Reclaiming the koru

It has been 34 years since the last Gordon Walters survey exhibition, an eternity in artworld years. It’s been a long time between drinks for Walters fans, but Gordon Walters, New Vision at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is a complete triumph, simultaneously rebooting the artist’s pre-eminent position in the New Zealand art stratosphere whilst clearing a path for the artist’s future international contextualisation amongst the very highest echelons of modernist practitioners. It is a question of when, not if, Walters takes his place at the top table.

In the intervening years between Walters' 1983 exhibition at the then-Auckland City Art Gallery (curated by Walters scholar Professor Michael Dunn) and this exhibition, a collaboration between the DPAG, Auckland Art Gallery and the Walters Estate, Walters' (1919-1995) reputation and influence has grown, but his work outside isolated lone examples in public galleries, private collections or auction catalogues has been on the relative back-burner in exhibition terms.

Three notable cultural phenomena have maintained Walters' profile over the last three and a half decades. First, a new generation of New Zealand artists including Richard Killeen, Michael Parekowhai, Wayne Youle, Chris Heaphy, Lonnie Hutchison, Marie Shannon, Reuben Patterson and Andrew McLeod have picked up on the koru and kowhaiwhai forms that underpin Walters' synthesis of indigenous image-making and modernist abstraction. It is such a fertile area that this single, simple line and circle form - that potent Māori lifeforce symbol derived from the unfurling fern bulb in spring - has powered whole sections of the national artistic grid over the last 20 years. Secondly, in the 30-plus years since that 1983 exhibition, the koru symbol has entered the mainstream visual lexicon within Aotearoa as a recognised metaphor of ‘New Zealandness’, to - at times - slightly cloying effect. You’ll see it at the airport emblazoned on Air Zealand jets. Walters’ koru is also deployed as the logo for the New Zealand Film Commission.

Recently, I spotted the koru as the packaging theme for a range of Kiwi skincare products. During the flag debate I lost count of the number of koru designs that were proposed to replace the empire-era Union Jack version. The third leg of the koru trifecta has been the growing profile of the Dutch émigré artist Theo Schoon (1915-1985) whose decisive influence on Walters and the wider culture I recently discussed on Newsroom.

Before Walters' visit to the Māori Rock art caves of South Canterbury in 1946 at the invitation of Schoon, he was an artist in search of identity and sustaining subject matter. In short, he was a rebel without a cause as he plaintively explained in later years, “I knew I was not a European. I was acutely aware that there was no context of modern art for me to fit into comfortably in New Zealand.”

However, within months of the revelation of the rock art caves, ‘New Zealand’s oldest art galleries’, Walters was away, diving into a line of enquiry that would consume him for the next 40 years. This is where Gordon Walters, New Vision begins, as the atom is being split in New Zealand culture in these early post-war years. New Zealand art prior to WWII was in the main British in thinking and flavour. Landscape painting was the dominant genre and even when some degree of innovation emerged in the form of a young Rita Angus and seminal works such as Cass of 1936, her subject matter was a hardly revolutionary rural train station.

Half a century of cultural gestation has been required for the lens to develop though which we can finally observe Walters ambition both for himself as ‘not a European’ artist and for the nascent potential that lay within our own indigenous visual culture.

From 1949 until 1966 Walters initiated period of artistic research and development perhaps unequalled in New Zealand art history. In this period he desisted from exhibiting and went into the seclusion of creative purdah. Those 17 years of research, experimentation and travel was the artistic equivalent of a solo circumnavigation of the globe. Along the way he traversed both European and American modernism, Polynesian and Marquesan tattoo, but above all the mystery of the koru in an eye-popping positive/negative optical manifestation. The first koru works emerged tentatively in the mid 1950s as a series of small gouaches that respond to the formal kowhaiwhai designs found within Māori whare whakairo, most usually located on the rafter ribs or heke. For another decade Walters, flying solo, perfected what he described as the ‘dynamic relations’ of a simplified subset of arrangements of koru within a limited range of tonal and colour variations, the most striking of which are the classic black and white variants.

It is a measure of Walters’ achievement in this period, working alone, with perhaps only the occasional nudge or critique from Theo Schoon as sustenance that it has taken three curators working as a team to bring this monumental exhibition and catalogue to such fruition. Curators Lucy Hammonds, Julia Waite and Professor Laurence Simmons of the DPAG, Auckland Art Gallery and the University of Auckland respectively have chosen as the crescendo of this Walters symphony the moment in 1966 when Walters first exhibited 12 koru works at the New Vision Gallery.

Good things take time and this watershed exhibition is a case in point. Half a century of cultural gestation has been required for the lens to develop though which we can finally observe Walters' ambition both for himself as ‘not a European’ artist and for the nascent potential that lay within our own indigenous visual culture. Laurence Simmons recently described a similar curatorial ambition, “By revealing the histories of Walters’ practice, from its earliest stages in the 1940s through to the artist’s latest works from the mid-1990s, we aim to show that Walters developed a truly ‘new vision’ for painting in Aotearoa New Zealand, a non-hierarchical and non-linear process of abstraction, which guided the elaboration of a uniquely Pacific form of modernism over a period of more than 50 years.”

Two Gordon Walters 1960s Korus on exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery – from left Tahi (1969) and Tiki II (1966). Photo: Supplied

Five decades after the ’66 New Vision Gallery exhibition, the opportunity to see a number of these works together again was for me a real chill down the spine moment. The frisson of being transported back to one of the most singular moments within New Zealand art history was exhilarating, the parallel to standing atop Everest with Hillary - the stuff of legend, I kid you not. But that was only a prelude to the Wagnerian force that greeted me as I entered the main koru room which contains works from the later 60s to the mid 70s. They may say that size doesn’t count, but in the late 1960s Walters produced a hit parade of koru works at scale that rank amongst the most breathtaking artworks that one might be lucky enough to see anywhere at anytime. These works traverse both sides of the ledger, from brilliantly colourful almost dayglo korus such as Tiki II to the stark, classic elegance of the three black-and-white Genealogy works.

I have had the great privilege to attend some inspiring exhibitions over many years but few gallery experiences can match the crackling, virile energy of the space where the mega korus Tahi, Tiki II, Blue and Yellow, Tamatea, square off against the three Genealogy canvases. All these most magnificent korus were produced between 1966 and 1971, a five-year glory run. Given that these works trace their whakapapa to the oldest recorded Māori artworks in New Zealand, were then conceptually incubated in the 1950s and subsequently realised a decade later, well before the word computer entered into any public discourse, it is with a sense of wonder that their combined impact is so coherently contemporary and full of, for want of another word, ‘zeitgeist’. Although laboriously crafted by hand, these large koru works possess the crystalline allure of the digital now in their curved and linear precision.

The final room entitled 'Descendants' brings something of a lost, but crucial chapter to our understanding of Walters and it is this last decade of works which is most closely aligned to international trends within abstraction from the 70s to the 90s. In these later works we can see Walters liberated of the ‘burden’ of the korus and thus freed from all those years of heavy lifting within the culture. Late Walters has all the confident majesty of late Titian; the vibe is old religion – say Buddhism in contrast to the more proselytising, muscular Christian tone of those first incredible korus of the 1960s.

These later, elegant, hymnal, Zen abstract works with their peculiar dun, beige, banana, baby blue and faded rust palette form a superlative coda to the exhibition. They are a million miles from the French Maid Coffee House where Walters first exhibited in wartime Wellington.

Accompanying the exhibition is a catalogue publication that finally does Walters justice with superb essays that make it a must-read in the same way that the show is a must-see. One essay I could not help but turn to first is entitled Pitau, Primitivism and Provocation: Gordon Walters’ Appropriation of Māori Iconography by Deidre Brown, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Auckland. Her essay takes us back into one of the more loaded debates in recent New Zealand art history, the crux being who held ownership, moral or otherwise, of Māori imagery. This was an active debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Walters was for a moment caught in the crossfire. What this exhibition clearly illustrates was Walters' reverence for Māori visual genius and that - if anything - this homage to the culture of tangata whenua was long overdue recognition at the time of its most notable and life-affirming characteristics.

As a final note I must acknowledge the contribution of Dr Francis Pound, the noted Walters scholar who, very sadly, passed away just before this landmark exhibition opened. Francis taught me at school and at university and was the author of The Space Between, Pakeha Use of Māori Motifs in Modernist New Zealand Art (1994). On opening night many people asked, ‘What would Francis think?’ or noted ‘Francis would love this.’

Gordon Walters working on Painting No.9, (later destroyed), circa 1965. Photo: Supplied

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