Friday, December 07, 2007


Two substantial New Zealand art books are in the bookshops and reported to be selling well.

THE BIG PICTURE – a History of New Zealand Art from 1642
Hamish Keith Godwit $50

I don’t know Hamish Keith which is surprising as he has been deeply involved in the NZ arts scene for 50 years and in addition we have a number of mutual friends.
He strikes me though as being an argumentative sort of bloke, a bit of a curmudgeon even, one who holds forthright views on most matters, views he will defend passionately in any debate.
One knows from the public record that he is a writer, journalist, radio & television presenter, former art curator, current arts consultant, that he has a famous wife, (costume designer Ngila Dickson), that he was awarded an OBE for services to the arts in 1981 and that TVNZ are currently screening the television series of the same name as his latest book, The Big Picture, which he fronts.

I remember from my Napier bookselling days his first book, co-authored with Gordon Brown, An Introduction to New Zealand Painting which was the first NZ art book I ever owned, a book I greatly treasured, a book that introduced me to NZ art. Since then he has written or co-written more than a dozen books

So it is fair to say that Hamish Keith has made a fair old contribution to the arts in New Zealand over a long period of time.
He has also had a lot to say over the years about New Zealand issues. I recall him railing on subjects as diverse as Auckland’s town planning, the Arts Council, biculturalism, museum management, national identity and the New Zealand flag. He is a man with opinions.

All of this is by way of saying that I reckon he is the perfect fellow to write this book. And what a splendid tome it is, Random House have done him proud and given him an additional accolade by publishing it under their acclaimed Godwit imprint, the home of many a fine NZ title.

The Big Picture is, as the subtitle says, a history of New Zealand art from 1642, but it is of course that history as seen and interpreted by the author. I love the opening sentence to his thoughtful preface – “This is a personal view, which is not to say that it is a subjective view”.
He goes on to say that he tells a story that was one of impact and adaptation rather than of oppression and retreat. He goes on to draw a parallel between NZ’s culture and the vast sprawling Rakaia River and it is interesting to note that the final illustration in the book is a double page colour photograph of the Rakaia River. He sees the braided river as a metaphor for the cultural streams of our art.

This is a terrific book, more than 300 stunning illustrations, accompanied along the way by Keith’s intelligent and accessible commentary. A full index is provided along with artists’ biographies, image credits and a note on sources.

TOWARDS AOTEAROA – a short history of 20th century art
David Eggleton Reed Publishing $100

Here is a very different book to the previous title.

To start with David Eggelton is a generation younger than Hamish Keith, he is a noted poet, an outstanding book reviewer, (he almost has a mortgage on the Montana NZ Book Award reviewer of the year title he has won it so many times, five at last count), and has written histories of NZ rock music and NZ photography. He is also a regular writer on arts and culture subjects for a variety of magazines.

This book is in a much larger format, it is hardback and with one exception each of the 101 illustrations occupy the whole page whereas with the Keith title there are sometimes as many as three illustrations a page although of course that title has three times as many illustrations.

Eggleton writes accessibly and covers the various mediums – sculpture, painting, printmaking and photography along with biographical sketches of the artists. Again well indexed along with an extensive bibliography.
Interesting that the cover of Eggleton’s book features the gorgeous 1968 Michael Smither painting , Rocks with Mountain and Tractor, Keith makes no reference to this artist in his book.

I’m afraid to say that if you are serious about New Zealand art you are going to have to by both of these books! They are completely different in approach and history covered and are complementary to one another.

Bookman Beattie first came across David Eggleton in 1985 after he was named the London Street Entertainer of the Year (poetry) by Time Out and we subsequently published his “South Pacific Sunrise” at Penguin in 1986. In those days he was something of a punk poet, a ranter, and was a prominent and popular pub and university campus performer.
I remember Gil Hanly took the cover photograph showing a young Eggleton standing against a wall covered in graffiti while the cover design was done by Richard King, now the publisher at Canterbury University Press.


Anonymous said...

Quite a few years ago Hamish Keith came to my home in Okarito, to talk about writing an overview of NZ art. I gave him the 'braided river' metaphor (I grew up in Canterbury.) I suspect my name isnt mentioned in connection with the concept but - we'll check.

Anonymous said...

For my review of 'The Big Picture' visit: