New Zealand Painting and the Benson and Hedges Award


The organisers of the Benson and Hedges Award have hoped that their foreign judges will be free of prejudice. Wishful thinking, especially in the case of an art museum curator from as close as Sydney, responsible for Australian art.

I had plenty of preconceptions about New Zealand: preconceptions based on a shelf of books and catalogues in my personal library (used mainly to follow the New Zealand careers of itinerant Australians), on several exhibitions of New Zealand art seen in Sydney (I had bought for myself a small painting by Colin McCahon), on two brief visits to Auckland (1966,1975) and on meeting quite a lot of New Zealand artists and museum people in Australia over twenty years (one of them, now a curator in Adelaide, is among my dearest friends).

The main preconception was an idea of bookish sensitivity and scholarship, of painters mixing with poets, of exhibitions being honoured with beautifully-produced catalogues - much better than Australia's - and of painters themselves being interested in words and typography. That fantasy is probably out of date.

I assumed that McCahon's painting towered over the whole history of New Zealand art; and that he and other established painters whose work I knew and admired, Gordon Walters, Toss Woollaston, would not appear in the slightly undignified context of a competitive art exhibition. They didn't.

I knew from the exhibition Twelve New Zealand Artists, which toured Australia in 1975, that avant-garde sculpture, process art, performance art, etc. were probably stronger in New Zealand than in Australia, that Bruce Barber's work was of international quality, and I suspected that James Allen was the mother hen who had created that scene.

So, in accepting the invitation to judge the 1976 Benson and Hedges Award, I was consciously planning to fill out my existing knowledge of New Zealand art. How was painting getting on when so much energy was focussed on sculpture and post-object art? Were there other veteran painters I didn't yet know about? And what were the younger painters up to?

acrylic, 149.8 x 149.8 cm
(collection of the artist)

Working through two-hundred-and-fifty paintings with the instruction to choose an exhibition of twenty-five I had with me Anthony Green, Professor of Art History, University of Auckland. He usually knew which slickly imitative student paintings should be reconsidered for a grain of individuality, and above all which clumsily-reticent middle-aged paintings should be reconsidered for a genuine expression of some peculiarly regional content.

For example Selwyn Muru's Resurrection of Te Whiti over Taranaki was at first sight just another 'school of McCahon' piece, sombre, lettered, religious, yet its strength and dignity were soon asserted, and its Maori political consciousness, once explained, made it an important and moving work. A couple of days later, seeing pohutukawa trees growing horizontally out of vertical cliffs on Auckland's North Shore, Muru's resurrected figure, growing horizontally out of the painting's vertical framing-edge, suddenly gained additional meaning.

Ralph Hotere's lettered banner extracted from his Song Cycle and Jim Tomlin's abstract landscape Large Falls also seemed handsomely indebted to McCahon, but such regional debts are surely unavoidable, and surely more fruitful than drawing upon British Pop or New York Psychedelia.

Before McCahon the New Zealand painter I found most interesting was Rita Angus, and maybe Eileen Mayo's Life Dance of Sunflowers owed something to Angus's frontal, dead-centre realism. But it also suggested German Romanticism: I can't put my hands on any illustrations of Runge's work of about 1830, but I think these classically-fluted columnar stalks and perfect roundels acknowledge the perfection of God's handiwork in Nature, and have parallels in the art of Biedermeier Europe, where Caspar David Friedrich saw cathedral aisles in groves of trees.

EILEEN MAYO Life Dance of Sunflowers
acrylic, 68.6 x 66 cm
(collection of the artist)

German influence is openly acknowledged in other realist paintings of lesser quality. Ian Mclndoe's Eve, a young hippy painted in the manner of Durer as mediated by Otto Dix in the 1920s, carries an initialled signature in Dureresque lettering. Peter Siddell's Another City is fantasy connoisseurship of Auckland's characteristic architecture, but its cosmic extent of city and cloud includes an awareness of Altdorfer - another sixteenth century German - confirmed in conversation with the artist.

Mayo is an older artist, and very fine. Siddell is young, and 'Magic realism', 'Nouveau art nouveau' or even 'Maxfield Parrish posteresque quaint' were surprisingly prevalent varieties of realism, mostly rejected from the exhibition, and mostly painted, I suspect, by very young artists. The quantity surprised me, for virtually nothing of this kind is found in Australia. However the quality of the realist work seemed trivial except when it joined New Zealand's own native regionalism, or else, more curiously, the German traditions already noted.

A final realist oddity of some interest, personal rather than regionally New Zealand, was Louise Lewis's giant, six-foot Perfumed Rose. Obsessive, perhaps concerned, like Georgia O'Keefe, with female sexuality, it too was unlike anything to be found in Australia.

The McCahonites and the realists are especially interesting for a foreign visitor, for they are obviously unlike work seen elsewhere and they seem intelligent in their exploration of New Zealand's own past and present culture.

On the other hand the obviously international abstract painters Richard Killeen, Geoff Thornley, Ross Ritchie, Ian Scott, Pat Hanly are equally intelligent in their explorations. And quite probably they also express some aspects of local experience - intensity of light perhaps; or oddly persistent ochre colour, present under Thornley's pale greys and recurring in many other artists' work; or an interest in the decorative ornamental forms of primitive art, not necessarily Maori, implied by Killeen's bands of angular dog-toothing; or the general ambience of the graphic and typographic qualities, already mentioned, which might have contributed to the easy embrace of up-to-date minimal grids and surfaces.

oil, 118 x 168.2 cm
(collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

The internationalists in fact look pretty good - better than comparable painters in Australia. It looks as if the marvellous exhibition Some Recent American Art, 1974, had more fruitful influence in New Zealand than in Australia. In Australia abstract-expressionism, colourfield painting, and lyrical abstraction were still widespread, and their usually hedonistic exponents apparently felt threatened by the extreme cool ness and sensitivity of Robert Ryman, Brice Marden and Agnes Martin. In New Zealand, Thornley, Ritchie, Killeen, John Lethbridge, Dean Hinten and others have accepted a new style more readily than Australia. (It has happened before: in the early nineteen-sixties New Zealand also seemed more prompt in taking some interest in American Pop Art.)

It was inevitable that the new fundamentalism be emphasised in the works chosen for touring New Zealand in 1976, but I also took care to compose an exhibition with the widest possible range, within the limitation of an art exhibition for painting only. No doubt all exhibition choosers enjoy the result of their work; certainly I was very pleased with the survey of New Zealand painting that emerged from the two-hundred-and-fifty entries for the Benson and Hedges Award. New Zealand art seemed in excellent shape: eager investigation of the newest international movements, patient exploration of regional preoccupations, and independent personal obsessions all co-exist. It's a healthy scene.

Daniel Thomas, Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has written art criticism for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and was recently in New Zealand as judge of the 1976 Benson and Hedges Art Award.