Under the Rhododendrons


Heresy takes many forms in Godzone. In this sporting nation of ours, art galleries and museums have more support from the country than a season of Rugby matches, according to the 1980/81 Social Indicator Survey-73% to 61%. Culture before Masculinity? An interesting thought in these post-Rugby World Cup, post-Olympic days. Matching exhibitions to community events helps attract people to seemingly hallowed cultural halls, giving an extra dimension to the community's awareness and understanding of both the event and art's relationship to it. During Taranaki's inaugural Rhododendron Festival (28 October-6 November), the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the Taranaki Museum staged floral related exhibitions, as did local Art Societies throughout the province. An understanding that artistic statements are part of being human, not an aberration, as the Spartans and Victorians too often believed, is part of what the two major art exhibitions offered Rhododendron visitors. Between them, these two shows offered a chance to see a wide range of artistic interpretations and forms; and realise our changing social fabric. The Govett-Brewster offered a range of post- War art by contemporary artists, while the Taranaki Museum offered a selection of nineteenth-century realist art by early Taranaki painter, Fanny Good.

The Govett-Brewster mounted an exhibition curated by Terry Urbahn called Men in the Garden. Man's artistic interpretation of gardens and their part in our lives, ranged from traditional still-life to contemporary; from oils to wooden sculptures, from local artists such. as Michael Smither, to international names such as Fumio Yoshimura of Japan. Urbahn planned an environmental installation to show the wide range of work on display, including several pieces from the Govett-Brewster's collection—Dean Buchanan's large Poppies in Bloom and an early Michael Smither, Still-life with Flowers. Australian artist, Daniel Moynihan’s vibrant, surrealist still-life work, Magic Tree (1948) was also featured. Two studies of Phormium tenax, more familiarly known as flax, provided differing emphasis of the familiar-often seen but rarely looked at.

They were Australian artist, William Delafield Cook's untitled study of flax, and North Taranaki artist, John Maclean’s Flax in the Garden. An early Phillip Trusttum Interior/Exterior, a view through a window to the garden beyond was shown along with Dick Frizzell's Birthday Flowers.

(Clematis paniculata)
Oil on canvas,
285 x 553 mm.

In addition to the Men in the Garden exhibition, there were three other shows. Local artist, Graham Kirk, best known for his Listener cartoon series, 'Dick Sargeson', was represented as was sculptor Jacqueline Fraser, whose Taranaki was a Govett-Brewster Sculpture programme work. An artist whose photo-montages made visitors look twice is New Zealand-born, Tasmanian resident Grace Cochrane, whose rephotographing of her family past to include herself, was previously seen at Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery. Art conserving much of the past was shown at the Taranaki Museum which exhibited paintings of native flora seldom seen in the artist's lifetime. Fanny Good (1860-1950) became deaf in her teens as a result of childhood disease, and turned to painting. One of 12 children, she found the hum of family conversation increasingly difficult to cope with and began painting on family outings and picnics. Fanny's father, Captain Thomas Good, produced black-and-white landscapes. Described as a man of 'genuine kindheartedness', it is thought that his encouragement helped his daughter develop her floral work which is now regarded as equal to those of her contemporaries, Martha King and Emily Harris.

Fanny Good's studies of native flora were her reaction to the settlement of Hawera and South Taranaki where she lived. Her work, often small in size, used oil on canvas when watercolours were the norm. She recorded both native and exotic species at a time when the bush was being cleared for English-style farming. The Good family were unusually determined. Mrs Good refused to go to Nelson with her 9 children—5 boys, 4 girls—during the Taranaki emergency of 1860. Her husband, Thomas, was Commander of the Bush Rangers, 'the native contingent' of the 4th Regiment, the Taranaki regiment during the New Zealand Land Wars. A competent Maori speaker, Thomas was the first European to cross from the West Coast to Taupo via Mokau River. Fanny's determination to paint fitted in well with her amazing family.

Fanny Good's work was exhibited only four times in her lifetime; first at a nineteen-twenties Dunedin & South Seas Exhibition when Fanny was in her sixties, then in her final years when her paintings were exhibited in several shows in the late nineteen-forties-1948 and 1949. That she preferred oils, when others painted with watercolour; that her paintings were botanically accurate and are portraits of readily identifiable species, was pleasing. Her work suited the object—delicate brushwork for delicate content; bold strokes for larger leafed plants—which transcended the 'pretty pretty' school of Victorian Art. It is an irony that Fanny Good's contribution was rediscovered thanks to Rhododenrons—a species not planted in Taranaki until the eighteen-eighties, when Good was in her forties. Most of the rhododendrons Taranaki people see as beautiful, she never saw bloom—gardens which weren't even thought of when she was alive.