Talking Toss Woollaston, Gregory O’Brien

Toss Woollaston in conversation with Gregory O’Brien

I visited Toss Woollaston at Upper Moutere in September 1994 and over two days recorded two-and-a-half hours of conversation with him. During my stay, the talk ranged widely, with Toss speaking at some length about his mentor Mary Ursula Bethell and reciting by heart many of her poems (perfectly, as far as I could ascertain). Sitting by the fireplace one evening, he gave a heartfelt rendition of “Miss Bethell’s ‘Glory’”, with its euphoric opening:

This same evening that I write I witnessed,
Resting on a garden bench and looking westward,
Sublime splendours…


“Isn’t that what painting is about?” he asked. “Looking at sublime splendours.” In Woollaston’s creative life Bethell figured as a role model yet there were clearly aspects of her deeply conservative and formal character that distanced her from him. Bethell managed a reconciliation between the life of the writer/artist and the committed Christian which would never be quite such a simple matter for the painter.

Woollaston’s love of poetry was encouraged by Bethell, who introduced him to the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Over 60 years later, Woollaston could still recall reams of Hopkins by heart. In Sage Tea, which has just been republished by Te Papa Press, Woollaston remembers how, as a young man, he milked cows and memorised all 35 stanzas of “The Wreck of the Deutschland” “to the rhythm of the separator … while I turned its handle … The emphasis on each downturn of the separator handle produced a hypnotic monotone in my recitations”. Woollaston’s paintings are certainly rhythmical structures, full of the patterns and processes of both art and nature. Critics and art historians are only now starting to unravel what Woollaston’s characteristically tempestuous paintings are really about.


GO’B: Were you idealistic [as a child]?

TW: When I was five, I used to say I was going to be an artist. My mother on wet days would bring out some picture postcards and she and I would copy them in watercolour. Then I got so bored with how they taught art in primary school and, when in Standard Four or Five we struck Shelley’s poetry, I decided it was a poet I wanted to be. That lasted until I was eighteen and had left Taranaki to come to Nelson where, one day after church, a woman invited me home to lunch and I saw, for the first time in my life, actual paintings – watercolours. The woman taught me how to buy brushes and materials. Then I went to a professional in Nelson for a term or two and he said he couldn’t teach me any more and that I should go to the School of Art in Christchurch, the finest school in the land! He was a funny old Englishman. But I got bored there. It was like primary school all over again – learning perspective, shading skills, not showing pencil lines. And Mrs Kelly telling me that the edges of a round thing were always soft – the only words of instruction I can remember from the school of art!


GO’B: Why did you jump off poetry so quickly?

TW: Because I rediscovered painting. You see, I was painting when I was five. It was poetry when I was at school and they taught drawing so boringly. And then I discovered painting, watercolours, again.


GO’B: So the art school in Christchurch offered you nothing?

TW: It was tedious and laborious. What they taught was no different in principle from what they taught us at primary school in a back-country valley in Taranaki.


GO’B: What about the students? Was there a milieu of young artists waiting to do something, to get somewhere?

TW: No there wasn’t. But there was a show by The Group in Christchurch and I saw a painting that was exciting by a man called Robert Field. I had no trouble in making up my mind next year to go to Dunedin instead of Christchurch.  This diploma wasn’t available to me in Christchurch anyway because it took four years, studying three terms a year, and I had to earn my living in the apple orchard, so that was out.

The idea that if you want to be an artist you have to conform to what other people – the people who set exams – think was one I very easily and quickly abandoned.


GO’B: Did you see yourself as a pioneer in any way?

TW: No. I was following someone else who was a pioneer. I never thought of myself in that way. If there was any pioneering to be done, Cézanne had done it.


GO’B: What did you get from Robert Field?

TW: Freedom and exitement and he told you to do it your own way. You see, I went down there having been mauled about by Christchurch and I said to him, teach me to paint the way you do. And he was shocked – he said it has to be your way. That was a new world and a new thought altogether – you have to express your own personality. In Christchurch your personality was something you kicked out of the way, you didn’t let that show.


GO’B:  What about the nationalistic thing that was happening at the time? You did want to paint your relationship to this place?

TW: I never had any thoughts like that about painting. I wanted to paint what I looked at – I always had to have a visual subject. If it was hills in Nelson, I just wanted to paint that. After I saw Field’s work – his terrific disregard for academic correctness – I had more liberty to react as I felt in a painting. The freedom was there.  But I didn’t get intellectual direction until 1934 when I met a woman called Flora Scales who had been at the Hans Hoffman school in Munich, where they gave you theory and intellectual meat. With Field there was no intellectual meat; it was just your personality.


GO’B: So Field was after something intuitive in his paintings?

TW: That would be right. On that trip to Dunedin I also met Rodney Kennedy, who was a lifelong friend, and Edith Alexander, whom I married. It was a good trip to Dunedin, that!

Flora Scales was a great release. She gave me directions for thinking. You looked at Cézanne and you noticed that the horizontal line (in a particular painting) was not horizontal. You realised that his verticals weren’t quite vertical, but when you analysed it you discovered that this created atmosphere and a feeling that something has happened behind. So what other people called Cézanne’s inability to draw was in fact a system, a scientific thing and you studied it.

Dunedin was the most modern place in New Zealand – but after I had met Flora Scales I was a hell of a lot more modern than Dunedin!

It was Rodney Kennedy’s idea that I should have an exhibition in Dunedin to show them. Surprisingly, the Otago Daily Times review was good that time. I was sitting in the shop with a glass front (while the exhibition was on) with Ivy Copeland and she was in the process of buying a painting and I was very excited. Then an old man walked past with a walking stick and he stopped in the doorway and said: “The mind of a monkey, that’s what it is, the mind of a monkey expressing itself through a human, the mind of a monkey.” Then he tapped his stick and walked away. Ha ha!


GO’B:  How did Flora Scales influence what you were doing?

TW: Profoundly and instantly and constructively. She helped me paint pictures stimulated by what I saw in nature instead of trying to render an imitation. Nature was like the ingredients of a cook – you make it into something different.


GO’B: Did the paintings reflect a passionate attachment to place or were they technical exercises?

TW: They were a mixture of both. They were about passionate engagement, certainly, but they were also technical exercises, now I had a technique to use.


GO’B: So these things weren’t contradictory?

TW: No they helped each other. One gave you the material that the other enabled you to use, to control, to make things with. Pictures are things you make with material you have seen in nature. Just as a pudding is a thing you make with flour and stuff living in the fields; you don’t copy the flour or wheat or breadknife to make a pudding or a breadloaf. You do something with it. A loaf of bread – that never grew in nature! And it’s an exact parallel with painting!

Art has always been like that. Even if they thought it was copying nature, it wasn’t. Because you paint on a flat surface, and nature is deep …


GO’B: Did you know about Frances Hodgkins?

TW: She was somebody to admire. She was modern, far too modern for New Zealand. People thought she had this stupid, unwarranted reputation in Britain. They were proud of her because she was famous but they didn’t like what she did to become famous. This is a common situation – people like your reputation, but they can’t stand your work.


GO’B: Did you follow her work in the 1920s and 30s?

TW: I looked at reproductions of her work, but I didn’t deliberately try to paint like her. It was Cézanne I wanted to paint like. However, she was a fascinating painter. Some painters draw you to look at them – she was one – but, as far as I was concerned, they were mostly French, not many English. Rodney (Kennedy) was very fond of Matthew Smith, but I never got that worked up about him. It was the French who appealed to me.


GO’B: Your painting has always had a raw feeling; it’s never been delicate, has it?

TW: Raw?


GO’B: I mean that in a good sense.

TW: Raw is an unexpected word. Qualify it!


GO’B: The paintings have a lot of energy and gesture; they’re not intricate and fussy. You’ve always put in a kind of unpremeditated energy …

TW: You premeditate the construction, the relation between the parts but you don’t premeditate the brushstrokes.


GO’B: You don’t do any drawing on the canvas before you paint?

TW: I might put down a few lines, a swipe here and there.  I can’t stand being fussy … In the past I’ve often deliberately restricted my palette to very few colours: yellow ochre, an earth red and permanent blue (the one that’s right between green and purple).

I remember being impressed by a quote from Van Gogh who said, “I lash the canvas with irregular strokes and let them stand.” That could be a credo for me. Smoothing over work you have just done is going backwards. Tidying up is the devil – you don’t touch that in painting. If relations are wrong you make huge alterations, you don’t tidy up. You repaint the whole thing every time you touch it.


GO’B: Have you always worked en plein air?

TW: Only in watercolour. I’ve never painted oils in the open. Look at the size of them – the wind would blow them over. It would be impractical. Working outside, I draw in ink and paint in watercolour during the summer – I don’t go painting outside in the winter.


GO’B: You don’t ever paint from photographs?

TW: Hardly ever. I find them frustrating. They hide more than they reveal.


GO’B: Do you get sick of people asking you about your connection with Colin McCahon in the late 1930s, early 1940s?

TW: Not really. No one’s asked me in a while!


GO’B: I’m interested more in the whole milieu – Rodney Kennedy, Charles Brasch …

TW: Charles Brasch was a patron and he collected a lot of work. I met Rodney Kennedy at Bob Field’s place. He introduced me to this young boy of 17 – Colin – who was a particularly remarkable artist for his age.  The Otago Art Society had recently turned his work down for their
exhibition …

Peter McLeavey has just had restored two of Colin’s paintings done in the Marlborough Sounds over 1939 and 1940, probably at the beginning of the 1940 year.


GO’B: You’ve owned them since that time?

TW: Yes.


GO’B: One of them I thought was clearly influenced by you?

TW: He was for a moment, for a few years, influenced by me and then, after that time, tried to disown it for the rest of his life in subtle, quiet ways. But he did go through a period of influence.


GO’B: Did you like those two pictures? Were you influenced by his work at that time?

TW: Oh yes, I liked those pictures. I was always interested in his work.


GO’B: You did part company after a while – your concerns and his became quite different?

TW: Yes, now why did we part company? I think it was from his side – he decided he didn’t want to admit to being influenced by anyone. That’s probably the basis of it.


GO’B: You never wanted to produce draughtsman-like work or draw in a descriptive fashion?

TW: No. Painting is not description; it is creation. It’s not description unless it’s a certain sort of painting: illustration. Drawing is always essentially creation, not copying.


GO’B: Is it a different act painting a figure compared with a landscape?

TW: It’s very much the same, no matter what you are doing. What you’re worried about is making something out of areas of contrasting colours. What the subject is dictates to a large extent but not entirely.


GO’B: Landscape has been your main subject?

TW: No. The bulk of my drawings are of the figure. Drawings are much more important than is commonly realised. It’s possible I’ve done a few more oil paintings of landscapes than figures.


GO’B: It seemed the 1991 Museum of New Zealand retrospective portrayed you primarily as a landscape painter. Maybe – maybe that impression was given by the inclusion of a number of large-scale landscapes which took up a lot of the space … You’ve never wanted to do Still Life work?

TW: I’ve often wondered why I didn’t get interested in Still Life, because Cézanne was so interested in it. I look at things around here and I think I could possibly paint them, but they don’t force me to paint them.


GO’B: You’ve often had strong beliefs but you’ve never felt obliged or compelled to pronounce these messages from your canvases?

TW: Good God, no. Painting is not about messages. Absolutely the opposite. That would be posters. Messages are anathema to me.


GO’B: What about McCahon? He tried to use the paintings as a platform.

TW: It might appear so, but I’m not sure about that. When I looked at his paintings of letters and quotations, I thought he was using these as a subject for painting; he’s not telling a message at all.


GO’B: I thought maybe he got away with it because there was so much doubt in the paintings. They couldn’t be propaganda.

TW: When he paints letters on a painting, that is the subject of the painting – it’s what you look at – the shapes, the composition, the contrasting shapes and colours – and that’s what a painting is. The message may be there or not be there. A message can sell a bad painting to the public but a message doesn’t have to make a painting bad if the painter’s a good painter. I doubt if Colin’s are even messages. I think they are just words and letters – they probably provoke a kind of wonder and doubt. He probably wanted to paint in a way that people might look at it. I’m only guessing.

Cézanne said: “Let us make painting not literature.” I always felt this literary thing had become stifling. The Victorian convention of illustrating a good story or a moral is not what painting is about at all.


GO’B: Looking back on your work, do you like some paintings better than others?

TW: What happens to me after I have been drawing or painting is that I have an acute sense of failure. When I have just finished a painting, it is not a bit like what I meant it to be. But when I look at paintings some time later, I often think they look good. I’ve done enough now to know that while it feels like a failure it might not be.

The general public still thinks everything painted should be pretty and nice. A woman once said to me, “I don’t know why you paint like that. There are enough ugly things in the world already.”


GO’B: What about the use of distortion – the beak-like nose in one of your drawings we were looking at before?

TW: Sometimes features want accentuating because they have a funny quality or shape of their own. It’s about contrasting shapes. If you have something very round and a sharp angle square in it, you can emphasise it for contrast.

Somebody once said I only painted Edith so as to insult her.


GO’B: That’s a miserable thing to say.

TW: People who aren’t interested in art want paintings just to be like flattering photographs; and if they’re not flattering, there’s something wrong with them. They don’t know what you’re doing and they assume you’re doing it in terms of what they do know about, which of course you’re not. There can be no connection emotionally or intellectually with their reactions. So painting is a thing you do in relative isolation.


GO’B: Has your approach changed over the years?

TW: No, I’m still trying to do the thing I’ve always been trying to do; whatever that is.


GO’B: Often you’ve returned to the same scene.

TW: You’ve never finished with a subject. You’ve never found out everything there is about it.


Gregory O’Brien’s collection of essays, After Bathing at Baxter’s, will be reviewed in a later issue.


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