The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June 1, 1937)
Pictures of New Zealand Life
The Artist and His Country.
We have had a visit from a famous English artist and some of his comments on Art in New Zealand, while pleasing and encouraging in some directions, were also critical of certain defects in the work of our painters and the contents of public galleries. The stimulating note was strong. Mr. Lamorna Birch, marvelling at the clearness and crispness of much of our scenery, and, per contra, the lush rich moist colouring of the rain-forest and lake districts, advises the young artist to paint exactly what he sees, as he sees it. The courage of this opinion should be expressed in his brushwork. “Never mind other people,” was in effect one of his bits of advice; “trust to yourself. If you see that a white cloud casts a black shadow on the earth or the water, paint it black.”
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Lamorna Birch perhaps tried to paint more of New Zealand than he should have attempted in so short a visit. Certainly he saw more of the Dominion's varied landscapes in a few weeks than many New Zealanders see in a lifetime. He took away with him a great number of sketches and colour notes for future use, and these and his finished pictures will help to spread the fame of our scenery. The artist took a great fancy to the pohutukawa tree, not so much for its flowers as for its glorious lawlessness of growth, its irregularity of shape, all elbows and knees, and its fearless habit of rooting-in on cliff-tops and coast edges. In that liking for the pohutukawa and its sister the rata, he brought to my mind an artist of the older generation in the North, the late Kennett Watkins; it was his favourite picture tree.
More Life Wanted.
Another artistic visitor of ours has expressed surprise that New Zealand painters devote themselves so exclusively to landscape without the touch of human life that gives double interest to the picture. Too true, ye artists! There is a maddening monotony in the landscapes we see year after year in our exhibitions, and in some of the permanent collections. I have often suggested that our artists would develop some originality of subject and treatment. There is the wonderful wealth of Maori legend; there is the inspiring history of our country. Most artists seem quite ignorant of both; it may be that they are afraid of their capacity in figure drawing.
Paint the Nation-makers.
There is, too, the life of to-day, all around us. Has no artist the vision to grasp the wonderful dramatic quality of great engineering works in construction such as the Mohaka railway viaduct? It is a subject a Brangwyn would seize upon with delight. The artistic value lies in the scenes of human activity, man's effort to overcome the wilderness, to bridge the gulches. Most of the interest vanishes with completion of such tasks; the artist must show the pioneer at work.
I remember that during the making of the North Island Trunk Railway I rode down the valley of the Ongarue to Taumarunui and thought what a subject it was for an artist—the white camps, tents and slab whares, of a thousand navvies; gleaming among clumps of dark bush and on the pumice terraces by the river, the great rock cuttings in the half-way stage, the busy little puffing locos. Alas! Our artists were all painting “The Waitemata by Moonlight” and “The Rose Bowl.”
The Foods of the Wilds.
In last month's article on this page I gave some account of the rugged Maruia country, between the Buller Valley and the eastern side of the Alpine ranges in the South Island. The olden Maori route between west and east traversed the wild valley called the Kopi o Kai-Tangata, or “Cannibal Gorge.” Continuing the narrative, I take from my notes of many years ago on the West Coast some details of primitive life and travel in the back country in ancient times. The very few surviving old Maoris at Arahura described the manner in which the travellers through that savage territory contrived to obtain food. Their principal items of food were weka (woodhens) and eels. They snared the weka—an easy task, because of its inquisitive habits—and also used dogs to catch them. These woodhens were in abundance, in the valleys and small natural clearings, in the great bush. The Maoris carried eel-baskets (hinaki) for the capture of the tuna, and early European explorers passing through the Maruia country found remains of those baskets in numerous places. Besides those staples there was fern-root; indeed this should be considered as the main item of food in some places. In the mountain-beech country, there was little bird life, because of the absence of berries, but in the lower parts where the miro and tawa and white-pine and other berry-bearing trees and shrubs grew, there were plenty of pigeon, tui and kaka parrots, and the kokako or blue crow, which were snared or speared. In some parts, including Maruia, the kakapo, the flightless ground parrot, was caught with the aid of dogs, which the Maoris trained to hunt silentlypage break page break