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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Two Hundred and Fifty Years of New Zealand Painting by Gil Docking, Michael Dunn and Edward Hanfling

This stunning large format book is richly illustrated with over 200 coloured images from 165 artists. Undoubtedly it will find a place in every library and secondary school art room. Art lovers too will want to acquire a copy.

The original Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting by art historian Gil Docking came out 50 years ago. Art historian Michael Dunn updated it with a chapter on New Zealand painting since 1970. Now it has a new cover, and to mark the passing of time, a new title: ‘Two Hundred and Fifty Years of New Zealand Painting.’ An introduction and a new chapter by art historian, writer, and lecturer Edward Hanfling on New Zealand painting since 1990, brings it right up to the present day.

What make this book unique is its sequential nature. Three authors, from three different generations, have each taken us further along the journey and written about the history of New Zealand painting from their perspective.

I bought an earlier edition three decades ago. How would I view it now? I reread Gil Docking’s account, which covers the longest period, so takes up by far greater part of the book, with much pleasure. He paints such an evocative picture, not only of the works of these early painters but also of their life in New Zealand as they experienced it, making it a social as well as an art history. The first artist he featured is Sydney Parkinson who sailed to New Zealand with Cook on his first Pacific voyage. A chapter on Exploration was followed by three more on Settlement, Transition and New Impulses.

Michael Dunn added twenty-three new artists and covered the period from 1970-1990. Those of us who lived through this era will be familiar with the work of many of them and enjoyed visiting exhibitions where their works were first shown. It was a vibrant and exciting era when New Zealand painters were inspired by art movements happening overseas including Neo-expressionism, Abstractionism, New Realism and Postmodernism. Māori and Pacifica artists were beginning to make their mark as painters. Feminists used their art to challenge the patriarchy.

Michael Dunn mentioned Fatu Feu’u, an internationally recognized Samoan-New Zealand artist, in only a few passing comments, no image of his work is included. He is recognized by the many young Pacifica artists who he nurtured as ‘The Father of Contemporary Pacific Art so I still regard this as a serious omission.

Edward Hanfling has written very lucidly about how he made his selection. The last three decades have been a period in time when artists have grappled with important issues of the day and prioritised these concerns over form and matter. Choosing which painters to include, out of such a diverse group is bound to attract criticism but he is not fazed by this and writes:

‘Histories of Art are fascinating because they feed discussion and debate.'

I was pleased to find personal favourites including Bill Hammond, Robyn Kahukiwa, Jude Rae, Star Gossage, Philip Trusttum, Andy Leleisi’uao, and John Pule were there. It is understandable that, constrained by space, he excluded other important and well-loved painters. I was intrigued that he did find room to include some young and still relatively unknown artists who he feels signal a new direction in New Zealand painting. At this point in time, it is difficult to predict which of them will blossom and gain in stature in the future and who will fade into oblivion.

I look forward to sharing Two Hundred and Fifty Years of New Zealand Painting with my art loving teenage granddaughters and asking their opinion about which of these artists resonate with them. Their generation has already learnt to take a broader view of what a painting can be. They will not be fazed by the inclusion of Raewyn Martin’s work in which she deposited splodges of paint, which imitated the existing stains and blemishes, on the stairs of the Enjoy Gallery in Wellington (2008). This will be a stretch for some readers but Edward Hanfling purposely chose some works to please and some to challenge.

While striving to make a balanced and informed selection, above all he let feeling dictate his judgments.

‘I have tried to come up with a selection that feels good, or conveys a sense of joy. It is an antidote, perhaps, to the gloominess associated with New Zealand art - the tendency of our painters to eschew colour in favour of black and white, and of our art -writers sometimes to confuse bleakness with profundity.’ he writes.

This feels especially relevant right now when, as we live in an uncertain world, we crave art that lifts us up rather than makes us feel down.

Lyn Potter

Bateman Books


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