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Don Binney: Flight Path by Gregory O’Brien


Don Binney: Flight Path, is a brilliant in-depth study of the life and work of New Zealand artist Don Binney, famous for his iconic paintings of New Zealand birds.


Auckland University Press is to be congratulated on this sumptuous book, beautifully designed and lavishly illustrated with Don Binney’s artworks. The striking cover features a Don Binney screenprint of a frigate bird in flight over the Pacific ocean, set against a bright blue sky.


Gregory O’ Brien, the author, is a well-known writer, art curator and painter. Don Binney: Flight Path, at 400 pages long, is a lengthy read, but O’Brien’s lyrical writing has made it an eminently readable and enjoyable book. His empathy and admiration for Binney shines through, but this has not deterred him from giving an honest account of this wilful, paradoxical artist who reacted fiercely to those who endeavoured to place him in a regionalist or nationalist pigeonhole and those who wrote negative reviews of his work. Binney’s abrasive responses seem strangely at odds with the serenity and beauty of his bird paintings.


Don Binney: Flight Path shows how Don Binney's career ‘flight’ path was characterised by twists and turns, dead ends and unexpected side roads. Divided into six chapters, aptly given avian titles, it starts at the time of Don Binney’s birth in 1940 with ‘Taking Flight’, and ends at the time of his death in 2012 in ‘Descending Bird'. Also included are a scholarly introduction and afterword.


Don Binney’s fascination with birdwatching was fostered by R.B. Sibson, his housemaster at King’s College, who took groups of boys on birdwatching trips on nearby mudflats. From his 11th birthday on, after a family trip to Te Henga (Bethells Beach) he returned there frequently for thirty years until he was expelled after an unfortunate altercation. Te Henga was his tūrangawaewae, a place he felt a deep spiritual connection to and developed a deep respect for its Māori history. It was during those years that he became aware of the plight of our native birds and became an ardent conservationist.


As a student at Elam, he chose Design rather than Painting , and also attended weekly evening painting class at the Auckland Art Gallery tutored by painter Colin McCahon. Although he and Binney had a tetchy relationship it was McCahon who suggested that Peter Tomory, director of the Art Gallery, should visit Binney’s studio and look at his work. This resulted in Binney being invited to show his work at the Auckland Art Gallery which also bought one of his paintings.


Binney’s first exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in 1963 was the beginning of a highly successful early painting career. It focussed on both birds and landscapes, subjects he would constantly keep returning to. In these, Te Henga ( Bethells Beach) was already a powerful presence.


In the following years, Binney continued to enjoy success in his painting life, broadened his artistic horizons by travelling abroad to countries including Great Britain, Mexico, North America and became a painting lecturer at Elam, a position he held for 24 years.


When, by the early 1970’s, his star waned in the art world, he reacted by moving away from bird and landscape paintings and went on to explore a wide range of different subjects, using different media, including photography, collage and printmaking. He also devoted a phenomenal amount of his time to writing letters, journals, memoirs and novels. Although he had a way with words, and at one point in time, had toyed with the idea of becoming a writer of fiction or a travel journalist, his writings never became widely recognised, and it is questionable whether they were the best use of his time.


Finally, in the 1990’s, there was a homecoming, and the birds returned in a new series of paintings, but smaller in scale, in which he revisited themes and locations from earlier in his career. Gregory O’Brien describes these works as bright and celebratory and felt that by the look of them, Binney was starting to find contentment. In his last years, Binney also worked increasingly in pencil and charcoal, which were easy to carry with him when he worked outdoors. These drawings were not preparatory studies for an artwork as is often the case, but are exquisite artworks in their own right.


I have greatly enjoyed lingering over each of Don Binney’s bird and landscape paintings while reading Gregory O’Brien’s perceptive commentaries.


Undoubtedly this stunning book will further cement and enhance Don Binney’s reputation as one of New Zealand’s most important 20th century artists. He will also always be gratefully remembered by environmentalists for his deep commitment to and unstinting support for the protection of our iconic native birds.


Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Auckland University Press

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