Back and Beyond: New Zealand Painting for the Young and Curious
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
This is a delicious book. As a child, I would have loved it. It reminds me of children’s books that were called “big dippers”. They could be opened randomly for a story that was complete on a single page. Gregory O’Brien’s book follows this pattern. Back and Beyond is a companion volume to the award-winning Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People, published in 2004. The enjoyment of Back and Beyond starts as soon as you pick it up – the near square shape is good to hold, and, inside, a succession of clearly presented pictures and words are set off by generous borders of white space. The maps on the endpapers are a particular highlight. But it is what O’Brien has to say that offers the greatest delights.
The idea of someone taking a work of art and saying, “let’s talk about it”, would have been a revelation to me as a child. I can’t ever remember being encouraged to think about the content of a painting. At school, the same went for literature and poetry. We learned long tracts off by heart. We looked at formal structures – rhyming couplets, iambic pentameters, sonnets – but we were never encouraged to discuss in any depth the meaning of the works that we were studying. O’Brien turns this approach on its head.
In writing about art the way O’Brien does, there is a danger of becoming weighed down by analysis. He avoids this by making only suggestions, and inviting readers to forward their own interpretations. He does not suggest that the only valid interpretation of a work is his, nor does he say that this is what a particular picture means. He makes lively and interesting observations to encourage his audience to become more alert and inventive viewers. They are invited to bring something of themselves to an artwork as one does when involved in the creative act of reading a book.
Much of what O’Brien has to say is entertaining, extremely interesting and not very long. Maybe he is anxious to hold the attention of someone who is not used to looking at an image that stays still longer than four or five seconds. And there is a section towards the end of the book that invites the reader to think about some “things to do now”. It is as if an anxious parent or teacher is asking, “Have you looked at everything carefully?” This is a very useful section, though, and a good summary of the book. It could help a young viewer in approaching an artwork or assist a parent in planning a gallery visit or a teacher in devising an art appreciation programme.
O’Brien’s eagerness, though, to appeal to the young and the curious can at times be simplistic. When talking about Patrick Hayman, the maker of “The Indian Flier”, O’Brien suggests, “Bert Munro would have got along well with him.” Based on what I remember of Munro when I was growing up in Invercargill, he would more likely have thought that Hayman’s “Indian Flyer” was the work of a daft bugger and a waste of a bit of firewood and a good doorknob.
And of Marian Maguire’s “Mount Egmont from the Southward”, O’Brien says (and maybe he is quoting Maguire), “she places an Ancient Greek warrior alongside a Maori chief. The two characters are discussing things, playing a game or maybe they are plotting a future voyage together.” One might argue that these two are already taking a voyage together as representatives of the two main cultural strands that contribute to making up this country – the Græco-Roman and the Pacific.
But then this is the point of the book. Thinking about art in a freewheeling sort of way is what brings these works to life.
O’Brien’s selection of works is highly personal and not representative of all New Zealand painting. It leans heavily towards the primitive: the genuinely naive and the faux naif. Charles Heaphy’s “Kauri Forest” is the real thing, while the work of tertiary-educated Shane Cotton, Saskia Leek, Megan Campbell and others suggests that they have had no formal art training. Maybe O’Brien wants to point out the strong vein of primitivism that runs through New Zealand art. But nothing of this is mentioned in the text. Conventions, fashions and artistic trends found in New Zealand painting are put to one side so as not to get in the way of a good story.
When, on one occasion, O’Brien gets close to talking about a formal aspect of New Zealand painting – the “bright New Zealand light” – he quickly gets back to the general theme of the book and asks his readers to consider whether they think “New Zealand is a light or a dark place? Is it a gloomy country or a joyful one?” And finishes the section with a question that the book, because of its quirky collection, hardly equips a young reader to answer: “How has it changed over the past two hundred years?”
Most of the artworks in Back and Beyond were produced for adults and are of a narrative nature. But because these works are not associated with a written story, they avoid the sometimes derogatory tag of “illustration” and escape the fate of being regarded as something incapable of containing meaning on its own. Except for a tiny number of actual illustrations from publications for children – a cover from a 1954 School Journal, a drawing by Juliet Peter and some prints by Mervyn Taylor – there is little in this book that was initially intended for children. It would have been an interesting dimension in a book about art for children if some works included had been pictures made expressly for children. These would probably have been of a narrative nature too, as well as being related in some way to text. Perhaps linking them to the distinctive trait in New Zealand art where text is used in the body of a painting, could have justified the inclusion of work like this. Maybe this is something for O’Brien to explore in a future publication.
In Back and Beyond, O’Brien shows us how to approach a painting with an inquiring mind and imagination. His lively comments bring his chosen pictures to vivid life. This book is one that children and curious adults will dip into and relish for years to come.
Gavin Bishop writes and illustrates children’s books.