Gordon Walters is one of New Zealand’s most renowned modernist artists – his koru series instantly recognisable. Substantial in content and size, this book accompanies an exhibition that is being held in Dunedin until April of this year and will then be at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from July through November 2018.
The hard cover is striking – a reproduction of Walters’s black, white and blue geometric ‘Painting J’ (circa 1974). An interesting choice given the instant recognition afforded to his koru works – the choice of cover making it clear that his art extended beyond what he is best known for.
Contributors to the book include artists, art historians, curators, art history lecturers and others with specialist expertise and interests – including Māori and Pacific architecture and art history, historic art, craft and design, and the development of modern art in New Zealand and global modernisms.
The introduction explains that Walters ‘created a network of active relationships from a synthesis of forms, concepts, cultural traditions and perspectives’. The chapters explore in detail the multiple influences – at home and abroad – upon Walters’s art. Several chapters discuss the criticisms that were levelled at Walters as a Pākehā artist who incorporated Māori symbols into his art, primarily the unfurling spiral shape known as koru (also referred to in this book as pītau). Although Walters was accused of appropriation, he did not believe that the koru-like form in his paintings was essentially a reproduction of a Māori symbol. Instead he preferred to describe the symbol he created as ‘a horizontal stripe ending in a circle’.
However, the authors make it clear that Māori culture and symbolism were significant influences for Walters. He acknowledged that he had drawn on the principle of repetition that is a strong characteristic of Māori art, seen in kowhaiwhai patterns for example. While some Māori supported Walters, not all accepted nor stood up for him. Curator, lecturer, researcher, activist and art historian Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is quoted as describing Walters as both insolent and ‘damn cheeky’.
Brown’s chapter, entitled ‘Pītau, Primitivism and Provocation’, explores Walters’s many, varied and often complex relationships with Māori culture, imagery and art. This includes an overview of how the Waitangi Tribunal looked at the work of Walters’ – amongst others – when examining and delineating the distinction between taonga and taonga-derived works.
Walters’s connections with other artists are well-documented, in particular his friendship with Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist who moved with his parents to New Zealand in 1939. Walters and Schoon together visited Māori rock art sites in Canterbury. Walters was fascinated by what he saw and experienced during these visits, and the power of the rock art images. Later, he studied Aboriginal bark paintings as well as other indigenous art including tapa cloth designs and Marquesan tattoos – constantly seeking inspiration from cultures other than his own.
Schoon introduced Walters to work produced by Rolfe Hattaway, an artist living with a mental illness described as schizophrenia. Hattaway’s unconventional art – some of which is included in the book – inspired Walters to experiment with shape and form, particularly rearrangement and transformation. This preoccupation with rotation and reflection and other transformations remained a key feature of Walters’s work over time, and is examined in detail in several chapters. The book raises questions about how – and whether – Walters and Schoon acknowledged and valued Hattaway’s work.
As a young man, Walters’s visits to Wellington’s Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery challenged his thinking and stimulated his curiosity about both culture and art. Despite for a long time earning very little income from his art, Walters was a frequent traveller, with many trips to Australia. He lived for a time in London which allowed him easy access to galleries in Europe. His connections to, and relationships with, art and artists from Europe, the Americas, the Pacific and New Zealand are described and discussed.
The text is academic, yet accessible and thought-provoking. The book would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Walters’s art – in particular art collectors, art students, art enthusiasts and people wanting to learn more about the history of modern art and its evolution in New Zealand. Each chapter is accompanied by detailed footnotes. Additional features include a chronology of Walters’s life, an exhibition history, a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index.
The book has a good balance of images and text, including not only Walters’s work but also photographs of his studio, his fieldwork, and clippings of both modern and indigenous art cut from magazines and other sources which he glued into his scrapbook. His scrapbook forms a ‘consciously assembled catalogue of … visual information from across cultures and across time’. Photos of Walters show a young man whose hair grew in soft curls, reminding me of the koru that later featured so prominently in his work.
I was surprised by the extent and range of styles (including landscapes, nudes, floral works, surreal art and abstracts) depicted in the book. There’s a somewhat serious self-portrait in charcoal, as well as screen prints, works in acrylic, ink, gouache, oil on canvas, and oil on muslin. The colours range from stark black and white to vibrant yellows, blues and reds. Several works are repeated within different chapters, being central to the discussion and perspectives of individual chapter authors.
Additionally, the book contains works by artists whose work Walters engaged with, such as Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Victor Vasarely.
The font is smaller and fainter than ideal, although the text is printed on good quality paper that turns smoothly and the pages stay open easily.
For anyone who attends the exhibition the book will be an excellent reference. Due to its weight and size, this is not a book that most people would want to carry with them while visiting a gallery. However there would be value in reading it before attending the exhibition, to know what to look out for and to gain a deeper understanding of Walters and his art. It is certainly a book to return to over time. Several pages fold outwards from the spine of the book to provide a multi-page spread. While not recreating a full exhibition experience, the side by side placement encourages analysis and allows the reader to compare the similarities and differences among related works.
Ultimately, as with any art book, the book cannot do justice to the scale, depth, colour and complexity of the original works – it has, however, heightened my interest in attending the exhibition.
Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks
Gordon Walters: New Vision
Published by Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki