Realistic fictions, Helen Watson White

The Art of Peter Siddell

Peter Siddell

Godwit, $74.99, ISBN 9781869621872

In 1982, when Peter Siddell’s painting Urban Memory, 1982, was purchased by the Christchurch Art Gallery, no one could have dreamt how much value such an image might accrue when that city’s centre and much of its architectural heritage was destroyed. Readers of Godwit’s substantial new book – the first – on Siddell will see, however, that the landscape preserved in Urban Memory is not actually Christchurch. It looks like Auckland, where the self-taught painter lives and where – his introductory essay reveals – he has been developing his craft for more than 40 years.

The view in the painting both is and is not of Christchurch; more puzzlingly, it is and is not of Auckland either. The tall white wooden villa that dominates not just the foreground but the entire picture is notionally paired with a towering cumulous cloud which also dominates – not just the background, but the whole. The composition consists of two whitish edifices, one land-based and the other airborne, with contrasting hard and soft edges, shadows and details. The two forms battle it out, as it were, on an otherwise bare stage; the streets, the far houses and near rooms seen through the villa’s windows are all empty of people, like a stage set. All is still; it’s only a formal battle, more like a frieze or display. A moment in time – but whose time?

The answer is clear: this is Siddell’s time, Siddell’s place, and Siddell’s “view” of that place. What I’ve called the battle is his also; he started it, arresting the clock when the competing forces were at a point of perfect balance. He constructed the whole thing to appear like a conventional place-painting, a landscape – which can mean anything from an oil-painting to a calendar photo. But what kind of landscape gives you a crowded corner of tiny houses and trees occupying less than a quarter of the picture plane? Actually, Renaissance portraiture does this – a sort of incidental landscape, a pastoral miniature – but in this case, and in the powerful preface-piece, Homecoming, 1976,the portrait is of a building rather than a person.

Although it’s not your usual landscape, it at least looks realistic, in its exactly-executed style. But while it purports to be mimetic, to be realist – the default setting for expectations of landscape style – what is it representing? Like most of the other urban studies, it is not imitating any existing configuration of houses and streets, although several unique buildings and topographical features (the terraced volcanic cones, for example) are unmistakably Auckland. The tall house in Urban Memory, 1982 could be an actual building the young Peter passed on his paper rounds, or it could have no model in reality.

It’s certainly a designed house, with red-and-gold stained-glass echoing (or echoed by) the choice of furnishings – down to red-gold fruit in a bowl on a light-oak table. Self-consistent design suggests it is a one-off, a symbolic construct, which would be true even if it did have a physical counterpart.

Each Siddell image – there are more than 120 in this 288-plate volume – is removed in several ways from the artist’s (or anybody’s) physical experience of Auckland or any other city. Realism in painting, like naturalism in the theatre, is at base a fiction or faction – something made. Further, the reproduction, a picture of a picture, is not the object that Siddell laboured over in his studio, as he himself acknowledges. Paintings, he says, “must be seen in the flesh to be comprehended – a reproduction at its best can only give a vague indication of what the work is about.”

This important admission comes in the context of a Spanish trip described in his “View from the Antipodes”, written for the catalogue for his 1996 exhibition of that name. It was the masterpieces of Velasquez, Goya and El Greco, he says, that drew him to Spain: “Like generations of painters before me I stood speechless in front of Las Meninas and marvelled at the Burial of Count Orgaz.”The “memory” in Urban Memory, 1982, includes – at however many removes – a memory of art.

In his essay opening this volume, Siddell tells how he was introduced to unmediated artworks by childhood visits with his mother to the library, museum and Auckland City Art Gallery. That was where he later saw Cantabrian W A Sutton’s Nor’wester in the Cemetery, and as a boy encountered the 1891 painting For Such is the Kingdom of Heaven by English artist Frank Bramley. While its subject, a child’s funeral cortège, would seem to have nothing to do with Urban Memory, 1982, its plein air approach (figures in landscape) and treatment of colour certainly do. Siddell loves it still, he writes, “because it has a marvellous gradation of tones; the white is just wonderful.”  The gradations of greyish white in Urban Memory, 1982 – as in so many works, especially the Sutton-influenced Open Gate, 1972 – probably owe something to American Andrew Wyeth too.

Michael Dunn’s essay on Siddell, which places him in a continuity of landscape-painting in these islands, is prefaced by an observation (from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited) that “we possess nothing certainly except the past” – meaning the past in both life and art. This sentiment (expressed quite unsentimentally) is reinforced by everything Siddell writes in his essay and notes on the works. It is not that he is living in the past; rather, that the subject-matter, the energy and spirit of his work all have their source there.

Experience of variations on the Victorian villa in the neighbourhood of his home in Grey Lynn in the 1930s provided the rows of houses of that era in his sprawling cityscapes, and probably also the public buildings, churches and corner shops given prominence in some foregrounds. A family bach at Titirangi gave access to bush and estuary shoreline, which appear in later paintings as distilled memories, sufficient to themselves but redolent with significance for anyone who’s ever holidayed by water in a watery land.

The house the Siddells later built at Karekare added Auckland’s West Coast from Muriwai to Whatipu to the artist’s remembered territory. The book displays in two foldout pages the magnificent sweep of this landscape seen from the beach, in five stunning panels of identical size and scale. For all Siddell’s imagining of architecture in landscape – familiar monuments, chapels and other constructions appearing in locations bearing no relation to their original settings – he is also very interested in landforms with no buildings at all. The five-part coastal series Western Walk presents the land as having its own architecture – of bulging headlands, cliffs, rocks and slopes much older and more enduring than any human creation. South Rocks, 2008 has the same elephantine grandeur.

Siddell’s youthful tramping and climbing experiences, with a concomitant respect for nature, form the basis of some of the most spectacular landscapes I know in New Zealand art. From Mangaweka, 1999, a largely fictional panorama of river gorge and mountain plateau, to City and Mountain, 2004, a dramatic re-configuration of Christchurch, the Alps and the Canterbury Plain, it is arguably his eccentricity that distinguishes this artist’s vision. To prevent any alignment with calendar-picture realism, Siddell not only invents a new way of looking at the world, he invents a new world.

He also respects other artists’ tributes to nature as much as he respects nature. Fiord, 2000, effulgent with the same pearly light that turns his city suburbs into fields of heaven, seems in its sculpture-like composition, its tone and atmosphere, to salute watercolourist John Buchanan, whose beautiful Milford Sound, Looking North-west from Freshwater Basin (1863) became known from the 1971 cover of Gil Docking’s Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting, when Siddell was starting out in his career.

The personal, biographical element in this book is invaluable in helping us perceive the works as the idiosyncratic creations they are. To a history of encounters with paintings by ancient and modern European masters is added Siddell’s introduction, initially through his artist wife Sylvia, to the now-great New Zealand names: Rita Angus, Don Binney, Toss Woollaston, and (her Elam tutor) Colin McCahon. That list is growing all the time; in the last decade both the Siddells have received honours for their services to art.


Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer and photographer.


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