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Hocken exhibition highlights New Zealand print culture

The Hocken Library

Monday 21 July 2014 12:58pm

Stewart Maclennan Sleeping Kitten
Stewart Maclennan, Kitten Asleep, wood engraving, c. 1945. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, Dunedin.

The Hocken’s latest exhibition highlights the role artists played in the establishment of a mid-twentieth century New Zealand print culture.

The Art Between the Covers: Artists & The Book (1930s- 1960s) exhibition available to be viewed from last weekend also showcases recently acquired prints by some of the country’s most respected printmakers of the period 1930-1970 period.

Hocken Library Curator of Pictorial Collections Natalie Poland says many of New Zealand’s prominent mid-twentieth century artists left an indelible mark on the history of illustration and book design in this country.

This exhibition has been mounted as part of a programme of local events that are planned to support Dunedin’s bid to gain the UNESCO City of Literature status. Notification of the outcome of the City’s bid is expected in November.

The show features original prints and illustrations, alongside some of the books and journals that were embellished by the work of artists Russell Clark, Dennis Knight Turner, Juliet Peter, E. Mervyn Taylor, Stewart Maclennan and Leo Bensemann.

Ms Poland says in the 1930s and 1940s ink drawings and the wood engraving were popularly used for illustrations in books due to the limitations of the printing process and because most publications were printed in only black and white. By the 1960s new printing technologies meant that colour was more prevalent in books and journals.

“The show is a celebration of printmaking, historically neglected in terms of its profile as fine art. It was underrepresented in regional Art Society exhibitions. A 1940s commentator remarked that prints were “one of the most potent means of forming public taste through its wide dispersal as book illustration,’” she says.

“Not only did wood engravings provide useful illustrations for fiction and non-fiction but they were also used to enliven regular columns and pages of journals where they were used for initials at the start of a story, as page embellishments and tail pieces.”

Journals that these artists contributed during the period examined include the Design Review, Here & Now, The Listener and the New Zealand School Journal.

“Between the 1930s and 1960s, the publishing scene in this country was flourishing with a proliferation of publishing houses and publications that championed home-grown literature. The decades between the 1930s and the 1940s were crucial decades for the development of art in New Zealand.”

Large firms Whitcombe and Tombs, A.H. Reed and the Government Printing Office, as well as a plethora of newly established private presses, supported the call to establish a distinctively New Zealand identity in the arts by publishing local fiction and non-fiction including books of Māori mythology.

Ms Poland adds that artists responded by supplying scenes of farming life, Māori culture and depictions of native flora and fauna.

Depictions of native flora and fauna were a notable strength of E. M. Taylor’s book and journal illustrations, which were based on his wood engravings, a very effective medium for black and white reproductions.

Clark’s political caricatures and satirical illustrations of people, seen in the 1930s in the Otago University Capping Book, later enlivened the pages of the Listener where he worked as an illustrator for more than two decades.

Material is part of Hocken’s Collection

The Hocken houses many of the original drawings that Clark created for the 1935 issue of the Otago University Capping Magazine. Clark moved to Dunedin in 1928 to take up a job as commercial artist for the local printing firm, John McIndoe Ltd, a job he retained until 1938. Clark took the view, popularised by Englishman Eric Gill, that all artists should be a good technician and able to make a practical contribution like any skilled worker.

The Hocken Library has recently purchased a collection of works by Dunedin-born Stewart Maclennan, whose role as the first Director of the National Gallery for two decades from 1948 didn’t diminish his artistic contribution to the local printmaking scene. Remarkably he was proficient in lithography, wood engraving and linocut printing. After training under W.H. Allen and R. N. Field at the Dunedin School of Art, he, as did Juliet Peter, further honed his printmaking skills in London, graduating from the Royal College of Art in London in 1939.

Aided by the number of smaller presses being run by artists, the drive for good design and craftsmanship in publishing led to an unprecedented demand for artists to provide services as illustrators, designers and art editors. Bensemann contributed to the country’s typographical renaissance of the 1940s while working for Christchurch’s Caxton Press. A selection of books on typography and examples of Bensemann’s design work as well as his wood engraving prints are also on display.

Taylor was the art editor of the two-monthly journal Design Review, first published by Wellington’s Architectural Centre in 1948, and in the following decade he started Mermaid Press. Auckland’s Pelorus Press published the Here & Now journal, which combined new, local literature with current affairs.

Over the two decades that followed the mid-1940s, Clark, Taylor and Peter regularly supplied drawings, wood engravings, and eventually two-colour lithographs, to the newly invigorated New Zealand School Journal produced by the Government Printing Office.

Turner’s drawings appeared in the independently published Design Review and Here & Now magazines and graced many A. H. Reed books of the 1950s and 1960s.

Prior to the 1950s, one-colour, photomechanical prints of black and white drawings and wood engravings dominated the pages of the nation’s publications. By mid-century the possibilities of the New Zealand book artists’ palette were extended with the introduction of two-colour lithography, best exemplified in this exhibition by the work that Peter did for the New Zealand School Journal.

The exhibition runs until 25 October 2014.

For further information and images contact:

Natalie Poland 
Tel: 64 3 479 5600 

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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