approach: pictures by male artists intended for public, professional purposes.

Sources are properly documented, and the select bibliography will also be useful for the further forays into this territory which Bell hopes the book will encourage. Colonial Constructs is well illustrated with 150 reproductions (eight in colour), but the book design is disappointing, with sentences closely spaced and the text threatening to disappear down the narrow gutter. Also, the cover design, particularly for a book on visual experience and interpretation of the visual image, is notably unimpressive – why three different typefaces, and the dominance of curdled toffee orange?

Within his self-imposed limitation to the ideological theme, Bell provides a very full treatment. His book will be an essential source. In the end, as so often with art texts, the pictures themselves suggest other, more evocative readings which escape his relentless pen.


Jane Clendon teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington.



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Posted in History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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