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Design Review: Volume 1, Issue 4 (December 1948)

Sam Cairncross After A Year

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Sam Cairncross After A Year

Rue de Mouzin, Paris. Oil: Sam Cairncross

Rue de Mouzin, Paris. Oil: Sam Cairncross

Before he left for France some eighteen months ago Sam had already reached a measure of local fame, not as a painter, but as an event with a popular amusement interest worth a few paragraphs in the paper like a stranded whale or a two-headed calf. Our reverence for mediocrity and respectable conformity was shocked into sniggering contempt for a man who permitted his fiery energy to take precedence over those most precious commodities—the certainty of the weekly payday and the privilege of two days a week on which to give free rein to the meaner pleasures of life. Sam's choice in letting go his hold on an accepted social occupation in order to find adequate expression for the urgency of his desire to paint has been a frequent mark of the genius who steps out of the monotonous traffic lane of the ordinary man. To take this step does not itself constitute genius; the motive to do so may arise from many causes much less worthy of interest and encouragement.

Sam's one-man show before his European journey showed us an artist in whom there was every promise. He was incredibly prolific, producing paintings that were often the result of a continuous application night and day until the work was complete and the painter physically and nervously exhausted. Sam never has had any conception of painting as a pleasurable manual relaxation during which the mind and body recuperate agreeably from the strain of weekly living. Unlike so many New Zealand artists whose paintings are a rejection and negation of the consuming intensity of the sensation of living, Sam has painted with an energy and a delight in the expenditure of force and effort that is the peculiar property of those who live fully and enjoy it.

His earlier paintings were often as raw as an unripe fruit, showing an uncontrolled urgency in the use of violent colour, writhing line and paint slashed on with handsome prodigality; behind them and concealed by his search for a means of expression that should be a fitting symbol for his

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own personality, lay many hours of sound, concentrated study of essential draughtsmanship.

Here, then, was a young artist showing promise. To the Press and public of this country his unusual painting formed a fitting counterpart to his self-assertion and eccentricity, to be looked on with an indulgent smile like the pranks of a wilful child. Beyond lay the thought that it did not do any harm and he would grow out of it anyway. At this point the French diplomatic service administered the most pointed moral lesson, of which we have in our righteousness remained oblivious, not only in taking Sam under its wing but in risking a greater gamble in granting him a scholarship than New Zealand does when it lays a quid both ways on its favourite horse.

A year is a brief span in a painter's life and Sam has made the most of if. At the first step inside Lhote's school in Paris Sam's nose reacted unfavourably to its aroma of rigid formality and he decided there was better picking on the walls of the galleries. Sam's voracious appetite to eat up from the world's most concentrated picture collections all that would nourish his talent might have proved permanently damaging to his development. Sam survived.

His recent showing of paintings contained works old and new and proved that the French consular service has a flair for backing the right horse. Sam has returned almost a new man, and a new artist. He has exercised that choice, as every artist does, in selecting those painters of the past who, in their own day, faced like problems and solved them. He has learned immensely from Greco and Goya, while Vlaminck and Soutine have been swallowed whole. From the process of digestion, Sam himself emerges unmistakably. But Sam knows now what, he wants, and in some remarkably fine pictures he gets it. There is still the pressure and drive, but controlled in a way to allow a coherent personal vision to emerge. Gone are the violent juxtapositions of raw colour, whose virtue lay mostly in its effect of energy released without direction. His drawing and his colour have lost nothing of their former exuberance but, especially in some of his street scenes, gain in strength by their control and direction to form part of an integral whole.

And now, strange to say, to all but the most elite this enfant terrible has become accepted and respectable. May he never find out!

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