Michael Illingworth was a formidably talented artist who paid a high price for his hatred of middle-class mores, writer Kevin Ireland tells arts editor LINDA HERRICK.
You might say the caption on the back of a 1974 Herald file photo of Michael Illingworth has its own peculiar priority, describing him as "local farmer and painter". But if Illingworth had seen that caption, he would have been proud, says Kevin Ireland, who was his close friend for 30 years until the artist's death in 1988.
"He always fancied himself as a farmer; he likened looking after his flock and mixing up the various breeds of sheep to mixing a palette," says Ireland. "He would have been flattered by that description as a farmer and painter."
Which is a ludicrous notion, given that Illingworth was foremost a courageous and uncompromising artist - and the relentless scourge of what was quaintly known as The Establishment in conservative 60s Auckland society.
Too little has been seen of his work over the past decade or two but now a dazzling touring retrospective is boosting a new awareness of Illingworth's legacy: his gift for glowing colour, his wit and satire and, above all, his great love for the land he came to from England when he was aged 20.
But Illingworth's life as an artist was a terrible struggle, with little support from the arts council, which detested him and his ungrateful refusal to tug his forelock.
He was occasionally literally starving, with one legendary tale of him pointedly eating half a banana before folding the skin back over so he could eat the other half for dinner. That's the way New Zealand treated artists in those days.
Ireland first met Illingworth in 1957, at the pub, when the two were in their mid-20s. "We met where people always met in those days, in Vulcan Lane, either at the Occidental or the Queen's Ferry. We were fairly loyal to the Queen's Ferry because they had an upstairs lounge bar and in those days women weren't allowed into the public, although sometimes we sneaked them in."
Ireland moved to London two years later, and got a job at Gallery One in Soho, an event which was to have a significant effect on Illingworth, who arrived just as Ireland was planning a fortnight's holiday in Europe.
"In those days there was a New Zealand mafia in London and if you got a good job or a good place to live, you made sure you passed it on to other New Zealanders," recalls Ireland.
"Mike came in for a fortnight to keep the job warm for me but I didn't get back to London for 10 months and he stayed on. It was Mike's great piece of luck, the turning point in his life.
"He'd always wanted to paint and had dabbled but he wasn't fired up enough to commit to it until he worked at Gallery One. Suddenly it was his Damascus road experience. Through meeting various artists there, especially Enrico Baj [the Italian surrealist], he picked up the language he was going to use for the rest of his life.
"He thought, wow! I can go back to New Zealand and paint full time. As far as Mike was concerned, New Zealand was more than a home, it was a real spiritual attachment, the real thing. It was in his bones."
But there were also many things about New Zealand which maddened Illingworth, especially the middle-class he sent up so brilliantly in the Piss-Quick series.
"The key to Mike is the mass of contradictions," Ireland explains. "He loved the place but he despised so much about New Zealand society. He antagonised everyone and yet he was the most generous and kind person underneath it all. He was most contrary, he was always contradicting himself - he would say one thing and a minute later, without any insincerity, say the complete opposite.
"He was a person with a blunderbuss conversation and philosophy - he sprayed out and hit everything yet his art was so worked and jewel-like and carefully done."
Illingworth hit the publicity jackpot in 1965 when his As Adam and Eve painting of two nude figures offended, according to a newspaper report, "an elderly man and woman" visiting the Barry Lett Galleries in Victoria St. They filed an obscenity complaint with the police, who asked (and were refused) that the painting be removed, then sent photos of the offending work to the Attorney-General, who sensibly took no action. Ireland, who was in London and receiving weekly letters from Illingworth, "certainly had my ear filled with it all.
"Mike was violently angry, he was apoplectic. He was ready to go to war on bourgeois society. It was the same kind of puritanism that encouraged people to chisel off the genitals of the carvings in the museums. They tried to do the same to his paintings - no genitals please!
"Auckland was a very repressive society then and Mike spent a lot of his energy fighting it - in fact, too much of his energy. He simply couldn't resist the challenge of confronting authority and dogma.
"He got into a lot of trouble but he couldn't help it, that's what fired him up. But we all saw it as a bit of a waste that he was firing off too much energy at targets that were crumbling anyway."
In 1973 Illingworth, his wife, Dene, and their two children (with two more to come) moved away from the Auckland war zone to Coroglen on the Coromandel Peninsula and the so-called good life.
"Coroglen started off as a commune idea and Mike was all for the communal life and sharing things, but of course," says Ireland, laughing, "once he got on the land there was no way he was ever going to share it with anyone so he made life impossible for everyone else and very soon he had the place to himself."
Money became even tighter and the volume of Illingworth's artistic output began to shrink. "He had put himself in a precarious position of living hand-to-mouth which requires a lot of work," says Ireland.
"He needed a studio and he kept on asking the arts council for money. They were really nasty to him. They had given him a little bit of money once and they thought that was enough.
"Mike was a special case. He needed help and as it turned out, he was one of the most extraordinary talents of his time. They should have been big enough to have ignored his attacks, his rudeness and his downright incivility and said, 'Oh well, the talent is worth it'."
Ireland remembers the day he realised Illingworth was ill with cancer, early in 1988.
"He called into my place with his daughter and I cooked him lunch, some fish, and he went out into the garden and vomited. He said he'd been throwing up a lot and he thought he might have an ulcer. He was losing weight and he simply didn't get on to it.
"It happened very quickly. I went down to see him before he died and he got me to lift him and shift him in the bed because he was so sore. It brought me close to tears. When I went to lift him I braced myself to take the weight because he was always a terribly big, athletic man. When I picked him up off the sheets it was as though he was a baby, there was no weight."
The "local farmer and painter" was gone, but Illingworth had managed to achieve his farming goal, typically contrary to common rural practice but entirely in keeping with the painted landscapes he produced with such loving care.
Says Ireland: "He allowed the bush to encroach on the farm. He loved that idea so the actual farmland was getting smaller and smaller all the time. He was proud of his management of the land, that it was becoming bush again. Mike would have been delighted to hear the Herald photo said he was a farmer first."
* A Tourist Lost in Paradise: The Art of Michael Illingworth, New Gallery, next Saturday to April 21.