Book Review: Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys, by Mary Kisler and Catherine Hammond

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_frances_hodgkins_european_journeysThis book, written in conjunction with an exhibition of Hodgkins’ work which will tour the country from May 2019, is an in-depth look at the life and art of one of New Zealand’s most internationally recognised artists. I knew of Frances Hodgkins of course, but had thought little of the artist as a person. This beautifully presented book is rich in detail of both the artist and her works.

The first photograph is of Hodgkins as a young woman running towards the camera, canvases beneath her arm, an improbably large hat on her head and a broad grin on her face. Her life as recounted in the book, along with over one hundred of her paintings and drawings, gives deeper understanding of her as someone who enjoyed life and lived it to the full. Quoting from the first paragraph in chapter one, she is described thus:   ‘…she exemplified the progressive attitude and spirit of the “colonial woman” a single, talented local artist who left for Europe in her early thirties.  From that point onwards Hodgkins seldom had a fixed abode, and determinedly avoided any encumbrance, without property or any family of her own, her entire life.’

The many photographs throughout the book show her growing from an energetic young woman into an older version, still vigorous in mind and body, still painting. And the paintings themselves give evidence of her ability to maintain her own independent style while experimenting with the different ideas as they evolved around her.

Her portraits, of Māori  here in New Zealand and refugees on the continent, are beautiful examples of her deftness in rendering emotion with simplicity of line and colour.

The book itself is a work of art. Large in size, it is case bound, with a dust cover picturing one of Hodgkins’ paintings. What it contains is a description in both word and pictures of the life of a remarkable woman. For the reader it will be a difficult task to determine whether to value it for the understanding it brings of one of our foremost artists, or for the sheer volume of her work it contains.  I enjoyed it for both of those reasons, and intend to delve into it time and time again.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys
by Mary Kisler and Catherine Hammond
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408930

Book Review: Women in the field, one and two, by Thomasin Sleigh

Available at selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_women_in_the_field_one_and_twoWomen in the Field, One and Two, written by Thomasin Sleigh, felt like season one of a TV show. Each chapter held a problem to be overcome that all contributed to the main arc of the novel. I wanted more as soon as I shut the book.

The main character, Ruth, is engaging and relatable. She works as assistant keeper at the Fisher Gallery in London 70 years ago, where she is tasked with recommending acquisitions for New Zealand’s National Art Gallery. We follow Ruth’s trials with her co-workers at the gallery, excursions with her family, and interactions through the window with her neighbour across the street. At an exhibition one evening, Ruth is introduced to Irina Durova, a fictional Russian artist who is determined to show Ruth her work. After obliging Irina not once, but twice, by visiting her disorganised studio, Ruth recommends Irina’s ‘modern art’ to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand and sets in motion a chain of events leading up to her and Irina travelling with the exhibition all the way to Wellington.

The book begins weakly, with a somewhat stilted first chapter. It feels like a summary of events that brings us to the story, rather than immersing us in that story immediately. But once we are there, it is extremely compelling.

The novel has a unique perspective. The art world is intriguing, especially in that time. The clash of Ruth, a passionate and straightforward introvert, and Irina, a determined and excessively confident artist, is fascinating to watch unfold. What makes it even more appealing is the genuine sense of place that we receive of both London and Wellington. Images like ‘the weather was changeable, restless. A strong wind shunted clouds across the sky’ are so familiar that it feels like you are in Wellington in the 1950s having a cup of tea with Ruth.

The book deals with themes such as misogyny in the workplace and trying to settle in to your own place in the world, that are unfortunately still relevant today. Ruth constantly struggles to be able to fit in at work: ‘She wanted to scream, horrendously, viciously. Did these men only allow her to speak so they could pretend to listen to her, nodding patronisingly while her words, like flimsy paper darts, glanced off their impenetrable foreheads?’ Once in New Zealand, Ruth and Irina fight against the extreme colonialism and conservatism of the public, so different to the Wellington of today.

A small bonus was being able to identify exactly where in the book the cover design had originated!

The book’s editorial production feels rushed, and there are some proofreading errors. However, the story is engaging enough to be able to continue reading.

Women in the Field, One and Two has a strong story arc, relatable and likeable characters, and an interesting divide in setting between London and New Zealand. It is one of the most fascinating books by a New Zealand author that I have read.

Reviewed by Francesca Edwards

Women in the field, One and Two
by Thomasin Sleigh
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473442095

Book Review: Galleries of Maoriland, by Roger Blackley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_galleries_of_maoriland.jpgGalleries of Maoriland is a study of the people, works and objects of what would become known as ‘Māori art’, and the genre’s heyday between 1880 and 1910. It is a new appreciation of the value of the works produced, circulated and displayed during those years, and how they found a place in the fabric of our national identity.

While the focus is on the complex interactions between Māori art (art by or about Māori), its makers, collectors and traders, Māori themselves (as subjects or consumers), and the public, it is also an amazingly detailed glimpse into many other aspects of New Zealand life at the time.

It is an insight into how Māori and Pākehā saw themselves and their neighbours, as both adjusted to a shared future, and how an art and story appeared to express the spirit of this cohabitation, as the realisation slowly dawned that Māori would remain a living part of New Zealand.

Blackley recreates the wild hunt for authentic and exotic relics of a Māori past, so-called curios, and the many ways of obtaining them: trade in ceremonial gifts, tomb-raiding, or excursions to maniacally rake up the land to find buried treasures. The curios collected were often displayed (as the book’s remarkable collection of images shows) in incongruous, sometimes ghoulish arrays, of huia feathers and weapons, pounamu and disembodied heads.

Blackley explains how these displays also helped to revise the country’s pre-European material culture and its inhabitants into a more acceptable (though not particularly factual) story for the Victorian mind, enabling collectors to place these items (and perhaps their makers) on a scale of development towards the apex of supposed British superiority.

Curios also allowed Pākehā to make sense of Māori and their culture, although often with little relation to how Māori actually understood and lived it. Despite this, Blackley observes that the creation of this Māori-inspired folklore by Pākehā for themselves laid some of the groundwork for the bicultural imagery that distinguishes New Zealand today.

The book’s biographies of portrait subjects and other figures demonstrate how Māori adeptly navigated the art market, not only as suppliers of curios but also by availing their romanticised image. By recreating sittings for Goldie’s ostensibly melancholy Māori portraits, Blackley underlines this pose was agreed and negotiated, rather than disingenuous or manipulative.

Blackley explains how portraits were valued by Māori as a new taonga, and by Pākehā as an art form with uniquely local features. He details how for Māori, portraiture was a revelation, reproducing the awe of Māori in city galleries and including grateful comments to the artists in visitors’ books of the time. While Blackley recognises portraits did help reinforce prevailing beliefs of Māori fading away, he counters Māori also saw in them a medium to reach out to their descendants. As a descendant of the subject of a Goldie portrait, I appreciated this balance.

Blackley’s investigation of traders, artists, and their subjects reveals a remarkable biculturalism among Pākehā in this world and a worldly sophistication of Māori subjects, often nameless in titles of the works, who rather than brooding elders in decaying pā, were frequently influential, well-travelled, sophisticated citizens of the world. He notes these subjects felt Pākehā artists belonged to them, upending preconceived ideas of relationships between artists and these subjects.

On the other hand, Blackley observes biculturalism allowed traders to use their knowledge of Māori lore and custom to manipulate Pākehā purchasers and Māori suppliers of objects. Similarly, public figures we imagine as honourably representing the Crown, after receiving hugely significant gifts with due solemnity, did not hesitate to dip into the profitable side business of trading taonga that had been gifted with the expectation they be returned in like form.

While the period’s ongoing transfer of Māori land is not his focus, Blackley provides interesting links between the whittling away of Māori land and Māori art. Māori attending land courts were inspired to contract portraits as they passed strategically placed galleries. Pākehā legal representatives with knowledge of te reo and tikanga represented claimants and claimed healthy commissions, later funnelling them into the profitable patronage of Māori art or trade in Māori gifts.

While the book provides examples how the colonial gaze could crush innovations in Māori art that challenged the narrative about what Māori art should look like, it also provides counter examples of the fruit this fertile cross-cultural environment could produce.

In one example, idyllic visions of how Māori lived in pre-European kāinga were cobbled together to create a performative culture for visitors, the inhabited model pā. Although these did not prosper like other manifestations of Maoriland, they were surprisingly empowering for Māori, who took ownership of this idealised past, reclaiming it to fortify and revive their tikanga. We also learn how it was a Pākehā artist that brought to life a symbolically rich new flag for the Māori King – the embodiment of aspirations for Māori self-determination.

Towards the end of the period, Blackley shows how the gloomy gaze into an uncertain future so commonly associated with the pose of Goldie’s subjects could more appropriately apply to early Pākehā commentators on Māori-inspired art. The days of freewheeling theorising gave way to a more formal and structured approach, and the curio mania too became a thing of the past, although its images remained thoroughly embedded in the national psyche.

Although Blackley reveals much of so-called Māori art was Pākehā fantasy, he does not deride its makers. He recognises Pākehā collectors, amateur scholars, and artists reinterpreted or embellished Māori art not only for profit, but also in the spirit of nation building, in search of what made New Zealand unique. Māori also found a means not only to preserve their images, but to ensure their material and immaterial culture remained central in the imagination of the colony.

The resulting hybrid folklore still dwells in our national subconscious, and Blackley’s work helps to identify some of its origins. His book subverts our understandings of history, art, engagement, ownership and appropriation. It is layered and diverse as it delves into the minutiae (not to say curios) of the times it studies and does so in the spirit of those times.

Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd

Galleries of Maoriland
by Roger Blackley
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869409357

 

Book Review: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_gottfried_lindauers_nzGottfried Lindauer was a Bohemian immigrant with an artistic eye and a pragmatic business sense. A keen traveller, he combined his love of painting, photography, travel and an inquisitive desire to learn more of the Māori people. This book is a celebration of the 67 portraits of Māori completed from the 1870s on.

In 2016, the Auckland Art Gallery staged an exhibition of the Māori portraits by Lindauer and commissioned this book to accompany the event. While sometimes such publications are little more than picture books with captions, I was delighted to find this publication an extensive analysis of all aspects of the works. Here we can read the background, the setting, the sitter, the painter, the journey of the completed work and finally the place held by the painting among the people for whom it is taonga. This extensive research takes the reader far and wide. I was fascinated to read about a retrospective of his work held in his hometown of Pilsen, the capital of West Bavaria, in 2015. Here we see the training and development of his art. We also investigate the links with Goldie, another familiar portrait painter of Māori. The sharing of subjects and photographs is clearly shown in the illustrations, which make this book a pleasure to read.

Lindauer also did more than just draw what he saw. He was interested in the cultural practices of the Māori, in the meaning of facial markings, the hair, the dress and the person. He showed respect for the mana of his subjects and did much to foster positive relations between Māori and European. There was a desire among many tribes to record their respected elders in a painting and Lindauer was the chosen artist for many of these.

While the background information adds depth to the works, it is the quality of the paintings that I was drawn to. Each artwork is fully explained and linked to the overall story. While the ownership of some works is contested, so is the identification of the subject. This book was, I suspect, a work of careful diplomacy. Such portraits are far more than a picture on the wall and this is clearly communicated. I recall while staying on a local marae, being invited to the Big House. Here I entered a room with floor to ceiling portraits of the families through the generations. In the dark recesses at the top corner, I may have spotted a Lindauer or a Goldie. But that was not important in this context. Here was a living memory, a treasure, a taonga.

So too is this book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits
by Gottfried Lindauer, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408565