Not getting it, Christina Barton

The Big Picture: A History of New Zealand Art from 1642
Hamish Keith
Godwit, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869621322

I have thought for a long time that a series on the history of art in New Zealand would make for good television and serve as an important means of communicating to a wide audience our rich and fascinating visual inheritance. In many senses the six-part series The Big Picture, produced by Filmwork for Television New Zealand and screened in late 2007, fulfilled my expectations. Lavishly filmed by acclaimed cinematographer Leon Narbey, the series brought to life images and objects, knitting them into their wider historical, social and cultural contexts with effective editing of live and historical footage, to tell a compelling story about what artists have made over the course of our history from 1642 to the present.

In my imaginings of such a series I too had come up with Hamish Keith as a possible narrator, as someone who knew the history, had strongly held views on what he thought mattered, and could speak fluently about his subject. As anticipated, Keith unashamedly made the series his own, openly acknowledging his was a personal view and relishing the opportunity to make some pointed jibes at those he believed held back artistic potential and spoilt the pleasure of pure engagement; just the kind of opinionated position-taking that lends itself to the medium. Though he lacks the verbal panache of Robert Hughes or the scholarly bravura of Simon Schama, Keith deserves to join the likes of James Belich (The New Zealand Wars) and David Mitchell (The Elegant Shed) as a strong personality, capable of bringing a perspective to bear to tell an engaging story, verbal mannerisms and awkward gestures included.

Keith’s background surely endeared him to the programme’s producers. Though his career trajectory guaranteed his credentials for the job – art school graduate, curator, art critic, cultural commissar, freelance art consultant – it was probably less these professional roles (notably played down by Keith), than the fact that his interest in the subject is not academic, nor has he been associated recently with any institution. Indeed he prides himself on being a free-wheeling generalist, the perfect candidate to mediate art for a mainstream audience. What’s more he was already media savvy, having worked as a radio and television broadcaster, importantly making (with Bruce Morrison) the Profiles series of documentaries in 1982 on six New Zealand artists that now provides fascinating archival footage.

Such credentials, however, do not necessarily augur well for his related role as author of the publication that accompanied the series. Indeed, reviews so far of Keith’s book, The Big Picture: A History of New Zealand Art from 1642, have generally castigated the writer for his avoidance of basic scholarly conventions (no footnotes, nor a bibliography, imprecise captions, inaccuracies in dates and details) and for the closeness of his text to the script he delivered on camera. The book is therefore limited to its role as by-product of the series, offering readers little opportunity to take the subject further.

Not many art history books feature their author on the cover (in fact I cannot think of any), so Keith’s appearance here cannot go unremarked. Indeed it seems to me that this artwork is a key to the anomalies within which Keith’s project is mired. By putting the writer in the limelight, the cover identifies exactly whose personal views the book contains. Further his placement in front of Shane Cotton’s You say, A,B,C (1994) demonstrates just where his allegiances lie, setting the stage for the opinions that follow. Even Keith’s pose lends itself to close reading, for it shows him nicely framed by elements in the painting, conveniently colour-coded to match the canvas, as if he is naturally in synch with the work. Notice how the juxtaposition of the painted letters “A,B,C” and Keith’s cocked head gives the impression he is listening, reinforcing the author’s contention that art emits a message for anyone sufficiently open to receive it. Yet, this image proves incontrovertibly just how effectively representations serve to mediate reality, encode meanings without delivering us directly to their subject.

Inadvertently, perhaps, the back cover further underlines this troubling thought, by showing (and I’m guessing here) a detail of this same image, massively enlarged so that any hint of its subject dissolves into patterned pixelation. Could this in fact avow the distance that intervenes between depictions and what they represent, deliver us to the alienating effects of representation, and thereby contradict Keith’s core message?

While Keith’s interpolation of himself into his “big picture” might serve the needs of the mainstream media, it limits the potential of his project as merely somebody’s opinion. This is reinforced by the author’s failure to acknowledge his many sources. Not only is he drawing on a lifetime’s engagement with art, but also passing on received wisdom acquired from the many books that probably adorn his shelves, and taking advantage of new knowledge being produced in the very academies and institutions he despises. Keith’s views are formed in and derive from the surrounding discourse. This needs to be acknowledged if the genuine value of Keith’s enterprise – which is to tap into a richly expanded view of New Zealand’s art history – is to be appreciated.

Comparison with An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839-1967 (1969) – the first overview of art in New Zealand Keith co-authored with Gordon H Brown – is instructive. When this was first published, Keith was still keeper at the Auckland City Art Gallery (where Brown was also working). Together, they laid out a history of painting, profiling a handful of key practitioners, drawing on the gallery’s rich collections, and self-consciously building on the scholarship of their predecessors (E H McCormick, Una Platts, Peter Tomory). Their tone is authoritative and dispassionate, while the book’s trajectory is kept taut by a clear argument about the role of New Zealand’s light and landscape as stimulus for the best of what they were chronicling. Their account begins with official settlement and closes in the present, focusing principally on home-grown artists (mainly male) who were all of European origin. Sources are referenced and each image properly captioned; underscoring the fact that this is the work of professionals working in an institutional context.

Almost exactly 40 years on, the view of art in New Zealand has radically changed, and Keith does his best to canvass how. Now the time frame widens, going back to Tasman’s ill-fated landfall in 1642 and to the rock shelters of South Canterbury, and moving into the 21st century. Now not only painting is addressed, but also sculpture, architecture, craft, film, photography (in passing); even design (flags, stamps and coinage) rates a mention. Most importantly, the story of Maori art is told as a parallel history with its own heroes and villains, but also for the rich interactions that have galvanised both Maori and Pakeha art production. And the narrative is set against a broader social and cultural context so that art is thought of as arising out of and feeding back into the worlds in which it is made. Past omissions and blind spots are addressed: the focus on landscape is exposed as the myth of a largely urban society, while the fate of New Zealand artists who left the country is freshly introduced. Old terms like ‘distance’ are reconfigured and new ones like ‘difference’ find their place.

But in the end, the fact that Keith has not been intimately involved with art historical scholarship since he left the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1970, nor active in the contemporary art scene, takes its toll. Still the same artists are singled out as champions of the culture: John Kinder, Alfred Sharpe, Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, Colin McCahon, and Pat Hanly. Though the pantheon has now grown to include William Hodges, Augustus Earle, Bill Hammond and Shane Cotton, they merely extend the reach of Keith’s trust in the primacy of painting and the value of clear seeing. If the original governing metaphor of New Zealand’s hard light has gone, it has been replaced by the image of the “braided river”, but this still connects art to the land, even to Canterbury, the crucible of regional realism. Perhaps what is most distressing is the almost complete lack of connection with contemporary practice. At least when Keith wrote his first book he was passionate about the art being made around him, and, as his reviews in the Auckland Star prove, a sympathetic respondent to what was going on. But now he simply does not get it, relinquishing the opportunity of communicating a sense of what it means to be an artist in the present and sadly living up to his self-appointed role as curmudgeon.

It seems churlish to criticise The Big Picture, given its entanglement with the sweep and selectivity of a television series; given that it is the first account of New Zealand art to canvass more than a single medium; given that it is the first to address the properly bicultural nature of our history. However, I very much hope publishers will follow up The Big Picture with fuller and more detailed publications that showcase the extraordinary scholarship Keith draws on but does not sufficiently acknowledge. The demand for a fully nuanced and enriched portrait of our art history has yet to be met.


Christina Barton, art historian, curator and writer, is currently director of the Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review
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