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Inside view

Ian Wedde explores changing visions of the landscape – from the sublime to the scorched


<P data-associrn="398192"></P> <P>The extraction and transportation of Nauru Island phosphates is the subject both of Wayne Barrar’s ‘Nauru portfolio’ photographs (1991/95) and Nicholas Mangan’s video work <EM>Nauru, notes from a cretaceous world</EM> (2009-10). Phosphate is what keeps New Zealand green, if not clean. It’s what’s required to turn the desolate landscape in Robin White’s <EM>Untitled landscape</EM> (1970) into the pasture that now appears beneath a dawn-flushed Taranaki on the home page of Fonterra’s website, beside a glittering milking shed. (‘We are Fonterra - we are of the land’ reads the caption.) Phosphate is probably what was in the plastic sack at the centre of Don Driver’s <EM>Blue and green Pacific</EM> (1978) - a Taranaki heartland whose blue skies and waters and green forests have been replaced by farm equipment. <P data-associrn="245879"></P> <P>The physical natures of home, land, and sea have changed since 18th-century European artists first made pictures of the spectacular landscapes they saw, and so has the art that incorporates those natures. It now discloses a more internalised, less objectifying set of values, as well as a politicised aesthetic and a satirical sense of the gap between national branding and national identity. </P> <P><STRONG>‘Homeland’</STRONG></P> <P>Art that constructs narratives around a thematic cluster of words including ‘home’, ‘land’, and ‘sea’ will often appear at first sight to be doing familiar cultural work. We tend to take the association of ‘land’ with ‘home’ for granted, and read landscape painting as a cultural strategy for bedding in national identity - a way of representing what we mean by the composite term ‘homeland’. For early European settlers, the ‘sea’ component of that cluster often signalled distance from home, even when their hope was to establish a new home across the sea - to reel that distance in. </P> <P data-associrn="42046"></P> <P>Landscape painting’s work for national identity has involved diverting our attention from the long, nostalgic view. This is sometimes done by giving us close-sighted perspectives on homely foregrounds that block out distance, as in James Nairn’s bucolic, light-dappled impressionist painting of the girl he was courting, Alice Jones. In <EM>Tess</EM> (1893), Nairn recasts Alice after the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s <EM>Tess of the d’Urbervilles</EM>, sounding a cultural echo between the rural England of Hardy’s novel and Alice’s father’s farm in P&#257uatahanui, north of Wellington. </P> <P>A more familiar strategy is of the kind where long views terminate at spectacular salients such as snow-capped mountains, converting nostalgic distance into the useful currency of what has since become a tourism brand. Such self-consciously grand paintings imported another cultural idea: that of the sublime. Paintings such as the Austrian-born Eugene von Guérard’s <EM>Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw, Middle Island, New Zealand</EM> (1877-79) replaced domesticity with awe experienced in the presence of overpowering nature. They weren’t intended to strengthen national identity, yet they now appear as types of representation whose sublime effects are more often associated with the ‘picture postcard’ art used to market New Zealand overseas.</P> <P><STRONG>A local sublime</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1364653"></P> <P>The botanical artist Sydney Parkinson, employed by Sir Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand, on the <EM>Endeavour</EM>, produced almost a thousand detailed drawings of plants and animals between 1768 and his death in 1771. He also made drawings of natural features and ethnographic subjects, many of which were later engraved for publication. One of the best known was of a spectacular rock formation at Tolaga Bay (subsequently confused with a similar formation at Mercury Bay, drawn by HD Sporing, an assistant naturalist on the voyage). A hand-coloured version, <EM>View of an arched rock on the coast of New Zealand with an hippa, or place of retreat, on the top of it</EM> (1769), shows the <EM>Endeavour</EM> standing off - a picturesque version of the sublime, in which the exotic signs of human inhabitation are miniaturised on top of the ‘arched rock’ and in the sea below. In its time, an engraved image such as this did the work we now associate with postcards or tourism websites. </P> <P>William Hodges, the artist on Cook’s second voyage, produced much grander pictures than Parkinson, but he, too, combined splendid natural scenery and phenomena with samples of exotic human life-ways. Hodges liked waterfalls - a stock in trade of sublime landscape painting. One of his most famous paintings is <EM>[Cascade Cove] Dusky Bay</EM> (1775). Here, two major narratives converge. One is the crew’s awestruck experience of the grandeur of the waterfall and rainbow at the place they named Cascade Cove; the other is an encounter with a M&#257;ori family on the north-eastern point of what they subsequently called ‘Indian Island’. </P> <P data-associrn="272232"></P> <P data-associrn="36401"></P> <P>Versions of these combined narratives - of natural wonder and exotic M&#257;ori - would be repeated often during the next hundred years. The ‘M&#257;oriland’ national brand of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, described by the literary scholar JC Reid as ‘a synthetic culture without a core’, is well represented by William Binzer’s overexcited painting <EM>White Terraces, Rotomahana</EM> (1880s).<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> A later, less sentimental development is found in the work of artists such as Gordon Walters. <EM>New Zealand landscape</EM> (1947) places simplified signs of tree, grass, and sun on a flat, modernist surface, without sublime perspective. As well as nodding to Paul Klee, the painting references the M&#257;ori rock art that Theo Schoon had shown Walters in 1946. </P> <P><STRONG>100% pure?</STRONG></P> <P>We are familiar with the way sublime land-and-water representations of ‘home’ underpin brands like ‘Untouched World’ and ‘100% Pure’ - a concept that has become New Zealand’s 21st-century sublime. Such visual branding reached a climax in 2004, following the storming success of the first of the<EM> Lord of the Rings</EM> film trilogy at the Academy Awards. In a triumphant post-<EM>Rings</EM> tourism marketing image, the original ‘100% Pure’ vista, with its snow-capped mountains, blue lake, and blue sky with snowy clouds, was intersected from the right by two hands holding a film-shoot clapperboard: ‘take one’ on a landscape with no people in it. MasterCard, a major sponsor of the film, also deployed a version of the ‘100% Pure’ landscape in an international marketing campaign, but theirs had a horse-riding procession of fantasy beings from Middle-earth in it.</P> <P>Such images tend to treat viewing as an objectifying strategy that puts land-scape outside the body of the viewer - framed by the picture window, the cinema screen, or the advertising billboard, or made convenient by the viewing platform and the photo opportunity. Another kind of narrative locates the land within the body of the viewer, and the body of the viewer within the land. The M&#257;ori concept of whenua - a word in which land and placenta are indivisible - generates a very different kind of image in Robyn Kahukiwa’s screen print <EM>Tangata whenua</EM> (1987). In this work we see another perspective. Instead of von Guérard’s sweeping, dramatically receding panorama, in which people in a canoe (going backwards) are made insignificant before a grand backdrop of mountains, Kahukiwa’s picture is all foreground. The people and children in it are almost indistinguishable from the land forms they appear to be part of and whose picture plane they share. They exist right here in a place between sea and sky. They embody the land, and are inseparable from it. </P> <P data-associrn="36553"></P> <P><STRONG>Being at home here</STRONG></P> <P>The close entwining of land, water, people, and narrative is typical of embodied landscape values such as those Shane Cotton addresses in his painting <EM>Whakapiri atu te whenua</EM> (1993). The title translates as ‘retain the land’ - an admonition attributed to the prophet and resistance leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te T&#363;ruki during the wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The pot plants in Cotton’s painting can be seen to represent the containment or alienation of land. The tall central plant has been decapitated; the plants at its base are dying. </P> <P data-associrn="224690"></P> <P>A number of artists had documented these 19th-century conflicts. Notable among them was the soldier-artist Horatio Gordon Robley: his watercolour <EM>Scene in the pits, Gate Pah</EM> is one of several depicting the 1864 battle of Gate P&#257, near today’s Tauranga. However, Robley also introduced the paradoxical viewpoint of the ‘P&#257keh&#257-M&#257ori’ - he had close relationships with the M&#257;ori community at Matapihi, not far from the site of the battle. Another P&#257keh&#257-M&#257ori, the surveyor and interpreter Joseph Merrett (1816-54), had a similarly complex viewpoint. In the early 1840s, Merrett filled his notebooks with small, quickly executed drawings that are remarkable for the impression they give that his take on the landscape was sympathetic as well as calculating. The tiny eel weir in <EM>An eel pah, Waipa</EM>, the whare (house) in the middle distance below the unsensational outline of Tongariro in <EM>From the banks of Taupo</EM>, another whare tucked into the Taranaki landscape in <EM>Mokau</EM> - all convey a sense of being at home. It’s possible, of course, that this homely feeling is related to Merrett’s surveyor’s eye for settler opportunity - not in itself a contradiction. </P> <P data-associrn="539226"></P> <P>In the small oil painting <EM>Landscape with settlers</EM> (about 1857), attributed to one or a combination of the three Messenger sisters, however, this sense of ‘at-homeness’ has soured. The landscape in which Merrett placed his small signs of human habitation and activity has been devastated - or cleared for cultivation, depending on your point of view. The homestead of the sisters’ father, William Bazire Messenger, sits in a comfortless landscape beneath Taranaki, whose scenic charm hardly compensates for the aura of misery that pervades the picture.</P> <P data-associrn="192972"></P> <P>It’s a theme that is unintentionally echoed in the watercolour by the land agent and politician Francis Dillon Bell, <EM>Turning of the new Hutt road at Taita</EM> (about 1850). A broad path has been cut through towering forest, and two M&#257;ori next to a small whare appear to have been pushed aside by the road works - a southern-hemisphere version of American ‘manifest destiny’ expansionism. James Bragge’s photograph, <EM>Five Mile Avenue, Forty Mile Bush</EM> (about 1875) also records a forest that would soon be gone forever. The painter Charles Blomfield, an ardent conservationist, conveys a sense of imminent doom in <EM>Among the kauris, Waitakeres</EM> (1884). </P> <P data-associrn="167800"></P> <P><STRONG>The end of the line</STRONG></P> <P>And this, of course, becomes a modern theme. In Eric Lee-Johnson’s oil painting <EM>End of the assembly line</EM> (1945), industrial wreckage piled beside a road resembles the twisted shapes of his watercolour drawing of piled-up tree stumps (<EM>Untitled [Stumps],</EM> 1940s). The bleak landscape, cleared of its forest, that Robin White depicts in <EM>Untitled landscape</EM> is what we see when the process commenced in James Bragge’s or Francis Dillon Bell’s pictures is complete. Michael Illingworth’s <EM>Fertility</EM> (1970) expresses a longing to redeem that waste landscape through a concept resembling the M&#257;ori one of whenua. </P> <P data-associrn="1364654"></P> <P>Bill Hammond’s ‘bird paintings’, as they have come to be known - <EM>Watching for Buller. 2</EM> (1993), for example - have infiltrated and subverted the sublime landscapes of Hodges, von Guérard, and Nicholas Chevalier (<EM>Cook Strait, New Zealand</EM>, about 1884), as well as the coastal profiles recorded by Cook’s artists. The narratives that converge in Hammond’s paintings include scientific practices of collecting specimens that sheet back to Sir Joseph Banks via the ornithologist and ‘bird stuffer’ Sir Walter Lawry Buller, the catastrophe of species extinction, and Tane, the M&#257;ori god of the forest and all the creatures that live there.</P> <P>Paul Martinson’s enormous watercolour series ‘Extinct Birds of New Zealand’, published in book form in 2006, is where we are at home now. <EM>Eastern moa</EM> [Emeus crassus] (2005) was gone long before the completion of the process photographed by Bragge and elegised by Hammond; species extinction has not been the sole responsibility of European settlers and their descendants. But this is now the long view as well as the foreground, the big picture as well as the domestic one. Our viewing platform has changed, or needs to. We no longer live far from anywhere. </P> <P><STRONG><FONT size=2>Endnotes</FONT></STRONG></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>JC Reid, <EM>Creative Writing in New Zealand: A brief critical history</EM>, the author with Whitcombe and Tombs, Auckland, 1946, p. 19.<BR></FONT></LI></OL>
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Wayne Barrar, Nauru (cantilever), 1991, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1998.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Robin White, Untitled landscape, 1970, oil on canvas,
Gift of Hans and Martha Lachmann, 1995.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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James M. Nairn, Tess, 1893, oil on canvas,
Gift of John Newton and Son, Kaiwharawhara, 1939.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Sydney Parkinson, View of an arched rock on the coast of New Zealand with an hippa, or place of retreat, on the top of it, 1784, engraving, hand-coloured, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand PUBL-0037-24

Sydney Parkinson, View of an arched rock on the coast of New Zealand with an hippa, or place of retreat, on the top of it, 1784, engraving, hand-coloured, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand PUBL-0037-24

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William Binzer, White Terraces, Rotomahana, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gordon Walters, New Zealand landscape, 1947, oil on cardboard,
Gift of the Friends of the National Art Gallery, 1991.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Shane Cotton, Whakapiri atu te whenua, 1993, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Horatio G. Robley, Scene in the pits, Gate Pah, circa 1864, watercolour,
Acquisition history unknown.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Joseph J. Merrett, An eel pah, Waipa, circa 1841-46, pen and ink,
Purchased 2001.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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James Bragge, Five Mile Avenue, Forty Mile Bush, circa 1875, black and white photograph, albumen silver print,
Acquisition history unknown.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Eric Lee-Johnson, End of the assembly line, 1945, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1995 with Dugald Henderson Bequest funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Bill Hammond, Watching for Buller. 2, 1993, acrylic on canvas, On loan to the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu from the artist

Bill Hammond, Watching for Buller. 2, 1993, acrylic on canvas, On loan to the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu from the artist