Friday, October 24, 2008

Richard Wolfe - Penguin Books - $80

I have the feeling that 2008 is going to go down as a golden year for New Zealand non-fiction publishing. There has been almost a plethora of simply stunning publications.
Every week another seems to arrive, this time it is the turn of art and social historian Richard Wolfe who has teamed up with Penguin Books to deliver us a book that is no exageration to describe as magnificent.
Launched last Monday evening at the current trendy book launch spot, the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland City's Shortland Street, the gathering was unsurprisingly dominated by artists, gallery owners and others from the wider art world.
One pleasing aspect of the launch were the number of artists present who have work in the book.
Among those I noticed were:
* Alan Pearson * Peter Siddell* Jacqueline Fahey* Paul Jackson (Aust)* Annette Isbey* Gavin Hurley* Stephen Martyn Welch* Liz Maw* Martin Ball* Peter Stichbury* Sam Mitchell* Hamish Foote - a pretty impressive gathering.
Keynote Speakers were: Linda Tyler, Director, Gus Fisher Gallery
Iain Buchanan, Assoc-Professor, Art History Department, University of Auckland
Geoff.Walker, Publisher, Penguin Books New Zealand.
After the formalities were over I managed to persuade Richard Wolfe to give me his notes of his speech which is reproduced here.. I hope you find it as interesting as the audience did on Monday evening. It serves as an excellent review of this superb book.
I trust my publishers won’t mind my divulging how this project came about.
It started with a phone call, from Geoff Walker of Penguin, who asked how I’d feel about tackling a book on New Zealand portraits.
Just when I thought all the obvious ideas for books had been done, here was a bloody good one, right out of the blue. Somewhat taken by surprise I asked: ‘What do you mean by portraits? Painted ones, photographed ones, sculpted ones, drawn ones?
To this I recall Geoff saying something like it was up to me.
Well, my natural preference was for painted portraits, and not being aware of any previous survey of that subject, I promptly decided that’s what I’d do.
And during the course of that conversation I was also able to lay my hands on a postcard of a portrait that had impressed me right from the first time I’d seen it, in about 1973, in Christchurch. It was a self-portrait by one of our most versatile artists, Samuel Butler, also a successful farmer and writer. So I already had my first image, and began compiling my list of other likely inclusions.
.Shortly, the publishers determined there would be 80 full-page reproductions, but I managed to nudge that up to 82. I also decided that there needed to be a couple of introductory essays, on the definition and development of the New Zealand portrait.
These called for some visual relief, enabling me to include additional images. As a result I was able to end up with reproductions of a total 110 portraits, by different 80 artists.
Thirty-four of these artists are contemporary, and I’m pleased to say about a dozen are here tonight.
So thank you Geoff for giving me the chance to tackle this wonderful subject.
Thanks also to Jeremy Sherlock at Penguin, who managed the book through the various stages of production.
I would also like to express my gratitude to Alan Deare of Inhouse Design, who has designed such a magnificent looking book around my words and other people’s pictures.
Thanks also to my publicist, Kathryn Carmody, whose brilliant idea it was to hold this event on a date relevant to New Zealand portraiture. As a result of rummaging through my files I am pleased to announce that today – the 20th of October – is Charles F. Goldie’s birthday. If he hadn’t died in 1947 he would now be 138 years old.
By an equally happy coincidence, yesterday, Sunday, was Harry Linley Richardson’s birthday, and he would have been a much more junior 130 years old. Interestingly, these two artists, who are featured in the book, reflect the dual nature – the complementary strands – of portraiture as has been practiced in this country.
Goldie was, of course, one of our best-known and popular portrait painters, for his nostalgic images of Maori. But Richardson was an artist of a rather different stripe. Although capable of providing conventional portraits - he was commissioned to paint World War One VC winners and politicians - he was no stranger to controversy.
One of his smallest portraits, an image of King George V for a postage stamp, was referred to the New Zealand Parliament when a loyal member complained the artist had made His Majesty look like a ‘Dutch doll’.
Richardson also undertook an extensive series of portraits of the young members of his own family, an unusual subject for the times, and one taken up by Michael Smither – another artist featured in the book - some three decades later.
But what really concerns us here is Richardson’s remarkable 1932 portrait, Mrs Thornley at Titahi Bay. When first exhibited it was criticized on the grounds that the subject appeared to have been ‘pasted’ on to the background. It may be hard for us now to see what the problem was, and we can only wonder what Richardson’s critics would have made of the work by our current stock of portraitists.
Undertaking a writing project like this inevitably poses a strain on one’s partner, who becomes a convenient sounding-board. My wife Pam was particularly well qualified for this role, having painted a number of portraits herself.
Among other things, one of her portraits won the Merit Prize at the Tokoroa Art Award in 1974, she won the Nola Holmwood Portrait Award in 1985, and two other portraits appeared on covers of Listener short story collections in the late 1970s.
So why is she not included in my book, I hear you say? Interestingly, no less an author than a director of the Auckland Art Gallery included his wife in his history of New Zealand painting in 1971.
In fact, he gave her more column inches than any other living New Zealand artists, apart from Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon. I decided against this approach, but did manage to get Pam into this book - just - on the last page.
When Penguin insisted on including a recent author photograph I got Matthew Williams to shoot me sitting in front of an early portrait, painted by Pam. We think it dates from 1973, in which case it’s exactly one hundred years since Samuel Butler’s self-portrait, on the cover.
When I began this project I detected some doubt as to whether painted portraits constituted much of a story in this country. I was under no illusion; from the outset I knew that, numerically speaking, portraiture had always been overshadowed by landscape and certainly equalled by still life subjects. Further, in the early 1950s it received stiff competition from another quarter, abstraction.
It may have been outnumbered and isolated here, but our portraiture has been fairly mindful of overseas developments. We see this with the enthusiasm with which the Edwardian revival of social portraiture – by such artists as Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent - was taken up, especially in Canterbury, in the 1920s and ‘30s, and then, in the 1960s, the arrival here of Pop Art principles gave New Zealand portraitists licence to use secondhand imagery from a range of sources.
I would also like to thank Linda Tyler for allowing us to use the Gus Fisher Gallery for this function. But my greatest thanks must go to the artists, whose work is the basis of the book. I see their magnificent images as a unique record, of New Zealanders lifting their gaze from the landscape and confronting one another.

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