Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting, by Gil Docking, Michael Dunn and Edward Hanfling (David Bateman, 2012), 280 pp., $99.99; Behind the Canvas: An Insider’s Guide to the New Zealand Art Market, by Warwick Henderson (New Holland, 2012). 200 pp., $45; Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien and others (Ron Sang Publications 2012), 280 pp., $135.
Have rumours of the death of the pigment-slinger been much exaggerated? Three new books provide three different answers. The first version of Two Hundred and Forty Years of New Zealand Painting appeared in 1971, and was then called Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting and written by Gil Docking alone. A popular publication with a simple chronological format, it ran to two reprints (1975, 1980), and a second almost unchanged edition, before a third edition came out for the Sesquicentennial in 1990, which again left Docking’s four blockbuster chapters — ‘Exploration’, ‘Settlement’, ‘Transition’, ‘New Impulses’ — almost untouched, but added a new chapter ‘Painting Since 1970’ written by Michael Dunn. And now this fourth edition adds a chapter written by Edward Hanfling, entitled ‘Painting Since 1990’. Each author has kept to the same arrangement, chapter by chapter, of a short guide to the time-frame of several decades, followed by capsule essays on defining or crucial artists of the era.
Docking, an Australian, was director of Auckland City Art Gallery from 1965 to 1972, and his book was originally published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook’s discovery of ‘New Zealand’. A small flurry of other publications on the history of New Zealand painting appeared around the same time, but only Docking’s sweeping account has been enshrined with constant reprints.
However, art history has its fashions, as well as a relentless devotion to revisionism, and the monumental status of the original volume has now taken on something of the aura of a venerable institution: quirky, creaking, dated — albeit buttressed by the nouveau bijou additions of Dunn and Hanfling. The end result is the sense of a publication requiring supplementation by other texts, and this ‘story of New Zealand painting’ does supply a useful bibliography which reveals something of the extent of the current production mill of catalogues, anthologies, histories, biographies, autobiographies, polemics and surveys (though even this is incomplete). Moreover, the murky black-and-white pictures and glued-in muddy colour plates of the original have now been replaced with clear and accurate reproductions of some 170 paintings — almost all in colour, and the bulk of them historically-important images, serving to help keep the book alive, as a resource at least.
Docking brought the keen eye of an outsider to the small world of New Zealand art, and employed a succinct and urgent literary style whose lively quality remains engaging today, even if only for the sake of argument with his triumphalist narrative of progress, both stirring and misleading, as for example in its non-recognition of the emergence of Maori modernism and other forms of artistic dissent operating beneath the ‘Onwards!’ progress.
The illustrations begin with a 1769 pen and black ink drawing of a natural rock archway — a geological curiosity — at Tolaga Bay, executed by Sydney Parkinson, who sailed on Cook’s first Pacific voyage, though Parkinson was not primarily a painter, but rather a scientific illustrator. It is not until William Hodges made sketched on the second voyage of Cook and took them back to England to turn into oil paintings that the painterly invention of ‘New Zealand’ gets underway. Hodges delivers the genre of the ‘Sublime’: billowing ocean, multi-coloured thunderstorm, precipices, towering volcanoes, snowy pinnacles of mountains — in short, an epic sense of shock and awe, setting up expectations that the European traveller may encounter dark dense forests, vertiginous waterfalls tumbling into ravines, the Maori warrior looming on a crag, as in ‘A View of Dusky Bay, New Zealand’ (1773).
Into the nineteenth century, and the creation of enduring emblems of the scenic route gradually gathers momentum. Topographical artists whose picturesque motifs were often redolent of rural locations in England and Scotland (skilfully blending the exotic and romantic with the familiar so as to intrigue and encourage prospective settlers), began toing and froing across the Tasman — as in, have paintbrush, will travel.
Augustus Earle, Australia-based, spent six months in New Zealand in 1827-1828; likewise George Frederick Angus, two decades later; and between 1865 and 1869 Nicholas Chevalier made three visits to New Zealand from Australia, sponsored by the Otago and Canterbury Provincial Councils — they hoped that his salon paintings might attract migrants of the right sort.
Traces of the Sublime linger in the scale and scope of Charles Heaphy’s ‘Mount Egmont from the southward’ (1840), and also in John Buchanan’s ‘Milford Sound’ (1863); while the gauzy mountain vistas of John Gully are imbued with roseate optimism. Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky, borrowing from motifs of classical Greece to depict battle skirmishes, might have been painting to prove that the British Empire was one on which the sun never set and the blood never dried — but of course all artists were painting to establish the loyal colony’s orientation towards Europe.
Thus Docking’s assertive historiography gallops us forward on a cavalry charge through the nineteenth century, with just a single hiatus. This is a puzzled pause to consider the paintings which decorate the interior of the Rongopai Meeting House, built in 1888 at Pututahi near Gisborne to accommodate Te Kooti, the Maori Millennial prophet who never arrived. Created by anonymous Maori artists, and depicting boxers and jockeys and horse-racing amongst other motifs, the Rongopai collective work of art was considered so subversive by Maori elders that is was placed under a tapu for 75 years and the meeting house was never used. Such marginalised activity points to an alternative art tradition only recently being traced by art historian Damian Skinner and artist Shane Cotton, amongst others.
Docking resumes his saga of cultivated settlement with an account of a new wave of cosmopolitan immigrant artists — Girolamo Nerli, Petrus Van der Velden, James Nairn, Edward Fristrom — all of whom created indelible versions of the local in the styles of the various schools of which they were representative.
Arrival is succeeded by a wave of departures as Docking deals with the expatriate condition. Feeling exiled on the frontier of the Great Britain, the New Zealand-born artist yearns for the metropolitan centre, for the Mother Country, and hence departs into exile, often life-long.
After World War One, emergent nationalism begins to spread across the country expressed in regional variations: the familiar pack-horses of the Nationalist message, from ‘Taranaki” (1931) by Christopher Perkins, to ‘Pastoral’ (1959) by William A. Sutton. Nevertheless, Docking misses some undercurrents, such as the socialist subtext: the emphasis on dairy factories, train stops, hydro-electric dams as expressing communal solidarity.<
But his account of the change from the nineteenth century Pastoral to the anti-Pastoral of the mid-twentieth century is well told: the eroded hill, the burnt tree stump, the tumbledown farm-house, the glowering locals — what fellow import, art critic Peter Tomory, dubbed ‘the Dead Tree and Old Colonial House School’. This regional version of Romantic Modernism, derived from an etiolated British strain, was gradually being supplanted — as works by Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich and others signal — by the conceptual shift to more in-your-face versions of Modernism.
Docking explains the shifting landscapes lucidly, and takes us through from blasted-tree-stump school to the hill-ripple and smooth-beach-strand school of Don Binney and Robin White and company in what has become the standard exposition, though reading this oft-told narrative I found my attention more taken by paintings incidental to his schematic account, such as Louise Henderson’s ‘The Lakes’ triptych (1965), a rhapsody in blue, and by Helen Brown’s silvery-grey seascape nocturne ‘Night Race to Kawau’ (1959), with its ghostly, wafting sailing boats.
Other reviewers of this updated big tome have poured scorn on the retaining of Gil Docking’s inclusion of his wife Shay Docking’s mid-1960s paintings of Auckland’s volcanoes and islands, but as Iain Sharp points out in his 2008 biography of Charles Heaphy, Shay Docking is significant in that she appreciated and learnt from Heaphy’s topographical watercolours of the volcanic and harbour features of the Auckland isthmus.
When Gil Docking signs off in 1969, the change of narrator constitutes a change in emphasis. The merry dawn chorus of painting practitioners harmoniously adapting cosmopolitan influences into a provincial idiom begins to sound more like a series of early morning quarrels and duels, as schools are championed or attacked. Michael Dunn’s inclusion at the beginning of his section of McCahon’s big assertive abstraction ‘Teaching Aids 2, June 1973’ serves to suggest the centrality by this time of McCahon in the temple of high art; his ontological obsessions relentlessly pursued, make him the pedestalled patriarch, by which all else is judged, from the neo-expressionism of Philip Clairmont, Tony Fomison, Jeffrey Harris and Emily Karaka to the hard-line abstraction of Gretchen Albrecht, Max Gimblett, Stephen Bambury, journeying toward flatness. Assimilationist assumptions begin to fracture into assertions of Maori sovereignty, feminism, ecology and other kinds of identity politics — as well as pure painting, as exemplified by those associated with Peter Vuletic’s Auckland gallery between 1972 and 1976 (Mrkusich, Bambury, as well as Gordon Walters, Geoff Thornley, Ian Scott, Richard Killeen). Pop collagist made common cause with colour field painter at a time of canon-busting that mutated into the iconoclasm of the 1980s. But not a lot of this can be gleaned from Dunn’s short, diplomatic and once-over-lightly account.
Edward Hanfling, handed the relay baton — or lecturer’s pointer — is more forthright, necessarily so, given the contemporary explosion in career-minded professional artists and the buoyant art market, and the concomitant necessity to cull the lengthy roll-call of talent. Hanfling narrows his choices down to elevate the marginal and those who might be said to celebrate the end of painting. In this way, he unites the transitions from the colonial explorer and settler painter to the mid-twentieth century heroic Modernist, to the anti-heroic expressionists and abstractionists of Dunn’s chapter, to the ‘ironic’ painters of the past two decades.
At the end of Dunn’s chapter is positioned Ian Scott’s ‘All Black Painting’ (1990), with a title which puns both on McCahon’s eschatological struggles with the Void, and on rugby sporting prowess as an emblem of the nation’s identity. Scott here becomes the post-Nationalist par excellence, teasing out the implications of globalisation with a painting which is a kind of rhetorical question-mark: has McCahon’s ‘heroism’ been hollowed-out?
Hanfling, next up, begins his chapter with ‘Boulder Bay II’ (2001) a painting by Bill Hammond of mock-classical bird people: musing, distance-gazing ‘kiwis’, possibly. The painted insignia here are acknowledgment, in Hanfling’s terms, that painting is now a matter of texts to be decoded, but this instability of meaning also turns painting into a neurasthenic and sickly activity; one reduced to self-conscious quotation. Key-note announced, we next get surfeit: anonymous vinyl road signage from John Reynolds, candy-bright, computer-generated stripes by Sara Hughes, the marshmallow-sweet palette of Saffronn Te Ratana. Then paint itself turns mobile. Leaving the canvas behind, painting is harnessed by sculptures and installations so that ‘edges’ and ‘frames’ turn amorphous, invisible. Hanfling seizes on the work of two painters in particular to celebrate the End or ‘an end’. A painting by Patrick Lundberg, ‘No Title’ (2008), offers a chunk of builder’s plasterboard and a pair of pale monochrome stripes — what could perhaps be part of a design indicating a corridor. This painting is, in a way, excavating the ruins of painting, presenting the ghostly shadow of a formerly monumental enterprise. This painting’s psychosomatic, in that it’s uncovering the hidden, the unsightly, the reverse side of a ‘painting’ (or painted ‘wall’), and revealing tape strips, scuff marks, reject material, something part-way through a make-over, like a rejigged space in a shopping mall.
The last image in the book is Hanfling’s final piece of evidence for the death of painting as an heroic, anti-heroic or even ironic art practice. It is Raewyn Martyn’s ‘Landing’ (2008). Here, paint has been reduced to accidental-seeming splotches, a mistake. The artist has slung or dribbled random dabs of coloured pigment on the staircase leading up to the Enjoy Gallery in Wellington. Inconspicuous, almost invisible, this is a collection of abject stains in a stairwell, needing to be whitewashed, sanitised, removed, painted into industrial anonymity, while we wander up and down gazing into our digital screens. Significantly, the work has been preserved in a series of colour photographs.
So the momentum of Docking’s triumphalist narrative finally collapses, thoroughly negated by enigmatic fragments and preposterous framing — a kind of reductionism, a form of eradication: the paintbrush seized and thrown away.
The dogs bark and the art caravan moves on. Oscar Wilde wrote in 1886: ‘It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.’ Warwick Henderson is an art auctioneer, but he is also a dealer gallerist and an art collector, with his own preferences and favourites. In his book, Behind the Canvas: An Insider’s Guide to the New Zealand Art Market, however, Henderson writes about the good, the bad and the institutionalised in a fairly even-handed way by not embarking on any critiques at all. Instead, he tacitly acknowledges the complex interactions between matters of personal taste, art world opinion and art-makings incorrigible pluralisms by retailing a variety of personal reminiscences and anecdotes about the milieu of auction rooms and dealer galleries. There are also the forgotten family hand-me-downs stashed in garages, basements and attics and unearthed from someone’s home after a death notice appears in a newspaper’s obituary column.
His book, then, is about the mechanics of buying and collecting, the laws of supply and demand, while acknowledging the collector’s mania, the impulse to collect, the ‘must-have’ bug. In short, most of Behind the Canvas is simple, commonsense advice — with the occasional rueful or joyous personal story to underline the need to maintain perspective.
It seems the wherewithal to be a collector can be reduced to three things: confidence, canniness and cash. Buying art is an emotional investment as much as, or even more than, a financial investment so buy artworks you like looking at. There are a few handy hints regarding authentication, most of them obvious. Some other patent points are: a market starved of work by sought-after artists increases their value; whereas it’s also possible for the art market to be flooded by the sudden release of a hoard of an artist’s works, leading to devaluation.
He advises not buying art on eBay or TradeMe, and also emphasises the importance of consulting many publications and visiting many galleries if you wish to understand the contemporary art market. That, too, states the obvious. It might seem that this book is intended for nervous Nellies , unsure of their own taste. or for absolute beginners, but this book also belongs in any collection of books about New Zealand art primarily for one reason: it is a personal memoir of the art world written by an enthusiast who is also an insider, a player, able to communicate the excitement of the hunt, the pleasure of personal discovery, the fulfilment of ownership.
Happy trails of paint lead to Patrick Hanly (1952 – 2004). Hanly is a coffee table book just about the size of a small coffee table; it is also a tour de force of production values: yet another in the extraordinary series of large monographs published by Ron Sang (on Len Castle, Ralph Hotere, Michael Smither).
In his Introduction, Gregory O’Brien offers the observation that Patrick Hanly is our laureate of summer painting, bodied forth as a sensuous emanation of light and heat and being, further stating: ‘he was a jazz drummer at one end of the concert hall while, at the other end, Colin McCahon played the church organ.’
So Patrick Hanly signifies the artist in the old heroic mould, throwing himself into everything with a will. His was an art of catharsis, of transformation, of self-invention. Puckish, he was of the zeitgeist, but also slightly ahead of it. Early on, intense reds were his colour note; then came green, gold and blue — oceanic blue. His motifs included: the triple-masted sailing boat headed for Eden, for Paradise; Mount Eden itself, the Auckland tumulus, the cool green volcanic cone; the lush garden in bloom and the summer sky; the Waitemata Harbour. Throughout, he was a voluptuary of paint, employing the dancing line that might trace the dance of a butterfly over flowers, as well as the artfully choreographed splashes and dribbles — the Ab-Ex splatter-spree invented by Jackson Pollock, but reinvented by Hanly in the course of his adventures into painting as speculation and prophecy. Numinous and luminous, Hanly’s spectroscopic swirls mark him out as a Romantic, a follower of William Blake, and like him a visionary, a seer, as McCahon was a seer.
In Hanly, his biography is told as a series of reminiscing essays by his friends. John Coley outlines childhood days in Palmerston North, Quentin Macfarlane recalls their years at Illam School of Art in Christchurch, Dick Ross writes about the London years 1957 – 1962, immediately after art school. Russell Haley writes of kite-flying with Hanly in the heady late Sixties, and Barry Lett recalls the murals Hanly made in the 1970s. The exuberance of these latter works is revealed in a sequence of fold-out pages, which wonderfully bring together now long-dispersed panels originally designed for the new Auckland International Airport terminal in 1976. The book is rounded out with a detailed chronology of the life and well-chosen photographs, many of them taken by Hanly’s wife, the photographer Gil Hanly.
In the Sixties, Hanly experienced political consciousness-raising, first in Europe, then back in New Zealand, in a way that paralleled that, to an extent, of Ralph Hotere. On the turntable, Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was the anthem as Hanly hurled paint at the canvas as a form of gestural politics. The red of a conflagration of flames represented both the threat of nuclear warfare and the sub-atomic fire of matter itself.
In London Hanly spent time with the Australian lotus-eater and virtuoso brush-man Brett Whiteley, who encouraged him to return and seek the Bodhisattva in the South Pacific. In the Seventies, this would entail protesting first against French nuclear-testing at Mururoa, and then against the presence of American warships carrying nuclear weapons in New Zealand’s territorial waters — he did this by sailing on protest yachts and then painting the experience. Hanly’s choppy swirls, his agitations of paint, made the turbulence of the sea equate to political and social turbulence. His ‘Pintado Protest’ (1978) reveals a shadowy totemic nuclear submarine almost engulfed by expostulations and exclamation marks of swirling colour that evokes an angry sea and an angry crowd of protest marchers equally.
Elsewhere, Hanly’s Pacific was emblematically pacific: the incandescence of blinding sunlight reflected off of flower petal and ocean wave alike — made possible because of a silky lustre afforded by new synthetic paints becoming available.
In the ‘Golden Age’ paintings of the late Seventies and early Eighties, a kind of animism prevails, under the mythopoeic benediction of the all-seeing solar eye of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Masonic iconography and the US dollar bill. The solar was central. Hanly used painting to clarify his thinking, as Hanly reveals. The book is a celebration of his brilliant intuitions; the copious illustrations are always warm, the close-ups of details often exhilarating. But after the lyricism of kites anchored in the sky and unmoored dinghies bobbing, came the debilitating condition of Parkinson’s Disease associated with his last paintings, when he was forced to work collage style with sawn-up pieces of nailed-together painted wood, a bit like the elderly Matisse gluing painted pieces of paper together. The late style of both artists invokes Picasso’s observation that painting is the sum of its destructions. Yet this too, suggests Hanly’s spirit of invincible optimism as he continued with affirmative variations on that flatly emblematic, heraldic style, which, Sixties pioneer that he was, he helped usher in for Don Binney, Richard Killeen, Robin White, Ian Scott and others — another way of keeping painting alive and kicking.
DAVID EGGLETON is the Editor of Landfall Review Online.