Picking winners, Mark Stocker

Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer
Jill Trevelyan
Te Papa Press, $65.00,
ISBN 9780987668844

Landscape Paintings of New Zealand: A Journey from North to South
Christopher Johnstone
Godwit, $75.00,
ISBN 9781775530114

Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising 
Peter Alsop and Gary Stewart (eds)
Craig Potton, $80.00,
ISBN 9781877517969

These three art books fulfil three distinctive functions and, on the face of it, would appeal to three different audiences. Peter Wells proclaims that “Every thinking New Zealander” should have a copy of Jill Trevelyan’s Peter McLeavey on their shelves. I warmly concur. Christopher Johnstone’s Landscape Paintings of New Zealand, with its shorter text and more traditional theme, risks being underrated in comparison. Yet it, too, deserves appreciation from “thinking” New Zealanders (and non-New Zealanders). Probably the least cerebral, but indisputably the most scrumptious offering is Promoting Prosperity, whose cover – Edward Cole’s poster design Wahine with Apples (c. 1930) – says in as many words: “Eat me!” Really, we should enjoy all three books – and with a clear conscience. Unlike music, where Alessandro Scarlatti and Kylie Minogue aficionados rarely overlap, visual culture is forever crossing boundaries between “high” and “low” art, elitism and populism. Call me promiscuous, but I can admire both the classic modernism of Gordon Walters and the sleek “Jetsons” aesthetic of his commercial contemporary, Bernard Roundhill. There is a place for Walters and Roundhill alike in the nation’s art history, whose confinement to a traditional canon – and one still largely upheld in Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity 1930-1970 (2009) – appears increasingly precious and dated.

Yet it is Peter McLeavey’s great personal achievement to have created something of a canon with the stable of artists he has chosen, chopped and changed for his Wellington dealer gallery over the past half-century. Accorded privileged access to its archives, Trevelyan intelligently, readably and tactfully tells McLeavey’s – and the eponymous and synonymous gallery’s – story. His life and achievement are heartening, from rags (literally so, in the decrepit pullover he originally wore, soon discarded for a pinstripe suit) and early financial losses, to unostentatiously enjoyed riches. McLeavey’s struggle to convince an archetypically philistine New Zealand of the “rugby, racing and beer” era that modern, contemporary and even abstract art mattered and was worth collecting, predictably provides more compelling reading than his success, fame and star status of more recent years. Lacking a formal aesthetic education – Irish in background, Catholic, provincial and poor – McLeavey was born over a decade before going to university became the done thing. Yet he more than compensated in his steely determination, his vision – a good eye and a good ear for who was being talked about – his intellectual energy and, above all, in his flair for subtle salesmanship that would win accolades aplenty in Promoting Prosperity.

Like Giorgio Vasari in 16th-century Italy, McLeavey picked winners: a roll-call of his stable reads like a Who’s Who of New Zealand art. Starting with Toss Woollaston, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Michael Smither, Don Binney, Milan Mrkusich and Michael Illingworth in the heroic early years, the roll-call extends more recently to Bill Hammond, Peter Robinson, Liz Maw and Yvonne Todd. I ruefully admit that I would have tipped only the last of these for the top, whereas the others slowly grew on me, and one or two never have. Like much of the rest of the New Zealand art public, I have been left behind, critically and financially, in the process. As McLeavey’s personal qualities make him far more sympathetic than Trevelyan’s previous subjects (the often arrogant and dogmatic Woollaston and the tragically unstable Rita Angus), my reaction is one of unalloyed admiration rather than carping envy.

The book abounds in anecdotes which are nicely woven into the narrative and are often highly revealing of a diverse array of brilliant, egotistical, neurotic and otherwise impossible men (the women, apart from Merylyn Tweedie, appear altogether more reasonable). Sometimes the anecdotes are funny, although not always intentionally, as when McCahon earnestly tells McLeavey: “You were born & bred to the Catholic faith – for that you were exceedingly lucky.” One feels for McLeavey when he informs the exasperating Billy Apple that his decision to discontinue handling the latter’s work is because “I’m tired. Tired.” Artists can also be angry people, as when McCahon called the National Art Gallery “that arsehole palace of flopped painting”, at the very moment (1978) that it was proposing to buy his Northland Panels. The gallery – and, still more, its sister institution the New Zealand Academy (my emphasis) of Fine Arts – were doomed to constitute McCahon’s and McLeavey’s clichéd establishment enemies. One of my few criticisms of Trevelyan is her apparent endorsement of this adversarial “Kiwi modernist” stance. Despite the excellent, but uncited, revisionist research of Warren Feeney, she feels compelled to belittle art galleries outside Auckland and art societies in general, when the fuller historical picture is more complex and interesting.

In this account, as in Pound’s Invention of New Zealand, Walters emerges as arguably the key figure in late 20th-century New Zealand painting, both in the integrity of his personality and, more significantly, in the quality of his art. This is reflected in his recent sale-room performance, where the gap with McCahon has narrowed, while Woollaston languishes beside the popular Peter McIntyre, surely the ultimate indignity. Although Woollaston may not be this reviewer’s favourite painter, he necessarily plays a central part in Trevelyan’s account as something of a father-figure for McLeavey. It is, moreover, to McLeavey’s immense credit that he was instrumental in persuading Woollaston, however belatedly, to paint his signature landscapes on a boardroom scale, resulting in his one brush with greatness.

The reader is taken through a more catholic (as opposed to Catholic) journey in Christopher Johnstone’s Landscape Paintings of New Zealand. This publication represents a tremendous improvement on its original edition (2006) in terms of reproduction quality, with 32 new plates added. In his relatively brief and unmodified introduction, Johnstone plays it safe over what he calls “this light business”. By that, he means Hamish Keith’s and Gordon H Brown’s original thesis – in my view a compelling and unfairly maligned one – about “the distinctive qualities of New Zealand light” and its centrality to so much of our art. Much more has been said about this and is quoted here. The English immigrant Christopher Perkins believed that New Zealand’s “marvellous light” ensured its future as a country for painters, while Owen R Lee complained that “One of the troubles in New Zealand is that the light is so hard. If you can get a morning which is smoggy then you can evoke a sense of mystery.” Johnstone’s claim that landscape painting is “not generally considered part of the modernist project” is memorably denied by Douglas Badcock, who asserted: “if we don’t see beauty in nature any more, then we’re nowhere”.

The book begins logically enough in the Far North, with Arthur Hipwell’s glorious, Kelliher Award-winning Mt Taratara (1957), and concludes with the “economic, fluid and deft brushstrokes” of Maxwell Walker’s little-known Sunset, Paterson Inlet from Observation Point, Stewart Island (1939). These two works alone suggest a different reading of mid-20th-century New Zealand painting to that of McLeavey and Trevelyan. There were alternatives to Woollaston and McCahon, and their repeated iterations in this book are revealing. Indeed, one could construct a plausible counter-canon, in which the following would feature: Helen Brown, Grace Butler, Russell Clark, Esther Hope, Cecil Kelly, Rata and Colin Lovell-Smith, Peter McIntyre, Harry Miller, Trevor Moffitt, and more besides. The list would culminate with Cedric Savage’s Aftermath, whose haunting qualities foreshadow the landscapes of Peter Siddell.

Johnstone’s commentaries are admirably researched, workmanlike and readable, while his choice of images, in which he balances geographical location, artistic quality and, no doubt, reproduction fees, hits the spot. Fascinating comparisons and segues abound: John Holmwood is surely a latter-day William Mathew Hodgkins, while John Weeks is memorably followed by Leonard Mitchell, whose Summer in the Mokauiti Valley is evocative of the English artist Samuel Palmer – on steroids. There is, however, one Rita Angus too many (Mountains Cass adds nothing to the iconic Cass) and, although Charles Howorth (represented in four plates) is supremely competent and ubiquitous, he is also somewhat boring. While Johnstone gets no help from Milan Mrkusich (“You want a landscape? Take a drive in the country!”), Binney, McCahon, Smither and Woollaston are all appropriately represented.

Biggest, best value for money and offering the greatest instant gratification is Promoting Prosperity, a pictorial survey-cum-celebration of the art of New Zealand advertising before colour photography and television changed things permanently. The beautiful, if frustrating, format is identical to that of its predecessor, Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism (2012). Of the many highlights, Joseph Moran’s art work for New Zealand tobacco, Try It! (c. 1935) out-frizzes Dick Frizzell; Gilbert Meadows’s svelte Art Deco couple have their Anchor butter made “by appointment to the very best people”; while the Railway Studios New Century iodised salt tin multiple uncannily anticipates Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup counterparts by a decade, although the critical support of Arthur Danto to declare it major art was sadly lacking. The 11 essays vary in quality, but all of them, like the advertisements themselves, are frenetic and fun. However, Peter Alsop is pushing it to claim that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes were “biblical adverts on instruction from the Catholic church”. While they fulfilled propagandist purposes on the part of their patron, Pope Julius II, Alsop overlooks the private function of the chapel in its early history, not to mention Michelangelo’s complex theological iconography. Brian Sweeney’s essay, “Kiwi chutzpah: the art of the sale”, is a jaunty historical farrago, somehow covering Edward Gibbon Wakefield, “one of the greatest of all New Zealand salesmen”, women’s suffrage, the omnipotent All Blacks of 1905, Joseph Edward Nathan, and industrial designer Joseph Sinel, all in one fell swoop. Other contributions ‒ from Gail Ross, Warren Feeney, Felicity Barnes, Noel Waite and Richard Wolfe ‒ are tantalisingly short, but altogether more scholarly.

While it is tempting to treat Promoting Prosperity as an entertaining end in itself, this book, like its predecessor, has potentially significant implications for New Zealand art history. The interplay between commercial art and fine art is far more intricate and interesting than has previously been acknowledged. A still life painting by Mabel Hill was appropriated for a Railway Studios poster, advertising “The Mosgiel Rug: The Traveller’s Friend” (c. 1925). In turn, Gilbert Meadows’s 1933 advertisement for ATM cigarettes surely provided a hitherto unacknowledged precedent for Rita Angus’s celebrated Self-Portrait (1936-7; Dunedin Public Art Gallery).

Gail Ross convincingly argued, in Selling the Dream, that commercial art was several years ahead of fine art in embracing the modernist aesthetic. Failing to explore this nexus further would, Alsop warns, “reflect poorly on the scope, generosity and accuracy of New Zealand’s … art history”. It is my profession’s challenge – and, in a field like this, it should be our delight – to respond accordingly, rather than repeat the familiar litany.


Mark Stocker teaches in the department of History and Art History at the University of Otago.


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Posted in Art, History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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