Earlier this year I spent some time in New Zealand and visited Wellington, Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown. I had been to New Zealand once before, but had never particularly read up on the NZ art scene or history. While I was there, I visited a number of galleries and it was interesting to see which artists’ names kept cropping up. Whose work is repeatedly collected and shown in public galleries? And which artists’ works stood out to me, as a non-native, with little knowledge of the NZ art world.
Here’s my list of NZ artists I came to know and a little more about them.
001 Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947)
Of all this list, Hodgkins was the one artist whose name I had somehow encountered before. Perhaps as she made her name working in Europe. She first travelled to Europe, alone in 1901, staying in the UK with family friends, as well as visiting France and Italy. She both studied and taught art, during her early trips to Europe. She surrounded herself with a coterie of female friends, some also expatriate artists from New Zealand and travelled extensively on the continent.
And wherever she went, she was sketching. I get the impression she was always looking at the world, eyes wide open, fascinated by the life and colour around her. From friends, to homes, to landscapes, to scenes.
I love the honesty of her mark-making, not trying to overcomplicate her observational drawings. Looking across her body of work on show at the European Journeys exhibition in Dunedin, I sense a wrestlessness, continuously flitting between media and subjects. Perhaps very much reflective of her itinerant and independent life. She made her last trip to New Zealand in 1912 and remained in Europe for the rest of her life. At times living in London, Manchester, the South of France and Ibiza. She settled in St Ives during the WW1 and became friends with Babara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and other artists living in the area and experienced the Blitz during WW2, when she was living on the South Coast of England.
She worked continuously throughout her life, showing her works in Europe, New Zealand and in America. It is not until the late 1930’s that she starts to garner more critical acclaim and achieve more commercial success. At this point she is well into her 60s, still travelling within Europe and returning to themes of landscape and still-life. In later life she frequently brings the two together, combining the interior and exterior worlds. She is clearly influenced by works by Matisse, Picasso and Braques that she has seen in Paris, yet her style remains distinctively her own. Her love of still-life, even extends to choosing this to depict herself, rather than traditional self-portraiture.
Happily in 1940, at the age of 71, her work was selected to represent Great Britain for the Venice Biennale. And her work is held today in many collections throughout the UK, New Zealand and elsewhere around the world.
002 Len Lye (1901 – 1980)
I first spotted some of Len Lye’s work in the Té Papa permanent collection in Wellington. A bewitching, experimental film, Tusalava, that rooted me to the spot in the gallery. It is inspired by his travels in the Pacific and time living in Samoa, where he studied traditional pacific Tapa design. Lye said, ‘As a New Zealander, I had a perception of island art such as Polynesian as more vital than the art of European civilisation’.
Throughout his life, Lye trod an independent path, educating himself and experimenting prolifically across media. He travelled to Europe in 1926, literally under his own steam, working as a coal-trimmer on a steamship. In London he experimented heavily with film, to glorious vibrant effect .. painting directly onto 35mm to make films without a camera. As well as Tusalava, above, he made ‘A Colour Box’ in 1935 – a pulsating, brightly coloured, that you can watch online at the BFI archive .. do not miss this entirely joyous 3 minutes of art film history!
Above: Stills from ‘A Colour Box’ by Len Lye, 1935.
In the UK he was friends with Frances Hodgkins and like her was part of a circle of artists that included Babara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. He was part of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London and continued to live in the UK until the end of WW2. From there he moved to New York, where he continued to experiment with film, write, paint and also started making sculptures. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that he visited New Zealand again. Today the Len Lye Centre at the Govett Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth houses his archive and continues to show his work. It’s firmly on my art to-visit list!
003 Rita Angus (1908 – 1970)
Rita Angus dedicated herself to drawing and painting life in New Zealand in all its forms. From landscapes throughout the country, botanical studies, to a great many portraits. Her style gently oscillates throughout her career, from delicate realist studies, to bolder flatter modernist works. Her landscapes are now regarded as some of the most iconic paintings of New Zealand. Yet during her life she received little critical recognition and didn’t have a solo show of her work until 1957, at the age of 49.
Throughout her life, she revisits of her own self-portrait. She documents her changing appearance, her relationship with nature and the world around her. Her life is unconventional – she marries young, yet leaves her husband young and never remarries. During her life she suffers ill-health, miscarriage and a nervous breakdown, yet her work always continues. She is an independent thinker, a socialist and committed pacifist, appearing in court to conscientously object to work orders during WW2. As she says, ” as an artist, it is my work to create life and not to destroy.”
Later this year the Royal Academy has a retrospective of Angus’ work planned, Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist, fingers crossed it goes ahead.
colin McCahon (1919 – 1987)
Colin McCahon was the artist who inspired this article. I’d never heard of him, yet from just a few public gallery visits I could discern he was the big cheese of the New Zealand art world. From the number of pieces of his work on display, their prominence, the extensive curators’ notes and other artists’ response and homages to his work.
In his early career McCahon explored biblical stories and traditions in art, populating New Zealand landscapes with modernist figures and playing with simple text in his works. Suffice to say his work was often deemed beyond the pale, some people offended by his treatment of religious themes and others by his modern style.
He travelled to the US in the late 50s, seeing paintings in the flesh for the first time by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Rothko. Throughout his life he continued to explore themes of religion and philosophy and push both conceptual and practical boundaries. On his return from the US he started to work on unframed and unstretched canvas and on a much larger scale. He described Pollock’s paintings as “pictures for people to walk past”, which seems almost the instruction of his 1973 work, titled “Walk (Series C)”. The series marks his personal experience of walking along his local coastline, as well as the 14 stations of the cross in Christian belief and Maori belief in the travels of departed spirits. Currently it is beautifully displayed in Te Papa in Wellington, NZ.
Last but not least, he is an artist in dialogue and a dialogue that is still continued by artists today. In 1964 he made a series of work called Waterfalls, it features over a 100 pieces inspired by William Hodge’s paintings, made when he was the draughtsman aboard Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific. In particular McCahon responds to his painting made in 1776, called ‘Waterfall in Dusky Bay with Maori canoe’. In itself it is a serene, peaceful image, yet raises questions of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand and the ‘birth of a nation’. In his work, McCahon radically simplifies the forms and sheds the pink, hazy romantic light of the scene. Artists today are still responding to this series, such as the recent mural The Falls by John Reynolds, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Ralph Hotere (1931 -2013)
About his work, Ralph Hotere famously said :’There are few things I can say about my work that are better than saying nothing’. But it turns out there is a lot to say. Hotere’s upbringing was one of strict Catholicism, blended with the Maori traditions of his Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa heritage. In 1961, he travelled to Europe, studying at the Central School of Art in London, witnessing the emergence of the Pop Art and Op Art scenes. He spent significant time in France, studying at Vence, home of Matisse’s modernist Rosary Chapel and travelling to Italy, where he visited the site of his brother’s death in action in WW2. So it’s unsurprising his work mediates many layers of thought and influence.
Take for example Hotere’s Black Phoenix sculpture, made of the charred remains of a fishing boat destroyed in a local disaster. Its title references ancient Western mythology, of the Phoenix bird resurrected from the ashes, and a symbol adopted by many. From early Christians, to the black political rights movement, Hotere encountered in London in the 1960s, with a radical magazine published under the same title as Hotere’s work, ‘Black Phoenix’.
In his arrangement, the surviving prow is resurrected, standing proud and flanked by the ribs of the boat, which echo the traditional layout of a palisade around a pā, (Maori settlement). Hotere scrapes back the blackened remains to reveal the natural timber beneath and inscribes a Maori proverb of renewal, ‘Ka hinga atu he tetekura, ara mai he tetekura’ (‘When one fern frond dies another takes its place’). Made in the 1980s, this work was a significant contribution to the emerging dialogue of regeneration and renewal of Maori culture within New Zealand. It provoked political questions, evoked religious and mythological imagery across a spectrum of cultures and referenced local events and environmental concerns.
Today Black Phoenix II, a companion sculpture made of the same charred fishing boat is stands high on a hill, overlooking the harbour at Port Chalmers. In 1969 Hotere was awarded the Frances Hodgkin fellowship at the University of Otago. He moved to nearby Port Chalmers, at the far tip of New Zealand and the port of departure for many Antarctic expeditions and resided here for the rest of his life. A selection of his works are also on show at the nearby Eastern Southland Gallery, in Gore. They show the breadth of his work, from lithographic prints, to collaborations with poets and dancers in the shape of banners used for the performance Song Cycle, Prayer , as well as paintings, in his characteristic palette, heavy with the colour black.
Vivian LYNN, 1931 – 2018
Vivian Lynn’s work jumped out at me in the Te Papa gallery in Wellington, New Zealand. On display is her ‘Book of 40 Images’ which considers the position of women in New Zealand society. She plays with text layout, to create imagery from words and is unafraid to incorporate economic data too.
Despite New Zealand being the first country to grant all women democratic rights, back in 1893, 80 years later Lynn is still struck by the inequality between men and women. I particularly feel her awareness of the inequality of expectations in these prints from the colour version of here Book of 40 Images.
Throughout her career Lynn developed work that continuously questioned what it is to be a woman and what position women hold in society. She was interested in the myths and stories we tell, as well as the physical female body. From an early stage of her career she experimented with unconventional materials from jelly to human hair. And in her latter work she often created large scale installations bringing these themes and materials to bear, in her own distinctive way.
Her work has received some recognition within New Zealand but her rich and varied body of work deserves far greater attention. If you’re feeling curious, you can nosey through her archive of drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, installations and more online.