Book review

Frames On The Land - Early Landscape Painting in New Zealand by Francis Pound
Published by Collins, Auckland, 1982

Reviewed by HAMISH KEITH

In this slim, pink book, Francis Pound sets out to restore early landscape painting in New Zealand to what he believes is its only legitimate context: the aesthetic philosophies and genres of eighteenth and nineteenth century European landscape painting. He sets himself no other task, admitting in the preamble to his thesis that his book 'uncovers few new facts about its painters', and crediting the uncovering of what he calls 'the essential trivia of art history' to the work of others.

Pound, then, addresses himself to the weightier business of ideas. Even then, few of those seem entirely his own. It is hard to escape the impression that the American historian, Barbara Novak played a largish part in forming Pound's theories: but while her Nature and Culture is listed in the book's extensive bibliography, she is missing from the effusive acknowledgements. Novak, for instance, writes of nineteenth century, American landscapists 'framing' the landscape in European conventions - a notion surely echoed in Pound's rather clumsy title.

Sadly, Pound's work falls grossly short of its intention. Had the author arrived at his stated destination, or even covered much of the distance towards it, he might well have made a substantial contribution to the history of New Zealand art; and, perhaps, to the study of ideas in a colonial setting. Instead, we are offered nineteenth century New Zealand painting arranged in alphabetical order And preceded by an art historical essay written in a declamatory style. Where the subject demanded patient and scholarly research and mature reflection, it is treated instead to a kind of breathless capitalising. Rather than presenting his thesis as a contribution to the study of his subject, Pound offers it as dogma designed to drive out what he sees as earlier art historical and critical heresies.

Neither the small scope of his text - a few thousand words - nor the general organisation of the book - the visual evidence being physically unrelated to the argument - helps his case. In fact the curious decision to arrange the plates alphabetically, rather than chronologically or stylistically, tends to make any visual argument incoherent. Friström jostles uncomfortably close with Hodges, and O'Brien with Van der Velden, and so on.

Pound's thesis is basically simple and familiar. It has its foundation in E.H. Gombrich's contention that the primary source for art is art, and that the language of visual conventions modifies perception. Landscape, then, is seen primarily in the context of landscape painting. New Zealand's early landscape painters were no less free of these constraints than any others of their culture or period. On this basis Pound goes on to argue that all early New Zealand landscape painting can be categorised as one of seven landscape genre - the Sublime, the Ideal, God-in-Nature, the Topographical, the Picturesque, the Sketch and the Impressionist. Pound will allow no influence on style other than genre. As far as it goes (which is not far) this argument might hold: but art is not solely determined by art, as much as style might be; and even then style is modified, distorted, developed, misunderstood and so on as a result of the influence of other factors.

In Truth and the Stereotype (a work which Pound seems to have missed) Gombrich himself offers a caution of great significance to the study of a colonial art. He concludes that neither 'subjectivity of vision' nor the 'sway of conventions' need prevent any given work of art serving some quite singular purpose for the artist or his patron: 'The form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.'

In Nature and Culture Barbara Novak goes even further toward tempering this perceptual dogma. Since Pound draws for his intention (if not always for his argument) quite heavily on Novak, her stricture is worth quoting in full: 'Though it is a simple and plausible idea, the concept that the American work resulted from a direct recourse to nature challenges some basic art historical theories. Most of us, as we prowl the corridors of artistic genealogies, subscribe to Gombrich's notion of art coming from art. Yet there is a basic danger for the art historian who overlooks the potential power of the natural experience per se. No matter how much we may wish to speak of artistic histories, it is important to remember that quite apart from 'art' nature offers its own rich resources to the artist's eye and mind.' ln New Zealand, as in America, this caution takes on a particular force - the stylistic conventions are being applied outside the physical and even cultural context in which they were framed.

In these two enriching exceptions from the rule of aesthetic determinism - the requirements of a particular society and the impact of singular locality - lies most of what might interest us in a colonial and colonising art. Yet Pound, in his thesis at least, dismisses their potential. Instead he doggedly jams New Zealand landscape painting into the unyielding framework of genre defined for their own sake, rather than as a set of visual conventions we are obliged to decode. Art presented in this stern mode (what someone somewhere has called German art historical boxes) stays frozen in its own image, quite unable to be mined in search of the dynamics of its culture or society. Well, art is not like that. To follow that path will lead not to any understanding of a culture or of the ideas which might inform it at any given moment, but rather to the half-baked notions of old Bloomsbury - that point of aesthetic lethargy so beautifully parodied in the character of Esmé Amarinthe in The Green Carnation, who interrupts his lecture on The Art of Folly to complain that the sky is terribly 'imitative', and to wonder why 'modern sunsets are so intolerably true to Turner.' Amongst the 'illustrious dead' that Pound in his acknowledgments thought 'might not need his thanks' he could have numbered Oscar Wilde, Whose cunning quip that 'there were no fogs in London until Whistler painted one' reveals the absurd possibilities of the thesis.

Novak beautifully and coherently traces the principal dynamic of nineteenth century art and culture in America the conflict between the real and the ideal, between empirical observation and scientific or theological dogma: between, as she puts it, Nature and Culture. It is difficult to believe that the same kind of conflict could not have been traced through the landscape painting and culture in New Zealand in the last century. The possibility of such a dynamic is hardly even scouted in Frames on the Land.

Pound also ignores any impact photography might have had on the perception or painting of landscape - despite the fact that at least one major painter John Kinder, was also a major photographer. He shows little interest in the non-art requirements a colonial (or imperial) society might have placed on the work of its landscape painters. And, most regrettably of all, he places no weight at all on the conflict that might have existed between singularity and convention.

Yet when he comes to deal with each painter individually (the most valuable aspect of the book) Pound finds his own thesis difficult to sustain. No sooner has he arrived at 'B' for Buchanan then he finds himself obliged to invent an entirely new genre to cope with'. . works we call 'landscapes' [but] were intended to function somewhat like maps: as visual aids to geologist, surveyor, explorer, settler.' By 'F' for Fox he is obliged to admit to a painting an implication beyond art '... one less emotional than political'. By the time he has reached 'O' for O'Brien his thesis seems stood on its head, and he has the painter in deep trouble when '... he abandons the precision of his accounting, that totting up the tally of fact which is for him a necessary discipline.'

Beyond such internal inconsistencies, Pound's argument is more seriously flawed by the very selective manner in which he presents his primary material. To support his contention that landscape is only perceived through the framework of art he quotes - quite properly - the writings of early travellers and explorers. He does not, however, seem to have pursued these sources very far; nor is he particularly bold about coming clean when they appear to contradict him. He quotes, for example, George Forster, a naturalist aboard Cook's Resolution, describing the New Zealand coast as offering 'a view of rude sceneries in the style of Rosa': but ignores the significance of the comment in the same passage that the scene was 'one of the most beautiful which nature unassisted by art could produce', and, later again, as 'such that the powers of description fall short of the force and beauty of nature, which could only be imitated by the pencil of Mr Hodges, who went on this voyage with us.'

Consistent with this kind of special pleading is the representation of William Hodges in the book with two vast and Sublime Royal Academy works painted after the voyage, rather than by the works he actually painted in situ in New Zealand (like Rock of Basalt in the Islands of New Zealand) which interestingly relate to the rest of Forster's remarks.

Equally loaded is Pound's curious argument that 'There is no English word for a piece of land perceived visually but not pictorially' to support his case. It is true that landscape as a word derives from the Dutch for a painting of land: but what of 'Scenery' - could we conclude from that expression used in nineteenth century writing as much if not more than 'landscape' that the land could only be perceived as a setting for dramatic events, since the word derives from the theatre? In fact the word 'prospect' (also a nineteenth century favourite) was current in English at least from 1538 as meaning the view of a piece of land from any position. Charles Hursthouse, another of Pound's sources used selectively, makes much of the quality of New Zealand 'scenery' in a manner that throws at least some doubts on Pound's contention that a pictorial reference point was the only possible one: '... the bright breezy light-and-shadow-casting character of the climate is peculiarly favourable both to the display and enjoyment of scenery. . .'

Pound is as cavalier with modern sources as he is with contemporary. But this reviewer, being a protagonist in that debate, will pass that aspect of his essay by. It must be said, however, that the author's treatment of his predecessors in the field of New Zealand art history seems to relate more to the street-fighting of contemporary politics than it does to scholarship.

All in all, Frames on the Land is a facile and flimsy piece of work, more concerned with scoring points than exploring ideas. Its failures are all the more to be regretted given the comparative rarity of works dealing in any detail with any general aspect of New Zealand art history. Its biographies are, however, useful and often lively; and at least half of its plates will not be familiar to the general reader.