Ian Wedde, Gregory O’Brien & Bernadette Hall
Joanna Margaret Paul’s The Stations of the Cross, Church of St Mary, Star of the Sea, Port Chalmers
Joanna Paul was living at Port Chalmers in 1971, renting a little yellow house. She made meals for the local parish priest. I was teaching at St Dominic’s College in Dunedin. She was also a staff member there, teaching art. This was the year she married. The year Father Keane invited her to paint her own vision of The Stations of the Cross on the plaster walls of the little Catholic church. The art was celebrated for a while and then it seemed to disappear.
For some strange reason, over all the years since, I had never seen the paintings. I didn’t go searching for them. It was as if I didn’t believe in their existence. They were shrouded in silence. But in 2016 I made it my business to go and have a look for myself. The paintings are indeed there, safe and sound, concealed under ‘blinds’ – ubiquitous Renaissance prints that hang down, dark and gloomy, from hooks in the walls. When you remove the blinds, brilliant colours rush into the consecrated space. It fills with light. Your heart lifts. You are connected to the hills, the harbour, the very human story of suffering and sacrifice.
In 2018 I curated a celebration of The Stations in the little Port Chalmers church. The aim was to reset the artworks within the ritualised space, to surround them with language that was a living response. The following essays by Greg and Ian, read aloud by Alan Roddick, were a significant part of this.
Stations of Joanna: A response by Gregory O’Brien
It was through my aunt Rita, who was a Home of Compassion nun based at Jerusalem, that I first met Joanna Margaret Paul. This was early in the 1990s. In a memoir written a few years later, Joanna recalled my aunt Rita ‘administering “homeopathic doses” of love and honesty’ during a tough period in Joanna’s life. For her, the Hiruharama convent had been a sanctuary and place of restoration.
Religion, for Joanna, was neither a simple solution nor a way out – it was a central element in the ongoing, unceasing dilemma of being human. Religious faith was a conundrum that was going to require a lifetime to come to terms with. Yet for all its complexity, faith was something that could – by way of poetry or visual art – be approached and expressed with the greatest calm and clarity, as is very much the case with her Stations of the Cross, in Port Chalmers. The Stations speak of humility, innocence and – importantly – empathy.
In notes accompanying the 1997 exhibition, ‘Being Human’, Joanna wrote in praise of empathy – not only fellow-feeling between individuals, but also between the artist and the tradition they inherited. Joanna saw empathy as an empowering and refreshing quality. She thought it undervalued in the present artistic climate, running counter as it did to modernism’s fixation with the self-contained art-work, ‘the singular thing’. She was equally perturbed by post-modernism’s preference for ‘appropriation, quotation, allusion and subversion as modes of dealing with the past’. She saw these approaches as being ‘expressions of estrangement’ – whereas it was the exact opposite to estrangement that she sought in her art.
Her Stations of the Cross are an utterance, a prayer or hymn offered, on behalf of empathy – a statement of solidarity with family, community and humanity at large, and also with the tradition of Western religious painting, which she knew and loved.
Writing about Joanna’s art in my book Lands and Deeds in 1996, I quoted Anthony Burgess’s assertion that the words and images ‘that glorify the commonplace will tame the bluster of history’. Looking at the thousands of paintings and drawings that make up Joanna’s oeuvre, one is struck by the inspired discontinuities, the tentative yet eloquent washes and speculative, tenuous markings. A barbed wire fence in a landscape dissolves into air; a line drawn in pencil loses itself in the whiteness of the page. Another lesson learnt from Joanna: by looking at half a bowl we learn to see a whole bowl. By omitting all foreground detail, the viewer is shunted into the middle ground. A half of a hill goes missing. Nothing is abandoned. Yet another lesson. A choreography of attentiveness. The hole in the road that brings us to a greater awareness of the road.
The choreography of empty space was one of Joanna’s great and defining skills as a painter. The Stations are a case in point. Therein the faces of her subjects are left white, their emptiness a kind of translucence – a tabula rasa, even. (Cynthia Greensill has written perceptively about this aspect of Joanna’s work in a 2015 issue of Tui Motu.) By concentrating colour in the space between and around the figures, she highlights the points of interaction, contact and separation. Her Stations are an honouring of these spaces as they are of the emblematic figures of religious faith.
I remember in 1995 being charged with the task of persuading Joanna to contribute to the anthology The Source of the Song: New Zealand writers on Catholicism (edited by Mark Williams). Joanna shunned any notion of piety or religiosity in the public sphere. For her, it was private business. At length, however, and acting out of a sense of solidarity with good friends who had written for the book, among them Bernadette Hall and Anne Noble, Joanna gave in and contributed a soulful piece titled, characteristically, ‘On not being a Catholic writer’.
Joanna’s faith was reminiscent in many respects of the non-conformist, paradoxical, empathetic, restless spirituality of Simone Weil. Joanna’s Stations insist that we stay with this world rather than leave it. Her art suggests, in its quiet way, that we learn to inhabit the world in a manner which is poetic as well as spiritually inclined … that we accept the inconclusive and unresolved aspects of life on the planet … that we keep in mind Wallace Stevens’ assertion that ‘the imperfect is our paradise’ … that we make of this, our world, what best we can.
Joanna Paul’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ – Ian Wedde
How to paint, and how to look at, paintings of religious subjects, is a difficult question to answer simply. Much depends on the conditions of belief in which the paintings were made. For example, are the paintings located in a religious space such as a church, or in an art museum? Was the artist a believer whose motivations derived from personal faith, or an apostate whose motives were in some degree subversive, or a hack doing a job for money? Were the paintings to some degree the result of patronage and their task therefore to glorify the piety, or prestige, of the patron rather than to represent a subject of spiritual devotion? Do the paintings conform to doctrine and therefore represent the power of religious authority to manage and objectify the narratives of belief, or do they convey the artist’s personal, subjective religious beliefs?
And then: is the viewer of paintings in various ‘conditions of belief’ a pious viewer? A non-believer or even a radical secularist fond of quoting Denis Diderot’s ‘Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’? An art historian more interested in the circumstances and genealogy of the paintings and the ways in which they shape the viewer’s responses, than in their fundamental religious purpose? An otherwise indifferent tourist briefly awed by the splendour of grand religious architecture?
Mostly these are not either-or situations, but these questions (and we could ask many more) help us to understand not just why looking at religious paintings is complicated, but perhaps why looking at Joanna Paul’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ at the Church of St Mary, Star of the Sea in Port Chalmers, is not complicated.
When my twin brother and I were about eleven we went with our parents to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua where we saw Giotto’s frescoes. Their vast complexity was completely beyond me, as was their spiritual purpose. I’d had no religious instruction and so the narrative of the paintings was also a mystery. What I still remember, though, was a sense that despite the bewildering complexity of the chapel’s interior, something very simple was happening.
A few years ago, my wife Donna and I visited Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire du Vence. Here was an architectural environment containing wall drawings and stained glass that appeared rigorously, if gently, simple; but despite the experience of simplicity what I retain is a sense of complex equanimity.
Colin McCahon’s many variations on the Stations of the Cross also appear radically simple. But the symbolic uses to which McCahon put the Stations were diverse and often conflicted, their iconography shifting ambiguously across personal belief or doubt, landscape invested with wairua, and various allegorical narratives. One of my favourites is a pencil drawing in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery, ‘Stations of the Cross 4, Doesn’t Christ meet his mother’, 1973. Two upright rectangles that we know represent the gannet colonies at Muriwai, one with ‘Necessary Protection’ and ‘a small sea bird wonders who he is’ scrawled on it, the other with ‘Protection’ and ‘Muriwai’, and between them, the winged cipher of a bird launching into space and several scrawled words, including ‘freedom’. Here, the axis of religious significance seems to have tilted into, or been appropriated to, a personal story – but would it be wrong to deny the drawing a religious or spiritual function as an allegory of faith and doubt?
Joanna Paul’s Stations in the Church of St Mary are in an unambiguously religious environment, their religious narrative and purpose are also unambiguous, and they are simple paintings with straightforward historical antecedents. Joanna Paul knew what the Stations represent and she had her own kinds of belief grounded in Catholicism. It would be presumptuous to associate the paintings’ simplicity with the simplicity of the artist’s beliefs, which were not doctrinaire. What comes across from the paintings is better described as sincerity – a straightforward transcription of belief both personal and historical, and of the conditions of spiritual experience. The amount of unpainted white in the paintings is familiar in the context of Joanna’s other work in which she very often chose to leave out rather than overcomplicate. This was true of her photographs and films also. Like the Stations, these very often panned across a subject, refusing to fill in more than perception could in that instant. Perhaps what her Stations are saying is don’t make too much of this, allow the sequence to move on without requiring it to legitimise complexities beyond the reach of the moment. That leaves space for the viewer, who may be a believer or not, and for whatever histories they want to bring into the moment of viewing. The artist has not presumed to second-guess either.
IAN WEDDE is a poet, novelist and critic. His work as an art critic in particular led him to curate a number of key exhibitions and work as the head of art and visual culture at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa from 1994 until 2004. His poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies, and in over 13 poetry collections. He has also written several novels and books of essays. He was editor of the 1985 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, co-edited with Harvey McQueen. He was awarded an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2006, and he was the 2011–13 Poet Laureate for New Zealand.
GREGORY O’BRIEN is a poet, painter and editor. Parihaka: The art of passive resistance, edited by Gregory O’Brien and Lara Strongman, jointly received (with Michael King) the Montana Award for History and Biography at the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Two of his co-authored works, His Own Steam: The work of Barry Brickell by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien and Pat Hanly by Gregory O’Brien and Gil Hanly were finalists in the Illustrated Non-Fiction category of the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Pat Hanly was announced the category winner. Gregory O’Brien was awarded the Stout Memorial Fellowship for 2015, and continues to publish both art criticism and poetry.
BERNADETTE HALL has published ten poetry collections and edited several. Her work has been widely anthologised nationally and internationally, including ten times in Best New Zealand Poems. In her work she has collaborated with the artists Joanna Margaret Paul, Kathryn Madill and Robyn Webster. The Press honoured Bernadette for her lasting contribution to literature in the South Island (2003), and she was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry (2015). In 2017, Bernadette was admitted to the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature.