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Artists and iconic landscapes feature in Hocken exhibition


Thursday 22 August 2013 3:25pm

An exhibition of paintings from the University of Otago’s Hocken Library that communicates a sense of place through art has just opened.

Leo Bensemann Untitled [St Bathans], oil on canvas, 497 x 790mm, Acc 2012/12, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin.

Drawing on the Hocken’s vast collection of art of nearly 17,000 treasures, this exhibition showcases works including several recent acquisitions that have not previously been shown; two paintings of the Maniototo settlement of St Bathans - one by Leo Bensemann (purchased in 2012) and the other by Doris Lusk (purchased in 2007); and a Westland landscape, Taramakau, by Toss Woollaston, bequeathed in 2009 by the former University of Otago Librarian, Michael Hitchings.

Hocken Curator of Pictorial Collections Natalie Poland says the exhibition, entitled Place Makers, focuses on predominantly twentieth-century depictions of place by artists in New Zealand.

At that time the New Zealand landscape was the dominant subject of most local artists. However after 1930, these representations of place were increasingly influenced by overseas developments in art and they came under the spell of modernism

“The exhibition presents an A-Z of New Zealand art and the works represent a range of ‘isms’ spanning from post-impressionism to post-colonialism,” she says.

“The paintings on display document the translation of post-impressionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism and pop art styles onto local representations of place.”

The exhibition runs until 7 February 2014.

For further information, contact

Natalie Poland
Curator of Pictorial Collections
Hocken Collections
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 5600

About the works

The earliest twentieth-century works showcased in the exhibition are paintings by W. H. Allen and R. N. Field, painted in the style of post-impressionism.

This pair of English artist-teachers was enticed to Dunedin by New Zealand’s Education Department with the goal of improving the standards of teaching in this country’s art schools. Based at the Dunedin School of Art, Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk and Toss Woollaston were among their pupils.

Many New Zealand artists keen to innovate and support an emerging nationalism translated modern idioms and selected distinctively New Zealand subject matter for their paintings. This is visible in regional landscapes such as Rita Angus’s cubist Central Otago (1940), and in Russell Clark and Dennis Knight Turner’s paintings, Cabbage trees and Punga forms, that focus on singular native plant species.

This search for a nationalist expression led to Colin McCahon’s Crucifixion (1947), which used local models and the Nelson landscape in his retelling of a biblical story.
Art from the sixties and seventies is represented through the landscape paintings of Ian Scott, Michael Smither, Robin White and Brent Wong.

The influence of surrealism is evident in Leo Bensemann Untitled [St Bathans] (c. 1966) and in Brent Wong’s painting, External reverberation (1969). The post-modern art of the recently deceased Scott is celebrated by the inclusion of his painting A Bright Place (1969), which shows a woman in a mini-dress running through the parkland of the Waitakere Ranges. This references American pop art. The title of Scott’s picture pokes fun at the geographical determinism that claimed the distinctiveness of New Zealand paintings was partly due to the clear quality of light experienced in this country.

A trip stateside where McCahon saw works by American Abstract expressionists including Mark Rothko and his Muriwai studio, established in 1969, saw a marked change in the style and his use of large loose canvases to create paintings that needed to be walked along. McCahon’s response to Muriwai beach is captured in the epic five-part Te tangi o te pipiwhararua (The song of the shining cuckoo) painted in 1974.

Examples of works recently acquired by the Hocken include a contemporary painting by Graham Fletcher, produced earlier this year Untitled (Sugar Loaf Waka), and purchased just last month. This painting by Fletcher, who is now based at the Dunedin School of Art, examines notions of cultural authenticity by illustrating an imaginary domestic interior, which reveals a home furnished with a retro 1960s design aesthetic and a décor infiltrated by multi-cultural appropriation and pastiche.

In a contemporary age that is increasingly defined by multiculturalism, hyperconnectivity and artists working in new media, it is timely to consider whether the idea of a geographically distinct New Zealand art form is a valid concern. By encouraging us to reflect on the nature of iconic images, this exhibition questions whether the power of a physical painting and its New Zealandness has been diminished or enhanced by digital reproductions, online access and global image networks like Google Art Project – Natalie Poland.

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