Book Review: Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World, by Peter Alsop & Warren Feeney

cv_marcus_king_lrgAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

There is a mission manifest in the publication of Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World. In recent years, Peter Alsop has been central to the production of accessible art history books (Selling the Dream; Promoting Prosperity) that focus on poster design for tourism and advertising, and foreground the art and artists, blurring the line between fine art and commercial art. It seems his mission has been and is to shine a light on this body of work, to bring its quality and quantity back into the public and professional gaze and in doing so, prevent its disappearance from the public record.

In this latest in a line of luscious books Alsop, along with co-author on this occasion Warren Feeney, has turned his attention toward printmaker, designer and painter Marcus King, “arguably New Zealand’s most viewed artist… but until now, relatively unknown.” True enough. So who was Marcus King, and what led to his becoming “one of New Zealand’s leading exponents of Impressionism and a prominent commercial artist with a vision of New Zealand presented extensively both locally and abroad”?

Within a commercial and public service career spanning many decades, King appeared as a muralist in almost every International exhibition New Zealand attended between the wars, and designed tourism posters for the National Publicity Studios. Though King himself may have regarded his employment mainly as an income stream to sustain his passion to paint (“You’ve got to put a little butter on the bread — you have to make a crust somehow”), this prodigious output stands alone as an impressive body of work.

His primary mission however was to paint. Reflecting on his life in an interview in the Kapiti Observer in 1974, King comments, “I have wasted so much valuable time, which I could have spent painting. Whatever I’m doing, painting is never far from my mind.” Throughout his life, King painted coastal scenes of Wellington’s inlets and harbours, and pastoral and forest scenes from all round New Zealand, initially in watercolors, then in oils. Trained thoroughly at Elam School of Art, and heavily influenced by the Swedish painter Claus Edward Fristrom, King was a master of colour and an expert with glare, admired in particular for his ability to capture the way light plays on water. King’s large scale paintings and murals, often depicting popular milestones in New Zealand history, have become some of his most recognisable and reproduced works, most notably his often unacknowledged, iconic painting of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

For all of this — for his“truthful and real” representation of culture and history, for his consistent presentation of New Zealand as a modern, optimistic and light-filled country, for his contribution to “the branding of New Zealand as an alluring tourism utopia … and agricultural paradise” — this book contends that Marcus King can be credited for “shaping the country’s identity at a formative time.”

How then did Marcus King and his work slip for so long out of favour with art collectors, historians and institutions, in the process becoming practically invisible to the general public? According to Dick Frizzell, who provides typically energetic commentary in the preface, King suffered from the mid-20th century conceit that “only Modern artists could somehow perceive the truth in things.” King was lazily ring-fenced within the genre of “mid-century landscape artists.” There was also his reputed modesty and routine work habits — “a personality and approach… removed from popular perceptions about the … individuals more frequently associated with leading the fine arts.” Finally, there is also the residual reluctance to view commercial artists and their work as worthy of the status enjoyed by fine artists. This last assumption in particular, Alsop and Feeney are at pains to address in a finely written and comprehensive essay entitled ‘Discovering King.’

Readers, art lovers, designers and cultural historians are all likely to be grateful to Alsop and Feeney for their discovery and recovery operation, for their evangelism, and for sharing the good news. Excellence abounds in Marcus King; the publication is meticulously researched, expansive, and driven by an aesthetic and intellectual zeal. The reproductions of prints and paintings are luminous, electrifying.

King, Alsop, Feeney, The Gas Project, Potton & Burton: mission accomplished.

Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World
by Peter Alsop and Warren Feeney
Potton & Burton
ISBN  9781927213704