The Landscape Paintings of Rata Lovell-Smith
A critic writing for the Otago Daily Times in 1927, described Rata Lovell-Smith's work as 'on the whole too posterish';(1) and it is clear from reviews of exhibitions at this time that among the critics there were some who took exception to the poster-like appearance of her paintings. Her clean-lined, brightly-coloured works, with their focus on particulars in the landscape, threatened a tradition in New Zealand painting where the more grandiose, scenic aspects of the landscape were chosen, and where the care taken with tonal variety and subtle light effects directed attention to the technical achievements of the work as much as to the images themselves. Much of the criticism was unfavourable simply because those responsible found greatest pleasure and therefore merit in the works of older, established artists such as Menzies-Gibb, A.H. O'Keefe, and Cecil Kelly.
It is probably fair to assume that in describing Rata Lovell-Smith's work as 'posterish', the Otago Daily Times critic was referring specifically to a boldness of design, a simplification of form, and a decorative effect created by broad, flat areas of colour. These features, which are characteristic of her painting style during the nineteen-twenties and 'thirties, can also be found in poster art.
RATA LOVELL-SMITH Bridge, Mt Cook Road 1933 oil
The description - posterlike - was used in a derogatory way on numerous occasions with regard to Rata Lovell-Smith's work. It triggered off discussion about the relative status of 'fine' art and 'commercial' art. It becomes clear the Otago Daily Times critic was opposed to the inclusion of a 'posterish' style of painting in an exhibition of 'fine' art when he goes on to say in connection with Rata Lovell-Smith's paintings: This type of work if well done for commercial purposes, is not only excusable, but highly commendable. But for the purposes of fine art it is inexcusable.(2)
In 1933, the suggestion was actually made, by a critic writing for the Christchurch Star, that Rata Lovell-Smith should pursue a career as a poster artist. The critic felt that she had the 'ideal temperament for a poster painter'.(3) Usually, any comparison made with poster art was used to ridicule and insult the artist, and this was true for others besides Rata Lovell-Smith. In the matter of colouring, an increasing tendency on the part of some artists to aim at hard, flat, uncompromising tones in the landscapes runs counter to good tradition. Why the possibilities for beauty in broken colour should be sacrificed is not convincingly explained. And it is rather curious to see artists of known competence finding satisfaction in drawing colour divisions with geometrical exactitude not far removed from that style that attracts attention in posters.(4)
It was not an attitude peculiar to New Zealand critics. In 1916, the Canadian artist Lawren Harris exhibited a work that was described as 'nothing more than a garish poster'.(5)
Francis Shurrock, writing for Tomorrow in 1936, considered that it was a 'low opinion of labour'(6) that led to disparaging distinctions between fine and commercial art. In Shurrock's terms it would have been a false status given to art by the Otago Daily Times critic which accounted for his anger over Rata Lovell-Smith's 'posterish' paintings being exhibited in an institution dedicated to the fine arts. Discussion involving the question of how artist and critic viewed the role of the artist and the function of art in society can be found in New Zealand newspapers and articles in publications such as Tomorrow and Art in New Zealand from the 'twenties and 'thirties.
RATA LOVELL-SMITH Hawkins 1933 oil (Collection of The Robert McDougall Art Gallery)
On the other hand, there were critics in New Zealand who felt that similarities between Rata Lovell-Smith's work and poster art were an attractive feature of her style of painting. For these critics, one of the greatest achievements of her work was the way she painted her subjects to create the illusion of clear, bright light 'unwatered by the tradition of the British landscapists'.(7) Dr G. M. Lester, writing for the Christchurch Press in 1929, recognised that Rata Lovell-Smith shared an attitude in common with poster artists. Expectations of truth-to-nature are not a part of poster designing, and Rata Lovell-Smith evidently did not want to imitate nature. She wanted to isolate basic patterns and shapes from the subjects in front of her. In his analysis of her work, Lester comes very close to the ideas expounded in Roger Fry's book Vision and Design (1920).(8)
In actual fact, Rata Lovell-Smith probably had quite a thorough understanding of poster art: but whether this influenced her style of painting is debatable. Colin Lovell-Smith (her husband) was, amongst other things, a trained and practicing lithographer; it is clear that she was aware of poster designing activities in Britain from a book she was given in 1925 of railway posters by Royal Academicians; she also had the opportunity of learning about poster design from articles on the subject in Art in New Zealand and Studio magazines,(9) and from poster exhibitions brought to New Zealand from Britain in 1927 10 and 1934.11
No doubt a painting like Hawkins (first exhibited 1933), ran 'counter to good tradition'12 in the eyes of hostile critics. The tightly controlled design, and greatly simplified colour range in the painting, allow the image to be quickly and easily assimilated by the eye. The subject itself is new in Rata Lovell-Smith's work. In fact it appears to be unusual in New Zealand painting at this time to find a railway station constituting the major motif of a painting (as it was to be in Cass by Rita Angus, c1936-1937, reproduced in Art New Zealand 3).
Coloured shapes in Hawkins are not separated by outlines. Instead, they are defined by colour contrasts. By reducing the range but increasing each area of local colour, Rata Lovell-Smith was able to achieve the clean, precise separation of objects in her paintings. In order to define edges as clearly as possible, extremely vivid colours were used in combination. Consequently, Rata Lovell-Smith's palette never mirrors the colours in nature: sometimes she exaggerates the intensity of colours; and sometimes she invents colours for particular objects or things.
Hawkins and paintings like Yards, Castle Hill belong in time to a group of works that share in common the inclusion of solid structures in the landscape, together with the careful planning of the relative positioning and proportions of these structural shapes in the composition. They impose a sense of measured order on the image that accounts in part for the striking effect of clarity in her work.
The poster approach, based on selection and analysis of the subject, was compatible with a philosophical attitude of painting only the essential and typical aspects of the New Zealand landscape. Towards the end of the nineteen thirties, and particularly during the 'forties, the railway became a popular subject, together with others that used structures as major design features - barns, telegraph poles, roads, bridges, fences and so on. These structures are prominent and often distinguishing shapes in the New Zealand landscape - particularly in the flat Canterbury landscape - and there is no doubt that it was the development of the theme of regionalism in painting at this time that directed artists to these subjects.
This is where Rata Lovell-Smith's work is significant. She played an active part in directing New Zealand painting in terms of subject matter and style. At an early stage in the development of the regionalist mentality, she showed an interest in subjects that were characteristic of the localities with which she was most familiar. Her paintings have a brightness and clarity intended to define every shape in the composition: since the effectiveness of her paintings as regional statements depends on the clarity of these images.
1. Otago Daily Times, 21 November 1927, p.14. 2. Otago Daily Times, 21 November 1927, p.14. 3. Christchurch Star, 15 April 1933, 4. Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1933, p.7. 5. The Group of Seven, Canada, catalogue by Dennis Reid, 1970. p.88. 6. Labour, by F. Shurrock, Tomorrow, June 24 1936, p.23. 7. Francis Shurrock, Christchurch Times, October 30 1933, p.3. 8. Vision and Design, by Roger Fry, first published 1920, London, pp.37 & 52. 9. For example: Studio, 'The Poster Revival', parts I & 2, 1920, pp.140& 147; 'Recent British, Canadian & American Posters' 1925, p.102 & Art in New Zealand, 'Poster Designing' by F. Coventry, March 1934, p. 130; 'Poster Exhibition' by V. Pike, September 1937, p.34 10. Otago Daily Times, December 13, 1927 11. Posters from the London Passenger Transport Board 12. Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1933, p. 7