Keith Stewart talks to the great abstract painter Gordon Walters about the early days of his career, as he began to develop his distinctive koru motif. People already thought he was crazy to paint, but when he discovered Maori art, “They thought I was especially crazy.”
The portrait of Gordon Walters is by Bruce Foster.
FOLLOWING A STRAIGHT LINE
When Gordon Walters burst onto the frothy contemporary art scene of 1960s New Zealand, his work was very much “shock of the new” to an art community that thought it had found its real voice. McCahon was already established as the messiah of New Zealand painting when the musty old New Zealand Herald reproduced in large black and white one of Walters’ paintings. It was a work of piercing clarity, its pattern of wickedly complex simplicity capturing a visual rhythm which immediately echoed its pulse to all who saw it. The rhythm was pure New Zealand in a way never seen before, breathtakingly cosmopolitan and bold.
Walters crafted sublime sophistication out of an essential New Zealand shape, a form that evokes the substance of an ancient Maori form, itself containing an essence of this place that is instantly recognisable whether seen by Maori or Pakeha. His paintings enriched and expanded the forms they grew from, and helped consolidate a growing sense of identity in a young people. It was art that worried at the core of being of here.
This was not some explosive new young talent, however, no meteor from art school, but a contemporary of McCahon who had toiled away at his art when New Zealand gave nothing but hard ground. Not that the ground necessarily made it so, but Walters’ is a hard art, pursued with almost obsessive single-mindedness and refined with the sort of stamina it takes to win marathons. It was a long, long journey from the beginning of the grind that distilled his “koru” paintings, a journey Walters started without really knowing what he was in for.
“When people start off they don’t have much to express,” Walters says. When he began, he didn’t have much to express, but he knew he wanted to do it through art, and that it would take great dedication. “I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t have the skills. Right from the beginning I was a perfectionist, and I wanted to realise things which at the time I couldn’t.”
And there was not much hope of learning, or of making a career, or even of winning recognition. “When I told my parents that I wanted to do art,” he recalls, “they said, ‘You’d better get some skills so that you can make your living, because you can’t start off, just be an artist. You’ll just starve.’ So I set myself a goal of some sort of job in commercial art, and for a long time I didn’t dare to think I might be an artist who could make a living from my art.
“I went to a secondary school where there was no art, and it was a terribly slow and lonely business acquiring the skills to slowly make concrete what I actually felt, my responses to what I’d seen. After I left school, I went to art school in the evenings and I used to paint in the weekends.”
He learned as much as he could from the people and things around him, but it was made more difficult in a community where art was seriously underrated, where there was so little opportunity to look at any art - never mind art that was challenging, that was a dynamic part of daily life.
“You have to think what it was like in the 30s and 40s when I grew up,” he says. “It was a crucial period. Here in New Zealand art had nothing to do with the bloody community. People wanted little landscapes on their walls, and that was what the art societies went for. Anything else was unthinkable.
“There were no dealer galleries - the only shows were at the Society of Arts, the Academy of Fine Arts annual exhibitions. I started off showing at these and I was very uncomfortable because they had selection committees and you submitted your three works and if you were a beginner like I was you perhaps got one in.”
Sometimes you got lucky. “I remember the first time I ever showed was when I was 18 or 19 at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. I got one painting put into that show, and low and behold the Evening Post photographer actually photographed the bloody thing and it was there in the newspaper. I felt this was a very auspicious thing somehow, but it took a while before I could really see my way. I still wasn’t really sure what I was doing.”
World War II provided a great opportunity, as the dislocation in Europe sent refugees fleeing around the world, even to New Zealand. Young Walters thrived on the art ideas they threw into Wellington’s provincial propriety. Having been rejected by the anny, he was by this time fully employed by the Ministry of Supply, creating diagrams, designing instruction booklets and undertaking various other commercial art activities, alongside people who could discuss Europe’s art world.
“That was when my education really started. The man in charge at the Ministry was a Russian called Marx, and he had a soft spot for refugees. The whole place was full of refugees. We even had some Samoans - it was bizarre because these Samoans were out-and-out fascists who would rejoice every time the Nazis made any gains - all mixed up with these Jewish refugees.
“That was a good time for me because I met all these people and I learned a hell of a lot from them. Really my focus at that time was very much on European art.”
It was an attention that had been developing even before the influences of European refugees, because Walters had already acquired the artist’s essential trait of looking, looking, looking. In the absence of real art that meant books and magazines.
“In the late 30s when I was at art school, they had a very good library at the Wellington Technical College, and I got books that really got me going,” he says. “And then there was Art Now by Herbert Read, with all the reproductions of contemporary stuff. That was where I saw my first reproduction of a Mondrian, which I didn’t understand, but it fascinated me and I wanted more, everything I could get.
“Already I was drawn to the abstract, and some of the surrealists’ things, so meeting all these refugees from Europe was incredible. There was one Dutch woman who had copies of Minotaur, the surrealist magazine, probably the only copies in the country.
“There was another, I think he was a Czech, who used to give talks on art. He was very keen on the work of Kandinsky and that expressionist stuff, and he had lots of very good reproductions to look at that I can still remember. Really I took off in that period, and not all the experiences were to do with art, because we talked about all sorts of things, but I became sure that I wanted to be a painter.”
Walters’ relationship with another refugee at this time, Theo Schoon, is considered by art historians to be pivotal in his development of the koru motifs which so dramatically announced his presence more than 20 years later. “I met Schoon through a lecture he was giving at the Wellington sketch club that I used to go and draw at some nights,” Walters remembers. “He was so contemptuous about New Zealand art, and when I talked to him he was even more bloody contemptuous. He brought home to me the differences between here and Europe.
“I showed him what I was doing, and he told me I didn’t have the background to do it. He was very skilful then, because he was not long out of art school, and he taught me how to draw properly what was put in front of me. He taught me how to get the proportions right. He would stack three chairs on top of each other at funny angles and say ‘Draw that’, so that I would learn how to get the thing absolutely right. That is not really anything to do with art, but it developed my hand and eye co-ordination.
“I never actually liked his painting very much. In fact I didn’t like it at all. But one of the things that people coming in were able to do was see things more clearly than we could. Schoon was onto that. I knew about these things, but he was saying it and making it concrete for me.”
Indeed, the beginnings of Walters’ affinity with Maori and other tribal art went back well before his contact with Schoon, probably even before he was aware he wanted to be a painter. “When I was a kid we were taken to the old Dominion Museum in Museum Street, and it was crammed with things. Old carvings, bits of rafter panels, everything you could imagine. And it was not just Maori stuff. There was stuff from New Guinea, masks and things, stuff from New Ireland, a few African things chucked in. It made such an impression on me. It was magic, like Aladdin’s cave.
“I really got to it again when I was looking at the art magazines when I was at art school, and I saw what Picasso had taken from - and he took from a lot. He was omnivorous, he just went slurp. His work is full of all these references, so that got me looking too, and I found another important book for me, by Karl Einstein, who was a German historian, on African sculpture. I had that book for years, and it was marvellous, with wonderful masks, heads, and figures. It is a very contemporary taste I think, and that got me very interested in tribal art and I started looking at Maori stuff again.”
But he could not quite make contact. “It seemed remote to me, the Maori stuff, very hard to get into. I could see how those artists used the African stuff, but I couldn’t see how I could use Maori stuff. OK, that was my limitation at the time, but I was interested in surrealism, and they went for Melanesian art, for Pacific art, because it was more fantastic than the African. Some of the surrealists did have collections, including some very nice little Maori figures, but Maori stuff was very remote at the time, almost unknown to Europeans, and I was trying to see like a European.
“I tried to make use of Maori design in about 1939-40. I tried to take elements from it and do something with it. I couldn’t, because I couldn’t see the thing properly at the time.”
Others were trying to make contact too, but they were also failing, perhaps because Maori art was too exotic for them, or simply because they, too, could not see it properly either. “So many of the painters when I was at art school were not getting into Maori art, but were drawing Maoris, painting bits of related landscape with a Maori house in, or a little meeting house. Maoris in Rotorua, that’s what those guys were into. I couldn’t see myself doing that. Something stopped me.”
But then the breakthrough came, the point of access. “Just at the end of the war I went over to Australia for about three months, and when I came back I got this letter from Theo Schoon, and he said he had found some fantastic stuff in the Dunedin Museum. These were some chunks of limestone with rock drawings on them. Then he saw some of the drawings in a more accessible site, and he told me he was going to copy them, and do something with them, and he wanted me to come down and join him.
“That was when I first started getting into Maori material, if you could call it Maori material, because it’s not like classic Maori things at all. The further back you go, that’s where you get the good stuff.”
And it was the good stuff he seemed to have been looking for all those years, even when he didn’t know quite what it was. The good stuff that is the essence of the perfection he seeks.
“I am painting the one picture all the time,” he concedes. “It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, I am trying to perfect the one thing I was meant to do. To perfect it to my satisfaction. It is an unattainable thing, but you have it there right in front of you, all the time.”
And when you get close you don’t turn away, even if it makes your life, your acceptance as an artist, harder.
“People were antagonistic towards modernism. If you showed somebody a reproduction of a Mondrian they would mutter, ‘What the bloody hell is that?’ It was so severe and so negative that it was one of the reasons I kept my stuff to myself. Another reason was that people didn’t like the idea that you painted. Commercial artists I mixed with then thought that painting was peculiar, that I thought I was too good for them, and that I was crazy because I painted.”
So just when people began warming up towards modernism and painters in general, how did they feel about his discovery of Maori art? “They thought I was especially crazy then,” he says. “Everybody thought Maori art was so old hat. Not really art at all.”
And that is just the beginning of the story. But, as Gordon Walters himself says, “Good artists are bloody ruthless. Monsters. You do what you have to do.”