Freedom and Structure: Cubism and New Zealand Art 1930 – 1960

24 June – 12 November 2017, MTG, Napier

You will rarely have the chance to enjoy an exhibition of New Zealand painting that is as aesthetically delightful or culturally revealing as this one. For a historical overview it compiles relatively few artists – six in total – and yet the output of the practitioners collected here is so varied that one gets the impression of a nationwide movement involving three times their number. And despite the buzz of avant-gardism and inventiveness that radiates from much of the work on display, it pays to remember that Cubism as such, that exhilarating, radical impulse to dismantle the remaining structures and assumptions of conventional illusionistic picture-making, was already in it’s twilight in Europe by 1929, the date of the earliest painted New Zealand response included in this show, Study for Composition by John Weeks. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the uncontested pioneers of the ‘style’, had already moved beyond it into areas of free play and improvisation that, in Picasso’s case, shouldered the door into Surrealism, while, half a world away, Weeks and others were still dutifully shifting the blocks of the pictorial grammar. Still, trends caught on more slowly in the colonies then, and cultural conventions were more impervious to attack from provincial adventurers. Weren’t they?

Much of New Zealand’s art history is one of derivation, a Eurocentric or Americentric genuflection, and that Freedom and Structure illustrates this point so completely while still coming out with it’s integrity intact is a testament to the talents, honesty and, particularly in Colin McCahon’s case, personal vision of the artists. The industrial, urban and political pressures that fractured the picture plane in Europe were simply nowhere near as acute in Godzone, and, thought of in this way, it was inevitable that it was Cubism: The Readymade Style, rather than Cubism: The Reaction, that found fertile soil in the bucolic longueurs of the South Pacific of the 1950s.

Nevertheless, when you have a stylist of the calibre of Louise Henderson, it hardly seems to matter. Again and again as I walked around the show I was caught short by the utter charm of her painting. Her easy mastery of composition and the playful inventiveness of her execution remain constant over, seemingly, the entire range of sub-vocabularies of Cubist painting, as she channels Metzinger, Gliezes, Braque, Gris. Though beneath these obvious influences, the spirit of Frances Hodgkins was just perceptible.

Unsurprisingly though, the best reason to part with your pocket money for this show is so that you can see, over ten incredible paintings, how Colin McCahon carves out of the hardening Old World language(s) of Cubism a kaleidoscopic, lyrical and mythic representation of the New World, a natural/spiritual ground zero, Cezanne’s Provence in Titirangi. In paintings like French Bay (1957) and Titirangi (1956-57), colours and forms that couldn’t be anywhere but here are manifested in painted facets as luminous and reflective as stained glass or celluloid, woven in brushstrokes as tight and rhythmic as nga kete.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Make sure you see this show, it’s on until 12 November. And take the kids. And buy them the catalogue.

 

 

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