Something highly individualistic to say, Tony Bellette

By the Waters of Babylon: the Art of A Lois White
Nicola Green
David Bateman, in association with the Auckland City Art Gallery, $39.95

No Road to Follow: Autobiography of a New Zealand Artist
Eric Lee‑Johnson
Godwit Press, $49.95

WA Sutton, Painter
Pat Unger
Hazard Press $49.95

In the last decade of the century the nation’s cultural history continues to be written ‑ and rewritten ‑ as if under some obligation to get it right for the millennium. The urgency of the exercise might be more cogently explained by the fact that the idea of a cultural history, as something separate and distinct from a political or a social history, has only lately emerged, and at a time when a nostalgic nationalism continues to dictate the terms of much cultural debate.

Such a nationalism may be seen in the recent preoccupation with kiwiana of the mid‑century decades. Sites range from advertising and tabloid‑format publishing to film, theatre and museum exhibitions (one of which features the ultimate nostalgia object: Jeff Thomson’s Buzzy‑Bee made of corrugated iron). It is possible also to regard such a preoccupation as a defensive reaction against a post‑modern awareness widely seen as destructive of nationalism. It suddenly seems possible that New Zealand may be going from post‑colonial to post‑modern without an intervening state of confirmed nationhood.

In the visual arts the paradox is particularly obvious. No sooner have we discovered who our great artists are than the assumptions underlying “great” and even “artist” are under attack. It hardly seems fair ‑ at least not while art is regarded as part of a national as opposed to an international culture (which we have in many other ways quite happily absorbed). It is a fact that fame and canonicity in the visual arts in both New Zealand and Australia have depended largely on representation of a national character expressed mainly through landscape. This started 100 years ago in Australia; scarcely more than 50 years ago in New Zealand. Internationalism, chiefly in the form of abstraction, though much more known about in antipodean circles than is usually admitted, has remained only marginally important, or has been adapted to more local concerns, as in the sixties work of John Olsen or Gordon Walters.

During the sixties and seventies the hierarchies were established. Painters (it is always painters) who began their careers in the immediate prewar years received confirmation of their status in the large, touring retrospective exhibitions of the eighties and nineties. Nolan, Boyd and Tucker in Australia, McCahon, Angus and Woollaston in New Zealand, hold seemingly unassailable positions at the top, despite evidence of discontent in the ranks. Such discontent can proceed from many causes: simple resentment of the star system and suspicion that fame and reward come from knowing the right dealer and the right client in the right dry at the right time; a more complex awareness of the wider political and economic factors affecting dealers, clients and artists alike; or a belief that cultural activity and cultural “product” must be reassessed across a much wider range of human experience than traditional ideas of culture allow.

Any or all of these reasons for discontent might be seen as contributing to the increased interest of late in the work of artists such as those under review. There is no easily identifiable common factor in these three very different books: one a catalogue, one a monograph, one an autobiographical memoir. All three artists however had something highly individual to say about New Zealand at a certain point in its history and in saying it changed that history ‑ in ways less well known perhaps than the Northland Panels or the Buzzy‑Bee but no less relevantly in this time of end‑of-century self‑examination.

A Lois White, who died in 1984 and an exhibition of whose work is now touring the country, is in some ways the least likely candidate for substantial reassessment. As Nicola Green points out in her commentary to the catalogue, White was not, contrary to a persisting belief, ignored in her own time. She exhibited widely and her skills and her individuality were quickly recognised. She occupied a niche that was very much her own: she was unmarried, she was not prevented by family pressure or male rivalry from achieving her goals, she had little interest in landscape, and she painted decorative allegories on biblical, mythological and contemporary themes. She was not a bohemian, and remained a staunch Methodist all her life.

She was also one of the few genuinely erotic painters this country has produced, using herself as model if no one else was willing. Her eroticism seems not to have been remarked on by herself or others. Not the least remarkable thing about figurative art of the period is its apparent innocence in this regard. Green suggests merely the possibility of a “hidden sexuality”. As she says, “There is great difficulty in characterising the relationships of women who, although they did not identify themselves as lesbians, formed their primary emotional commitments with other women, as White did.” One might ponder the implications of this simultaneous expression and denial of the erotic ‑ particularly in women artists in New Zealand for most of this century. The fact that there was no equivalent of Norman Lindsay in New Zealand art might be further proof of the greater female boldness in art in this country than in Australia, but also the lesser consciousness of it. For this reason it is difficult for feminism, or any other recent discourse, to claim Lois White and Green does not try.

White was categorised and criticised in her own time, not for her marked individuality but as a too typical product of Elam under the A J C Fisher regime. White herself claimed “he was my God” and never departed from the rules of “constructional draughtsmanship” which he laid down in Auckland from his arrival in 1925. Only the Lhote‑derived Cubism of John Weeks, who succeeded Fisher, gave her work volume and depth to offset the decorativeness and sometimes over‑insistence on pattern and design. It is unlikely that her subjects, whether derived from the Bible or from contemporary history, mattered more to her than the techniques they served. The varnished watercolours which were her most popular and saleable works in the forties are described by Green as “a decorative foil to the serious social commentaries alongside which they were exhibited”. Her work was more of a piece than this suggests. As social commentary the “allegories” of war and capitalism are naive at best, as a comparison with contemporary radical Melbourne artists would make immediately clear. Tucker, Counihan and Bergner brought to their subjects a committed politics and an historical awareness that New Zealand artists for the most part did not possess.

The comparison with Australia, always instructive in any assessment of New Zealand art, is by no means always to New Zealand’s disadvantage. In one area at least, landscape, New Zealand had the edge, in that there was no dominant, officially sanctioned vision of the country to be unpacked and rethought.

The first nationalist movement in Australian art, in the lead‑up to federation, had established a frontier‑pastoral image that in time appeared, in its later Streeton or Heysen versions, on every schoolroom wall in the country. Determined myth‑breakers like Nolan and Tucker ended up creating new myths that sometimes, as with Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, looked more like variations on the old.

In New Zealand there had been very little mythologising of the landscape. It had not been made the site for contesting visions of the nation, as it had in Australia. Largely innocent of ideology, New Zealand landscapists painted what they saw. Rival versions of “the land” were more a matter of regional differences than of competing visions: Perkin’s Taranaki and Angus’s Canterbury in the thirties were essentially individual responses to individual places, not national statements. The “hard light” theory, sometimes cited as a kind of national artistic rallying point (and advanced as such by A R D Fairburn), was never really a starter, and took little to demolish. What did remain was a persistent regionalism which not even McCahon’s symbolic reading of the country and its varying topography was able to dislodge.

Both Eric Lee‑Johnson and W E Sutton identified almost exclusively with their respective corners of the country, Maurice Shadbolt in his introduction to Lee‑Johnson’s autobiography calls him “New Zealand’s first wholly nationalist painter”, one who “dug deeper into home ground than any New Zealand writer or painter of the 1940s and 1950s ‑ so deep, in such sequestered localities as Piha, Mahurangi, the Hokianga and Waihi ‑ that many forgot he was there”. It says much about perceptions of nationalism in New Zealand that the description that follows the “nationalist” identification stresses immersion in particular north‑of-Auckland localities to the point of oblivion.

It suggests what elsewhere (particularly in Australia) would be regarded as the very opposite of nationalism. And throughout this book there are few signs of an interest in any larger entity than the small King Country and Northland towns which the artist at various times inhabited. In most cases it is individual houses (a bewildering number of them) that are remembered and described, often with great vividness. Can we extrapolate an image of the nation from an engagement, however intense, with such very particular locations?

Lee‑Johnson asserts his own “uncompromising regional direction” and is not interested in “aspiring to universal forms and imitating ‘isms’ imported from the northern hemisphere”. This strikes a familiar note: we might recall the American regionalists who wore dungarees, asserted heartland values and rejected European sophistication. It is at once an aggressive and a defensive posture, a taking up of arms against a sea of foreign troubles whose origins may lie closer at hand than the northern hemisphere: Auckland, or even, perhaps, the nearest town.

Most of the events described occurred 40 or more years ago. The decades since then, up to his recent death, are referred to in a brief epilogue written by his third wife, Elizabeth. Age and the ill health that plagued him from the early years may have contributed to the overall acerbic tone of the book. Lee‑Johnson came back from Britain in 1938 to take up residence again in a New Zealand sunk in intellectual poverty and artistic backwardness.

Wellington was where “the aesthetically unsophisticated eye was in evidence at every turn, and a mantle of inferiority hung over everything”. At variance with his rejection of the northern hemisphere is his assertion of the superiority of his training in London. In New Zealand he is the scourge of native amateurishness. At the same time he is dismissive of the Fisher coterie at Elam, which included Lois White, who is not mentioned in No Road to Follow, though he was favourably disposed toward her work, as noted by Nicola Green. He did, however, play a large part in the art publishing scene, editing, sometimes from his Northland retreats, both Art in New Zealand and The Arts Year Book in the immediate postwar years.

Most memorable are the descriptions of the King Country childhood, the Hawke’s Bay sanatorium where he engaged in his first battle with tuberculosis, the wild sea coast of Piha and the succession of houses, farms and baches he and his growing family occupied in Northland from 1944 onwards. A few human figures emerge with vividness out of the recurring lists of names of those who made their way to one or other of the northern locations. He does not say a great deal about his own art, preferring to talk about its subject matter. He is unimpressed by many of his fellow artists. Colin McCahon is seen as “a painter with a warped view of life, essentially a draughtsman”.

Mistrustful of critics and art historians, he describes his own place in art history: ” … the graphic potential of [my] style, along with the uncompromising regional direction of my imagery, was beginning to be reflected in the works of a raft of my contemporaries, including Mervyn Taylor, John Holmwood, Russell Clark, Alison Pickmere, William A Sutton, May Smith, Louise Henderson, Denis Knight Turner. Elise Mourant and Olivia Spencer Bower.” Some, including Sutton, are accused of unacknowledged borrowing. It is, finally, a saddening thing to see in this otherwise valuable account so many scores unsettled and so many resentments nourished until the end.

One of the significant differences between Lee‑Johnson and Sutton may be seen in their attitudes towards arboreal interlopers. Lee‑Johnson recalls ring‑barking a pine which spoiled the line of pohutukawas between house and beach: “This cheap and effortless way of removing objectionable exotics could be the answer to eliminating the pines contaminating the residual stands of our native forest.” Likewise disturbed by the vast pine plantations of Canterbury, Sutton finally decided they must be included. The resulting Plantation series of 1986 is one of the great statements of New Zealand landscape art. Objectionable exotics are recognised as being as much a part of the national scene as the charred stumps of Lee‑Johnson’s Northland. Both artists identify and even celebrate the “transitional” nature of the landscape. Mount Cook and Milford Sound gave way long ago to what were perceived as the more essential features of the topography: the marks and scars of its human occupation.

Sutton, as the best known of the three artists, needs no special pleading, no rehabilitation. A place for him does not have to be found. He has not been reclusive, and has had a long and active engagement in the Christchurch scene, as artist, teacher and polemicist. A selection of his letters to The Press expressing opinions on any number of subjects is included in Pat Unger’s well‑illustrated monograph.

The book is more a dialogue between Unger and Sutton, with the artist contributing almost as many words as she does. The fact that they seem often to be at variance with each other does not diminish the book. Unger as an up‑to-the‑minute art critic (as well as an artist herself) attempts to place Sutton in a contemporary critical context, thus leaping in where Green may have feared to tread. Sutton’s manifest dislike of modish theorising and the constant raking‑over of the past in search of something new to say is healthily opposed to Unger’s careful weighing up and placement of him within a rapidly evolving art history, to which he is still, verbally at least, contributing. The issues are left pleasingly open and the central relationship between artist and critic/historian is allowed to develop in its own somewhat unpredictable fashion. What does become clear is that from the now almost iconic Nor’wester in the Cemetery of 1950 to the late, great Plantation series, Sutton has proved able to fuse “regional” and “national” without recourse to either the nostalgic or the apocalyptic. There may be a lesson there.

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

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