Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Keith Stewart on Mary McIntyre

The 25th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the September 1996 issue. It is an interview with the painter Mary McIntyre – Listener readers will be aware from the current issue that there is a fine monograph on her by Robin Woodward of Auckland University’s art history department, published by Whitespace gallery. (Disclosure: I edited the text.)

A further disclosure: I once sat for Mary. We had been good friends for a decade or so but, as Keith hints, it was disconcerting to sit and be gazed at in silence before drawing began. Just look at the photo of Mary on page 38 of the Listener and you will see how closely she scrutinises her subjects. I was lucky with the resulting portrait – no nudity was required and there are no parodic elements as in the wonderful Mickey Mouse and Robert Muldoon of 1984 (page 33), in which a laughing angel with Mary’s face hovers behind Muldoon. Or the great Peter McLeavey as a Nun from 1986 (page 72). The photo above, from Mary’s show at the  NZ Portrait Gallery in April, is of my portrait (left) beside Dick Scott in a Rain of Parts (1985). And yes, there is quite a story behind that one.   

The intro read: 
She may be one of our best portrait painters, but Mary Mclntyre doesn’t get many commissions. ”Mostly people are too worried about what I will do,” she tells Keith Stewart.
Mary McIntyre has made her own way as an artist, producing work which follows no fashion and no particular ideology, other than to attend to the personal drive which keeps her drawing, keeps her at her easel. Paintings which are painfully honest in their characterisation, at once raw and tender, but always full-frontal exposures of what she sees, carefully rendered in the sort of detailed, painterly realism that has kept generations of calendar artists as comfortable as their clients.
McIntyre’s difference is that she is not interested in comfort, but in showing, warts and all, the world she knows – a world superficially real, but honestly surreal. Her paintings watch from the walls of her home with bright-eyed uncertainty, declaring their danger. “You can’t sell us,” they say, but McIntyre suspects her vision would not be as sharp were she pampered by steady sales.
“I can see the advantages in not selling well, because once you’ve struck a formula for something that’s very saleable, there must be a terrible pressure. If you did want to change, you would face a dilemma. You are constrained by that, and not being commercially successful might have been a good thing for me in some ways.”
Not that she is an obvious stirrer. Small, attractive, bright, she could be taken for a charming Remmers matron, the glint in her eye reflecting past adventures. Except the adventure continues, her eyes as sharp as her mind, and the challenge persists, in the nicest possible way. The quiet stirrer?
“Yes,” she concedes. “My feelings and the painting combine to give that impression. I think when it appears in all one’s paintings, it must be part of my personality. It is something I want to express, or by doing it I am satisfying some inner urge. I’m not madly a stirrer, I don’t think, but there are some things in life that I see, things that I don’t like terribly. Pretension and dishonesty, especially in the art world, and probably everywhere else as well. I don’t like that and it makes me uncomfortable, so I respond by saying an uncomfortable thing.
“It’s an element in my work. I don’t think it makes things any easier for me. It would be easier to just go along with a normal lubrication of life.”
There is a sense about her work that she is seeing into her subjects, observing behind the mask of social respectability that we hold up. It is a challenge that her paintings, especially the portraits, convey, a discomfort which comes from a sneaking suspicion that you are being watched by the artist – an artist capable of revealing things we would rather keep hidden.
“We are all human. I have never worried about image, about painting people as they are, or even nude. I do notice that quite a lot of people are worried about their image,” she says. “I see myself in a way speaking for us poor little tragi-comic humans. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t know, I feel that I am an average, reasonably normal human, and the things that I feel and do are what everyone feels, what everyone does, because everyone is basically the same. So it has never worried me to paint people nude, or how they are. I mean, what does it matter?
“But it upsets some people. They don’t want their image that honest, or they think I’m weird. I find the best thing is for me to just do it. Not justify doing it. Just do it. It gives meaning to my life.”
Just do it. It could be a motto, a sign of strength. It is also very selfish. “I think painting is very self-indulgent. And to do anything exceptionally well, to seize the exact time when it’s right, to be able to put the effort in when it’s needed, you have to be very selfish. There’s a paradox here. Painting, good painting, does add a dimension and a richness to the human race. A great painting, a great cathedral, any great art, does enrich.
“On the other hand, to get that enrichment and to get it to an edge, artists need to put absolutely everything in to make it work. Everything they can drag out and draw upon. So doing it is very self-indulgent.
“I discover things in my work. I’m a slow worker and I’m thinking all the time, and I’m often not sure if what I am doing is working or not, whether I can make it work. I often think like that for quite a long time, and even at the end I don’t know whether it works or not. I get so bound up in it. Perhaps I never really know. All I can do is feel that it is about as close as I can get to the vision that I had of what I wanted it to be. If I can do that, if I can get close to realising my vision, then that is all that I can do. Whether it’s successful or not, I don’t really know.”
On the wall opposite, a large portrait of painter Don Binney looks down on our afternoon tea with the authority of a member of Stalin’s cabinet. Stern, aloof, but also human, his confidence tempered by a tangible fallibility.
“There’s a bit of humour in Don [the painting]. He takes up this stance with his hands gripping the arms of the chair like that, and a number of people who know him have said, ‘That is Don.’ I felt that straight away when I drew him. That is him, his hands, the way he looks.”
Binney is someone she knows well, as is the case with other portraits which line the high walls of her Mount Eden villa: Louise Henderson, Dick Scott, Michael Smither, Stephen Stratford, Tony Fomison, John Gow and Gary Langsford. “If you want to do a decent portrait you will do far better if you know people fairly well. Little aspects of people strike me, aspects that I really like because they convey something special about each person,” she explains.
“With Don it was his buttons. He likes those buttons done up, and it makes really lovely pleats from the buttons, over his belly, and I got visual pleasure from the way they went. And it also said quite a bit about Don, who is overweight, but very much likes to do his buttons up. I think I do that sort of thing partly unconsciously, but I’m always looking out for little things which will make the portrait more like him, or whoever it is.
“For instance, when Michael Smither put his finger over his nose, when he did that it was so striking. I asked him if he did it very often and he said he did it a lot. I thought it was very much like a helmet, only upside down. You know, those helmets with the nose piece coming down. It’s sort of a masking thing, covering his mouth and his nose. So I did him like that.”
All were happy to sit for her initial drawings, and even for stages in the painting process, but McIntyre also paints portraits of less willing subjects. “Peter McLeavey didn’t like what I did of him, but then he didn’t pose for me. I decided I would do a portrait of him because I could see that I could do it. I get this feeling that grabs me, an epiphenomenon, and I know. It’s sort of a sense of power, and once I get it I know that if I pursue the feeling I will do a painting the way I want to.
“I got that with Peter McLeavey. I decided that I was going to paint him because he is such a distinctive person, and I saw quite a bit of him. I followed him around, looking at him, and he knew I had it in mind. He said to me, ‘I hope you are not going to paint my portrait.’ Then I saw him at a party in this nun’s outfit, and he was marvellous. Totally marvellous. He just looked like tough old Mother McSomething-or-other who had taught you at school and cracked you over the knuckles with her stick. A nun from my childhood. My god, he was like it. And of course he was brought up a Catholic.
“I put the convent in the Rimutaka Hills in Wellington in the background, and Terry Snow’s daughter when she was little. She posed for us and pulled this face, which was perfect. So I put her in. And I gave him this apple for his role. He was the pre-eminent dealer in New Zealand at the time. He still is. He’s a very fine dealer. So I gave him the apple.”
And it is a very fine portrait, combining all the elements which make McIntyre’s paintings so persuasive and simultaneously unsettling: carefully crafted realism, recognisable humanity, humour and a good dose of bizarre. It is a mix which keeps commissions away from one of the best portrait painters in the country, but McIntyre, as always, sees advantages in this, too.
“I have done a few commissions, but mostly people are too worried about what I will do,” she agrees. “I always pursue the way I want to do it, and I am always trying to make some comment about the way life is, the way this person is, and the way we all are. The three things together. If I did a lot of commissions I would have to flatter, and then I couldn’t do what I am doing.”
Why? Why not moderate her attitude to people’s sensitivities in order to make more sales? Why not move her considerable painting skills into abstraction, where fashion currently resides?
“It is all a mixture of one’s personality, the way you have been brought up. Early on I did lightly abstracted landscapes, but I have got more realistic as I have progressed. I went to England a good many years ago and saw a huge amount of Renaissance painting at the National Gallery. I was struck by how wonderful they were, and perhaps I shouldn’t even be trying to do anything as wonderful as that, but I thought, it doesn’t matter that much, I’ll just do it.”
But it obviously does matter, and the mattering shows. She continues to return to the old masters for guidance, and inspiration, and to the surrealists who have also made an impression on her work. “I am fond of surrealism. I am fond of the way surrealism says that the answer is, there isn’t any answer. There’s a sort of jokey aspect to it, too, and I enjoy those visual puns.
“There’s also a cruelty in surrealism, a cruelty that underlies life. I feel that surrealism is always referring to chance, to the contention that our life is based on an infinitesimal chance.”
For all that, the referencing, the influences, hard-core McIntyre is about doing it for herself, taking what she needs, and showing the world her way. Speaking for “us tragi-comic humans” as best she knows how. “I have loads of reproductions. And whenever I go back to London I go to the National Gallery. I go back when I have a problem, look at the Masters again and see how they solved it. It seems awful looking back like that, and some painters just won’t, but I believe that human beings haven’t altered very much, and the solutions to human problems are pretty much the same. But I just do it. In the end it’s easier just to do it, not worry about it.”

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