Those who know me well know I’m more than a little crazy about art. History too. But art is at the fore front of my existence. Art has had a tremendous impact on my life, but the artists and artworks which have had a resounding effect are eclectic, and not as obvious as one who knew me well would expect. There are two artworks and one artist who set me down the path of an art lover culminating in an Art History degree that included a detour into Social Anthropology.
Once, one of my aunts pondered that she did not know where my love of art came from. She couldn’t understand how I came to be so passionate about it. No one in our family had much interest or knowledge of it beyond the precursory yet I’m mad for it. I was 21 when we had this conversation, and I just shrugged my shoulders and said I didn’t know. A small white lie to avoid thinking about something unimportant to my existence at that point. I was thinking about the future, my career and where in the art world I wanted to be; not wanting a trip down memory lane as pleasant as it may have been.
Let us take that trip now. I’ll preface it by saying the art I love now, and have done for most of my post-childhood life, all pre-dates the 1960s. With a small handful of exceptions. As a quiet child, one whose nose was most often found in a book (truth be told it still is now, find me in a cafe near my house on a Sunday morning, flat white in one hand, book in the other) images and imagination were fundamental, and I vividly imagined so much of the stories I read.
My first understanding of art, as a tangible experience going beyond basic colouring in, took place in primary school and came in the form of a new relief teacher. Miss Taylor had a task for us. We were to use pastels and a black crayon to draw faces. What was so special about these faces you may ask. Well let me tell you. They were to be in the mode of one Pablo Picasso. Pablo who, I may have said at 9 years old. Oh Picasso, I would say from that point on with a very knowing tone. This relief teacher’s fun afternoon activity in lieu of whatever boring activity had been prescribed by the normal teacher. The afternoon I spent drawing noses joined to ears and ears next to eyes boldly outlined and distinct from large blocks of colour taught me something very meaningful. Art was abstract. Art was more than religiously copying the world around me in its exact form. Art was a reimagining and reinterpretation of the world. I loved it. Until I entered my teens art a la Picasso was my go to technique for any art class I found myself in. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first foray into Cubism.
When I was 12 I went on a school trip to the Auckland Art Gallery. Somewhere I’d never been before. Probably with good reason on my mother’s behalf. My brother, sister and I were naughty children. Prone to breaking and ruining things. No way were we to be trusted in an art gallery. So before the age of 12 I didn’t know such a place existed. I’d been to museums. But they were generally stuffy and smelly, full of old what I considered to be uninteresting stuffed birds, bees and historical artefacts relating to New Zealand history. As a child raised on Disney I was way more interested in the history of knights and princesses than learning about the events significant to my own country. An interest I’ve done a 180 on since my childhood. New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote yo. All the way back in 1893. Pretty cool huh. Wow. What a long side bar. Moral of the story when I was 12 I went to an art gallery.
Now this artwork I am about to tell you about, you will have to imagine. I know not who the artist was, nor what the work was called. What I can do is describe it. An entire room strung wall to wall with hundreds of coloured balls. The room was completely full, and the ropes of balls prohibited one from even entering the room. My first experience of art that disrupted space. That actually inhabited the same space and interacted with me. I wanted to be amongst it but was prevented from doing so. There was no way to enter the room. This work taught me that art went beyond simply pictures and sculptures. Art was an interaction. This artwork also taught me about the temporality of contemporary art. The next school holidays I convinced my mum that yes, we could be good and go to the art gallery. All in the hopes of showing her the room with the balls. Alas on our return it was gone. Replaced with another contemporary piece that did not hold as much wonder for me as the balls. Life lesson. Art can be temporal, here today, gone tomorrow.
The second work of art to have a lasting effect on me can also be found in the Auckland Art Gallery. It is part of the permanent collection, and is almost continuously on display. It is a contentious work of art within the context of New Zealand history, but for me it was an early introduction into one of the greatest works of art, by one of my favourite artists. It also introduced me to the style of painting known as History painting, that pinnacle of the art hierarchy. The painting in question is called The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand painted in 1898 by Louis Steele and Charles Goldie, two mainstays in the Victorian New Zealand art scene. Its a monumental work. Gruesome in composition, depicting human agony at its extreme, and supposedly according to the artists indicative of the journey the Maori people undertook when they discovered New Zealand. Unfortunately it is a complete fabrication, and today is reflectively of a colonial vision of indigenous peoples which is entirely Romantic. And when I say entirely Romantic, I do mean it. Even the composition of the work is taken from Theodore Géricault’s masterpeice, The Raft of the Medusa.
Despite it’s flaws, which in actuality brings more layers to the work, Steele and Goldie’s work is an example of art providing context and a vehicle through which to understand how people of the past categorised and understood the world they inhabited. This painting as a child lead me to history painting, and Géricault, and became the starting point for my journey into the art of the preceding centuries. By wanting to learn more about this painting, a whole other world opened up to me, an entirely Romantic notion in itself. It took me down the path of seeing painting and art as a mechanism which provided and still provides today, people with a way by which to express their understanding of our world throughout time. I believe complexity and contentiousness breeds conversation, and is therefore why art is important and why I love it so much.