Collier reclaimed, Jane Clendon

Edith Collier: Her Life and Work 1885-1964
Joanne Drayton,
Canterbury University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 908812 90 6

Edith Collier left New Zealand in 1913 in order to study art in London. (Ironically, she arrived there just in time to miss Roger Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition.) The next nine years in the UK were exciting and creatively focused. With the guidance of the energetic and forceful Australian painter and printmaker, Margaret Macpherson (better known as Preston), and the energetic and dedicated Frances Hodgkins, Collier’s art and intellectual understanding developed, and she began to experiment with the new modernism. After the war, Macpherson returned to Australia, securing her hold as a professional artist by ensuring financial security through marriage to a wealthy businessman. Collier returned to the family from whom she had never become independent. Only Hodgkins stayed, resolutely turning her back on the strictures and conventions of middle-class New Zealand. Hodgkins escaped; Collier did not.

Up to now, Collier has gone unacknowledged as one of our early modernist artists. Drayton’s Edith Collier: Her Life and Work 1885-1964 should play a key role in giving Collier this overdue recognition. Besides offering biographical facts (many previously unpublished), Drayton explains and evaluates Collier’s work in terms of early 20th century artistic practice, and also from a feminist perspective. Her scholarship shows in the range of sources she draws upon and in her confident explication of the cultural contexts of Collier’s studies and art. She makes use of the few earlier publications that address Collier’s work and continues the line of Janet Paul’s 1980 essay “Edith Marion Collier 1885-1964” (collected in Edith Collier in Retrospect, 1980) in which Paul argues that Collier is “one of a number of women painters in New Zealand whose talent has far outweighed its recognition.” Like Paul, Drayton’s judgements are unobtrusively but clearly substantiated, and Collier’s importance as an explorer of modernism is persuasively asserted.

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Drayton’s study was published in association with the travelling exhibition “Edith Collier and the Women in her Circle”. Opening in August 1999 at the Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, this has been to the Auckland Art Gallery and to the Dowse Art Gallery in Wellington, and will travel the country until July 2001.

The book’s 58 colour reproductions of the art works are clear, with colours close to the originals, but, as is almost always the case, with less impact than the originals. In the travelling exhibition some of the paintings are less well-defined and crisp – more sensuous – than they appear in the photographs. The exhibition surrounds the viewer with the influence and power of Collier’s teachers, Macpherson and Hodgkins, and inevitably invites comparison between her work and theirs. Among the confident, strongly coloured,
delineated, shaped and firmly centred compositions of Macpherson and the equally confident, more sinuous and subtly coloured paintings of Hodgkins, Collier’s compositions appear more tentative. Rarely, except in the works done in 1920 in her final year in the UK, are her images centred. Rather, the colour, shapes and lines seem to circle and hover as if she works from the outside edge, towards but never reaching the centre of the canvas or paper. Of course, such apparent failure to address the centre may be a deliberate (modernist) exploration of emptiness, of space, or even of one’s talent – a quiet assertion by Collier of her potential for growth inherent in the lack of the confident finish and closure that so forcefully define Macpherson’s and Hodgkins’s paintings.

Drayton dates Collier’s early inroads into modernism from her work with Macpherson at Bonmahon in Southern Ireland, first in the autumn of 1914, and then again in 1915. It was Collier’s burgeoning modernist vision that was increasingly the stumbling block to her family and friends’ comprehension or appreciation of her work. New Zealanders liked their art plain and straightforward. Increasingly, Collier’s wasn’t. Under Macpherson’s tutelage, she made etchings and monoprints of Irish cottages and coastal scenes. She also did portraits. In particular, Peasant Woman of Bonmahon and An Irish Fisherman, both from 1915, show Collier using oil on canvas to create subtle colours and textures whilst also achieving images of solid, simplified, flattened form. Drayton describes such effects as evidence of “a new Post-Impressionist vision”.

Collier may have met Hodgkins in St Ives in Cornwall as early as 1915, but it was not until 1919 that she began working with her, by which time Collier had developed her own style towards further abstraction and expressive use of colour. Serviceman in Attic studio, c1917-1918, shows a soldier (most likely a family member on leave from France whom she looked after). The figure, objects and sloping walls of the attic room alike are flattened and simplified into bold forms, interacting with strong orange, yellows, greens and purples. Here Collier is using form and colour expressively rather than descriptively.

When the war ended, Collier stayed on in London, and saw the Exhibition of French Art and an exhibition of Matisse and Maillol. In 1920 she joined Hodgkins’ summer school at the artists’ colony of St Ives. Her paintings of that year show a new firmness, boldness, and confidently sensuous fluidity that suggest the influence of  Hodgkins’s artistic experimentation and focus. A friend wrote prophetically: “I wonder how your people will take your pictures on your return to N.Z.?!”

The following year Collier’s family withdrew financial support and she was forced to return to Wanganui to a society characterised by what Janet Paul has described as a “poverty of understanding”. Thirty-seven, unmarried, Collier resumed living in the family home and caring for relatives, a role she filled for the next 42 years, with painfully few excursions into art-making. The most poignantly memorable incident from the New Zealand years – and one that has gained Collier an unenviable niche in art history texts – was in 1926 when her father burnt some of her works. Collier was firmly and inextricably back in her place, in Presbyterian, middle-class Wanganui, “an artist without aesthetic sustenance in her own country”, as Paul succinctly puts it. Now, finally, Drayton has succeeded in giving Collier recognition as an early modernist, and her book will, I hope, help to bring Collier’s work to a wider public.

Jane Clendon teaches humanities courses at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

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