Jill Trevelyan is an art curator, review and author who specialises in 20th century New Zealand art. Her publications include the collected letters of Toss Woollaston, Rita Angus: an artist's life and a biography of New Zealand art dealer Peter McLeavy.
We were honored to have Jill open our most recent exhibition Leo Bensemann & Friends: Portraiture and the Group. The following is her wonderful speech drawing on her extensive knowledge of 20th century New Zealand art.
Looking around this exhibition, it’s obvious that portraiture flourished among the artists who exhibited with The Group.
But why was this? We might ask: why were the most adventurous, even rebellious, young artists of the day so drawn to portraiture?
After all, the portrait tradition in New Zealand at the time was very conservative. If you think back to 1930, when most of these artists were starting out, the most celebrated portrait painter in the country was Elizabeth Kelly, who specialised in flattering pictures of debutantes and society ladies.
Toss Woollaston and other young art students called her ‘Ponds Cream Kelly’, because all her subjects had such flawless complexions.
But Woollaston and his contemporaries were looking elsewhere for inspiration, at a very different type of portraiture. They were looking at reproductions of Picasso – who had famously torn apart the portrait, upending everything it traditionally stood for.
Out went anatomical accuracy, realism, and painterly finish – in came immediacy, spontaneity, expression. Freedom to invent, rather than to copy.
Look at Woollaston’s Figures from life, a portrait of his wife Edith and his friend, Rodney Kennedy. Look at its rugged charcoal outlines, the sketchy brushwork, the startling patches of colour on Edith’s face. The faces owe more to African masks than the tradition that Elizabeth Kelly represented. This is the portrait as a provocation.
It’s hard for us to realise, today, just how startling this portrait would have looked in 1936. Even some of Woollaston’s closest supporters – people like the poet Ursula Bethell – rejected it.
Woollaston told Rodney Kennedy, ‘Miss Bethell likes my landscapes but hates my people. “Figures from Life” meant nothing to her except unresolvable deformation.’
For the young Colin McCahon, though, who was still a schoolboy when he saw Figures from life in an exhibition, it was galvanising. Two years later he painted a stark, mask-like portrait of Elespie Forsyth – the most stridently modernist portrait to have been painted in New Zealand at the time. For McCahon, like Woollaston, the portrait was a testing ground, a field for experiment, a way of pushing the boundaries of his art.
But perhaps what you’ll notice the most, as you look around this exhibition, is the variety of portraits. Right next to McCahon’s primitivist image of Elespie Forsyth is another portrait of her, by her friend Evelyn Page.
These two images could hardly be more different. Evelyn Page’s Elespie is an elegant young woman in a floral frock, bathed in sun, and the painting is a celebration of light and colour. Page was responding modernism in her own way – adapting an impressionist tradition to her New Zealand subjects.
Evelyn Page’s portraits in this exhibition represent a microcosm of the NZ art world at the time – she paints the musician, Valmai Moffett, the painter Olivia Spencer Bower, and the poet and patron Charles Brasch (who was Elespie Forsyth’s cousin).
This reminds us what a small art world we’re talking about, the New Zealand art world of the mid 20th century. The artists included here, and their subjects, were co-conspirators – all of them were engaged, to some extent, in the project of modern art, in visual art, literature or music.
They were intimately connected and mutually supportive, whether as lovers, friends, collaborators, or patrons. They had to be – hardly anyone else was interested in what they were doing. They were their own audience.
We can see this intensity, this intimacy, in the portraits of Rita Angus and Leo Bensemann, painted in their neighbouring studios in Christchurch. Here the portrait becomes a means of exploring identity, or trying on a persona.
Look at Rita Angus, painting herself as an uber-modern femme fatale, a woman in full control of her destiny. Or on the opposite wall, masquerading as Cleopatra – another female conqueror.
Meanwhile Bensemann joins in the fantasy and paints her as an Egyptian queen. There’s a playfulness here that was new in the art of the 1930s. It’s as if these artists were goading each other on, giving each other license to be their most daring and imaginative selves.
This is the ferment of creativity that Peter Simpson explores in his marvellous new book, Bloosmbury South, which has just been nominated for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
I'd like to congratulate Peter, and Helen Kedgley and the staff of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, on an important and fascinating exhibition. And congratulations on the beautiful catalogue too.
Finally, I’d like to say how good it is to see portraits by contemporary Māori artists on show in the entrance. It brings new energy and life to the gallery.
In these works, by Star Gossage, John Walsh, Ngataiharuru Taepa, Samantha Mackay, Darcy Nicholas and Kelly Taratoa, we can see an amazing diversity in approach to the idea of the portrait. It reminds us that representing people – portraiture in the broadest sense – is a vital concern in contemporary art today.
I think that's exciting for the Portrait Gallery. It shows the great potential for the institution to engage with contemporary culture, and it makes me hope we'll see more shows like this in the future.