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Three Picks from New Zealand Art at Te Papa

Mark Stocker · 04 December 2018

Art historian and editor of New Zealand Art at Te Papa Mark Stocker shares his favourites from this impressive new collection. 

Mark Stocker

New Zealand Art at Te Papa edited by Mark Stocker (Te Papa Press, $75 Hardback)

New Zealand Art at Te Papa came about through the wish to bring out an attractive and informative publication, following on from the launch of Te Papa’s new Toi Art gallery. It initially was intended to update and replace William McAloon’s New Zealand Art: Cook to Contemporary, but it soon took on a life of its own and the resulting book is big and beautiful.

The scope extends from Cook’s voyages to brand new artworks specifically commissioned for Toi Art. While the book excludes customary Māori art and decorative art, it covers all other media and the profile of photography is considerably enhanced. From the outset, top quality illustrations were essential – the book is useless without them. Curators were asked to select what they considered the most important and attractive works from the collection. Then either the curators themselves or guest writers came up with the texts.

I was the sole editor, and wrote a number of texts myself, as well as the introduction and short historical/cultural summaries to cover each section as the book chronologically progresses. I didn’t find this difficult and while I can’t claim what I wrote was particularly original, I hope it’s useful in setting the scenes and encouraging readers to turn the pages, look and learn.

Handling the 60 or so contributors wasn’t much of a problem. If you are courteous but firm, people like and respect that and there are no cross words. In some instances I had to discard jargon or difficult writing, but invariably amicable compromise ruled the day. One of book’s pleasures for me is seeing which artworks face each other – in some cases confronting each other – and deciding in turn which works deserved double-page spreads. I’m particularly pleased with how John Drawbridge and Ralph Hotere face each other, Marcus King and Bill Sutton, Shane Cotton and Richard Lewer face each other … the list goes on. 

I hope readers will find this an attractive, enticing book that sheds an important light on the national art collection. And who knows, its inclusions could well influence what curators may install in Toi Art in the future.

In fancy dress

By H Linley Richardson

In Fancy Dress

In fancy dress (c.1930), oil on canvas, 878 x 1105 mm, purchased 1948

I love this family portrait of the Palmerston North based artist Linley Richardson, looking rather stiff and proper in white tie, surrounded by his three pretty daughters, Joan, Cynthia and Barbara. Cynthia holds centre stage with fairy wings and wand, and presumably it’s her birthday. Note her irresistible pudding-shaped head, which Joan has too. My fantasy exhibition would juxtapose Richardson and late Renaissance woman artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who shared the same traits and themes.  Richardson can draw beautifully in an old-fashioned art school way, and the textures of the girls’ silk dresses are impressively conveyed. It’s very bourgeois, it isn’t necessarily profound, it certainly isn’t avant-garde or experimental, but is very much of the early 1930s moment.  On the one hand it’s consciously modern, but on the other it is unbearably poignant and of a now distant age. This was not long before antibiotics became widely available, but not soon enough to spare Joan and little Cynthia who would both be dead within three years, leaving their grieving father to paint on.

La Nouvelle Zélande

By Margaret Butler

La Nouvelle

La Nouvelle Zélande (1938), bronze, 550 x 450 x 300 mm, gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1950

Margaret Butler is that rare instance of a woman artist getting overseas acclaim at the very highest level – from the French early modern sculptors Antoine Bourdelle and Charles Despiau – but being underrated and underexposed in her native country. After a triumphant decade abroad occupying most of the 1920s, Butler had to adapt to Depression era New Zealand, while her beloved Catholic church, both impoverished and unresponsive to great art, offered her very few commissions. Courageously, Butler – who was physically disabled – adapted her repertoire to embrace local, often indigenous people. She immortalises one of them, Miriama Heketa, a leading member of the Ngāti Poneke Young Māori Club, a charitable Wellington performance troupe, for her bronze bust La Nouvelle Zélande. She is given that title for two reasons – Miriama embodies all that is beautiful, gracious and hopeful about Aotearoa at the time – and the fact that Butler exhibited the bronze in the Salon des Tuileries in Paris in 1938.

Leapaway Girl

By Ian Scott

Leapaway girl

Leapaway girl (1969), oil on canvas, 1725 x 1515 mm, purchased 1971 from Wellington City Council Picture Purchase Fund

Pop art isn’t just popular, it’s actually a lot deeper than many people think. A case in point is Ian Scott’s exhilarating Leapaway Girl.  This is of course the swinging 1960s (which came a little late to New Zealand), the era of psychedelia, mini-dresses and ‘anything goes’ cultural and sexual permissiveness.  These aspects, yes, leap out at the viewer. A lot of looking and thinking has also gone into the work, from a wide and improbable range of sources.  Curator Robert Leonard has noted how Scott has replaced his art school teacher Don Binney’s signature ‘birds with dolly-birds lifted from fashion mags’. The leaping girl has a green dress with a vertical zip – an irreverent nod here at the abstract expressionist paintings of Barnett Newman. The weird topiary, kauri tries and waterfall quote from another revered teacher, Colin McCahon. And finally, the wispy cloud formations are inspired by the late landscapes of Rita Angus. Were Scott not such a clever picture-maker, the composition could easily fall to bits. But instead, he’s as triumphant as his eponymous girl.

NZ Art at Te Papa

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Mark Stocker is the Curator of Historical International Art at Te Papa.

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