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The Woman Problem & other prose

Afterthought on an Art Exhibition

page 174

Afterthought on an Art Exhibition

There is no doubt about the relative popularity of the sort of painting presented in the Kelliher Art Competition. The £500 prize drew a surprisingly large number of entries from all over New Zealand, and crowds flocked to the Auckland City Gallery to see the show.

The reaction of some people to competitions of any kind in the arts is one of distaste. I share the feeling. To treat works of art as if they were racehorses, or competitors in what the Americans call a 'breast lottery' (i.e. a bathing beauty competition) is, I feel, a vulgar proceeding, likely to do harm to the diversity and the uniqueness that are of the essence of art. This, however, may be mere prejudice. In any case, it must be granted that the impulse that led Mr Kelliher to offer a prize of £500 for a New Zealand landscape painting was a generous one. (It may not be irrelevant to remark that Mr Kelliher has shown himself to be unusually public-spirited in several directions. His interest in economic theory has, at the very least, provided a useful stimulus to thought and action, and bears witness to his concern for the public weal. Again, where others might have bought horseflesh, he has done the nation a notable service in the breeding of magnificent lines of cattle.)

Apart from the generosity of his prize, I think it can be said that the intention behind it was one that could (if we ignore the point made above about competitions) be useful to the development of art in this country. I say 'could be', because there is room for grave doubt as to whether in actual fact the competition, in its present form, is likely to have beneficial results—for the original intention has got itself page 175mixed up with some strange misconceptions about the nature of 'tradition' in the visual arts, which may end by defeating it.

Since this is an occasion that calls for frankness, it must be said in the first place that the particular intention behind Mr Kelliher's patronage appears to be very simple. He wishes to encourage representational painting; and, at the same time, he wishes to avoid encouragement to what he and many others no doubt think of as 'modern art'. From this point of view the recent exhibition succeeded very well in sorting out the goats from the sheep. It was therefore received by a large section of the public with gratitude and pleasure, and by a smaller number of people with amused contempt, with hostility.

Disregarding, for the moment, both of these responses, I should like to indicate why I think Mr. Kelliher's intention is at least potentially useful.

The chief reason is that our landscape has not yet been painted, except by a very few artists. Hundreds—possibly thousands, if the tally could be made—of people have sat down in front of mountain, bush or streams and covered canvas with paint. But only a handful of them have made any real contribution to the work of translating our landscape into the language of art. Some of our nineteenth-century painters began this task, but in more recent times there has been an inclination on the part of most of our more talented painters to shut their eyes to their environment and immerse themselves in studio experiments based on avant-garde European movements. To some extent this sort of activity is useful, but it is being vastly overdone.

When we look for New Zealand painters who are trying to interpret their environment without undue emphasis on self-expression as an end in itself, and without producing mere pastiches of current European styles, we find very few. There is Eric Lee-Johnson (a notable non-starter in this competition). John Holmwood and W. A. Sutton are engaging with the problem. Denis Turner, in his entry for the competition, succeeded in making fairly intelligent use of an imported idiom, but in this case has been frustrated, to some page 176extent, by the scale of the painting. There are very few others. When we turn from these painters, and from the pasticheurs, the only other sort of painting we see is of the kind that makes up the bulk of the Kelliher Competition exhibits.

What can be said about this work? Several things:

1.The greater number of exhibits, even when they showed some degree of technical skill, were lacking in taste. A dozen or so were downright vulgar. One felt that the only possible place to hang them would be in one of those sumptuous drawing-rooms with wall-to-wall flowered carpet, vitrolite smokers' stands, chromium-plated model yachts, beaten-copper firescreens, fancy mirrors, and so forth. The minimum size prescribed (which would have ruled out a very large number of European masterpieces) was partly responsible for this, no doubt. But I feel that it was mostly due to a more radical cause—to the inherent tendency to vulgarity in any society that accepts the standards of plutocracy. (I forgot to mention, by the way, that about £1,000 'worth' of paintings were bought at this show.)
2.The attempt to encourage representational painting was unilluminated by any adequate knowledge of art history, or awareness of tradition. The Baboo language in which the chief aim of the competition was laid down provided evidence of this: 'The prize is for the highest achievement in painting the visible aspects plus aesthetic qualities in conception and composition of a New Zealand landscape or coastal scene….' The phraseology might indeed have been used by the original Calcutta character who had 'Failed B.A.' inscribed on his brass name-plate. The standard envisaged is obviously one that derives not from the grand tradition of post-Renaissance realism or naturalism, but from one unimportant strand in it that was introduced by the duller seventeenth-century Dutch painters, picked up in the nineteenth century by the Barbizon school, and eventually carried down into the bottomless abyss of inanity by late nineteenth-century English painters. The Royal Academy 1880-1910 is, I feel, the Pantheon to which the sponsors of this competition lift up their eyes in reverence. But this sort of art has been given its page 177rightful place (which is to say, no place at all) in the tradition of European painting. It represents a sort of blocked drain in the mansion of European art, in which all kinds of household wastes and discarded bits and pieces can be found— hair-combings, cabbage-stalks, dead matches, tea-leaves. The French, with their usual desperate logic, called in the plumbers—that is to say, the Cubists—when confronted with a somewhat parallel situation. The English went on putting up with the smell for quite a long time.

If we look at the post-Renaissance tradition we find that realism (or naturalism) has seldom been taken neat, and then as a rule only by minor artists. In all the great work it is fused with other intentions, relating to the ideal, or to fantasy, or to structural form, or to satire. And when we do find simple naturalism in any work of consequence, it is never marred by coarseness or bad taste, nor by that preoccupation with photographic quality that marks the illiterate painter.

Many of the paintings in this exhibition were conceived in photographic terms: in one case, light reflected off the sea was rendered carefully in imitation of the 'halation' that occurs on a photographic negative when the light is too strong. To copy the camera when it is successful is a naive proceeding, but it is at least barely understandable; to copy the camera's failures is to manifest an almost limitless lack of comprehension.

Reluctantly, then, one comes to the conclusion that patronage of this kind, however generous the intention behind it, is more likely to do harm than good, if only by fortifying certain misconceptions about art that are already too deeply implanted in untutored minds. The competition was hardly justified by the six or eight paintings that had merit of one sort or another.

There was some mention, during the junketings incidental to this exhibition, of New Zealand artists being encouraged to paint 'scenic attractions'. It hardly need saying that a further disservice could be done to New Zealand painting if it were persuaded, to any great extent, to turn itself into an appendage of the tourist industry—and if the concept of page 178'landscape' came to be supplanted, in this country, by that of 'scenic attraction'.

There is one further thing that needs to be said. A public art gallery should pursue a fairly liberal policy and show many different kinds of art—even a certain amount of bad art —so long as its main functions are not interfered with or neglected. The policy established by the new Director—and he is the first person in authority to have insisted on this very necessary procedure of stating policy—is admirably designed to further these several ends, and to keep them in proper proportion to one another. One is driven to wonder, therefore, how it comes that a display of this particular sort should have been granted leave to sprawl across the two main exhibition rooms of the Auckland Gallery for an extended period, without any voice being raised in protest. If Aucklanders want this sort of thing they had better rename their gallery the 'Picture Gallery', and leave art out of question. It could then exist in happy twinship with the Zoo, as a place of public entertainment where the children could suck their toffee-apples and gaze at the parrots and the red-bottomed monkeys, and be taken for a ride, so to speak, on the biggest of the pictures.