“New Zealand is a country of outstanding natural beauty,” plainly states the Rt Hon. Helen Clark in her foreword to this book. “Generations of New Zealand artists have drawn inspiration from our spectacular landscapes for their paintings…”
Denis Robinson, the progenitor and designer of New Zealand: A Painted Country and a celebrated champion of the arts, agreed with these statements. The intertwined themes of natural beauty and artistic representation of that beauty led Robinson to invite more than thirty New Zealand artists of this generation to contribute works inspired by their chosen region along with a short written piece expressing their thoughts on the region. In Robinson’s words, the resultant book reflects a journey that takes the reader from South to North through the eyes of these contemporary artists, who number among this country’s most popular. The publication also acts as a portfolio, providing insights into the wider spectrum of styles and techniques used to capture colour and light, to illuminate personal connection to landscape.
Skilfully realised works of art certainly do consistently grace these pages, and the articulate written accompaniment makes explicit the connections felt by the artists, established names as well as emerging painters who are, according to Robinson, “beginning to gain large followings, by producing art that appeals to an appreciative market.” Is this to suggest that we as human beings are drawn to make, view, buy and display finely wrought landscape paintings (and the books containing reproductions)? And if so, why?
There are myriad possible answers to this question. Aesthetic pleasure, including an awed response to grandeur, plays a large part: the subject material is often a composed work of art in itself, harmoniously arranged in terms of colour, texture and spatial relationship. The painter is on to a winner. Nostalgia too may play a part for the painter and the viewer, provoking longing for a remembered past or an ideal future. (Artist Alison Gilmour recalls magical holidays on the Tutukaka Coast in Northland as the inspiration to return and paint this coast; Jane Puckey saw Mimiwhangata in a photograph and headed north. Her paintings might have such an effect on her audience.) There may be a lack of political and cultural controversy in landscape paintings that appeals to a wide audience. This is not to say that a meaningful rendering of place cannot inspire thought and analysis of important issues, rather that they may not be explicitly or confrontationally presented.
Another possible reason for such aesthetic and commercial success is connected to the pleasure principle, but approached from a scientific angle. In his 2009 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, author Denis Dutton argues that since habitat choice was a life-and-death matter for early hunter-gatherers, it should not surprise us that human beings became innately sensitive to certain qualities of habitable landscape. Those who lacked this sensitivity were less likely to survive long enough to reproduce and, even if they did, their offspring might not have fared well. Factors such as the presence of water, lush foliage (and perhaps even climbable trees) were not merely aesthetic choices.
Dutton’s thesis is that universal features of our appreciation of landscape — our landscape aesthetic — were formed in this evolutionary theatre. As he puts it, “we are what we are today because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon.” And painters, he suggests, have devised ways of triggering the pleasurable responses that arise from such evolved adaptations.
However one explains it, the paintings in New Zealand: A Painted Country, and accordingly the book itself, are a success, to the extent that works such as the screen prints of Tony Ogle, which infuse with a divine glow the cliffs, pohutukawa, nikau and black sands of west Auckland’s coast, could lead a reader to sell up shop and head North to ingest some of that colour. Equally, Neil Driver’s crisply realised acrylic on board depictions of Central Otago or Nigel Wilson’s brush-stroked oil impressions of Clutha’s dams and lakes could drive a reader South in search of solitude.
However you see it, New Zealand is a painted country, and this book is a can of condensed milk pouring out light and colour. It could be particularly nourishing for a reader afflicted by suburban ennui or urban grind, perhaps in the thick of a grey winter. Or it could sweetly summon expatriates and budding migrants (back) to Aotearoa, to see and see anew a country that constitutes a sublime sequence of landscapes peopled with sense able inhabitants.
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
New Zealand: A Painted Country Contemporary – New Zealand artists paint their favourite places
Designed and edited by Denis Robinson
Published by New Holland