Dream on, Rodney Hamel

Dream Collectors: One Hundred Years of Art in New Zealand
Te Papa Press, Exhibition Catalogue
$39.95
ISBN 0 90901048 X

In their foreword, Cheryll Southeran and Chris Staines explain that the exhibition that originated this catalogue was designed to acknowledge the close and sustaining relationship between artists and collectors and to recognise that the national collection is not confined to Te Papa. This is followed by a number of comments by some late 20th-century collectors about their collecting and their collections; but it is at this point that some of the problems around the entire project first emerge.

Clearly some culling of these incredibly banal and bland observations should have taken place. Do we need to be told, for example, that “We really enjoy the uniqueness of contemporary art. The fact that a painting is an entity in its own right …” or “There’s a sense of awe at the empty land. It’s not overpowered. Not some tame thing you can ignore”? Occasionally comments such as “You have to learn to avoid sheer acquisitiveness” cry out for further questioning. Sometimes the comments are indistinguishable from what might be said about gardening or vintage car collecting.

All these observations are of course only a beginning. But why was there no analysis or follow-up to better inform us about collecting? The catalogue/ exhibition is divided into two 50-year periods, but there was not even an attempt to contrast the styles of collecting in the two periods. Even – dare one suggest it – some mention of money might have been in order. It isn’t as if the subject is exactly taboo. Anyone who has taught Art History will tell you the first or second question asked by an audience is invariably related to price. People are usually enormously impressed – and rightly – by shrewd collectors who claim they were paid more than $500 for any painting.

What about the reasons behind the setting up of a highly successful collection like Fletcher’s in the early 1960s and subsequent changes in its purchasing policy, or even the effects of changes in tax laws to the growth of corporate art collections in general? Or unsuccessful collections – like the Archdeacon Scythe collection foisted on a then grateful Dunedin art gallery by the very conservative curator, Mrs Pearse. What about dealers and their experiences with collectors? And why should collections be restricted almost entirely to paintings anyway? The Hocken Library has a map collection, but in order to gain access to it, you virtually have to break the doors down. Possibly the anti-elitist environment at Te Papa heralded by the siting of McCahon’s Northland Panels might also have led to considering the collecting of marginalised art items such as stamps. A complete set of the Health Stamps, for example, with their artists and their history, would be as interesting as yet another painting and might possibly be a philatelist’s idea of a dream collection.

But just when it became apparent that we aren’t going to learn a great deal about collecting or collectors, the second curator Ian Wedde heads the discussion off in an entirely different direction. He takes the word “dream” as the focal point of the exhibition/catalogue and the sense that the art works represent a collection of dreams – what are often loosely referred to as “visions” – of their authors. He is especially interested in the way images of the Pacific and New Zealand have traditionally been tarted up in literature and art and either been idealised backwards in history or utopianised forwards. As Wedde notes, the Maori art and artefacts transcend these preoccupations, the 19th-century ones with beautiful functionality and those of the 20th century with symbolism and motif. Wedde also notes that not all the works in the catalogue are specifically about dreaming, and finishes with the paradoxical conclusion that it is the artists who are the collectors of dreams, which I suppose pays a pleasant backhanded compliment to the collectors who look after – or pay money for – the dreams the artists no longer have room for in their own homes or studios.

The remainder of the book is a catalogue in which most of the artworks are reproduced and accompanied by a short entry giving their present location or background to the artist and a scholarly note about each painting. In the case of the 19th-century items, these notes are well researched and informative in a way that is difficult to do justice to in a review. The note about the watercolours of G F Allen and their purpose is a model in this regard. Most of the reproductions are of good quality although the browns of van der Velden’s Otira Gorge seem to have changed to milky greens.

With only a few exceptions, the notes alongside the reproductions rarely return to the raisons d’être of the Catalogue, either that set out by Southeran and Staines, or the other interpretation by Wedde. One exception is the Don Binney painting of Old Wellington Synagogue. In this instance, two of the previously identified collectors explain their reason for asking Binney to paint this particular work. All this material is specifically directed to what many may naively imagine the catalogue might have been about and wouldn’t appear anywhere else in a way that is accessible to the general public.

Wedde’s thesis about the arcadian and utopian dream is restated alongside a singularly unremarkable photograph of the Blue Lake at St Bathans by Peter Peryer. Wedde sees it as the collision of 19th-century arcadian and utopian dreams now folded together in a single landscape. Possibly. It could also be seen as an un-ironic cliché of a scene beloved of many amateur Otago landscape painters, attracted more by its easily recognisable slightly surreal overtones than its evocation of arcadia or utopia. To speak of the dry hills and plantations of fir-trees around it as arcadian seems to stretch the definition of the word to cover any landscape that doesn’t have human habitation.

One reviewer has praised the catalogue as value for money and indeed it is. Artists are indexed, their observations and sources footnoted, text and illustrations are sensibly organised in a horizontal format and the whole presentation is most attractive. Also the idea of dividing the era covered into two 50-year periods was sensible and avoids visual overkill. But when all is said and done, this catalogue is not much more than yet another survey of mostly paintings. From the catalogue/exhibitions title – and the intention stated in the foreword – many would be justified in expecting a little bit more.

Rodney Hamel is an artist and teacher who lives in the Waikato.

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