Archive gems a window on post-WWII NZ art

By Dionne Christian

Collection of letters, photos and artworks shed light on key moments in nascent arts culture of 50s-80s.
Michael Dunn says that while going through all of the artworks and correspondence in the auction he realised it deserved a public audience. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Michael Dunn says that while going through all of the artworks and correspondence in the auction he realised it deserved a public audience. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Auckland auction house Art + Object next week auctions a collection of rare photographs, artworks and documents which shed light on the development of New Zealand art since WWII.

The archive collection belonged to Professor Emeritus Michael Dunn, who from 1970 held senior positions at the University of Auckland and was chair at Elam School of Fine Arts. While a student himself, Dunn struck up friendships with three of our most influential mid-20th century modernist artists; Gordon Walters, Theo Schoon and Russell Clark.

From the early 1960s, Dunn amassed correspondence with Walters and Schroon, rare photographs, works on paper, ceramics and artworks which together offer insights into pivotal moments in New Zealand's art history during the last 50 years. The letters alone total 300.

Art + Object managing director Hamish Coney spent weeks transcribing hundreds of letters and notes which reveal more about the visual arts landscape of the time, Walters and Schoon and their relationship. Both shared an interest in Maori art and ways of using indigenous elements in their work.

In one letter on the impact of cave art, Schoon writes to Dunn: "It has always struck me as rather odd, that NZ artists could not relate themselves to these movements, when they had such a wealth of it in nature to provide the missing link. I call these NZ artists first rate snobs because they were more concerned with the frills of English landscape painting ... "

Walters, in turn, writes of the problems arising from using material from another culture, especially Maori, but how he continued to investigate the koru: " ... in this pursuit, I suddenly hit upon the positive/negative use of the koru and knew immediately I had something ... "

He talks about the difficulties of developing his art at a time when NZ's art scene was in its infancy, of having to juggle paid work with his art. He says had he been able to work fulltime on his art from the mid-1950s on, "it would have been a very different story for me. The reason I did not do so earlier was that ... in the 1950s there was no real art market or dealer set up ... "

Dunn says the decision to sell the archive was made after his wife and fellow artist, Patsy, died in 2012.

"I thought she was a hoarder but when I started clearing things out, I realised I was the same. In a way, I feel I'm making known what's been there because, for so long, it's been in storage. Going through it has been a process of discovery and it's important to make this known to a wider public."

The Theo Schoon correspondence from 1964-84, around 125 handwritten pages of letters written to Dunn, is expected to fetch $5000-$8000 while Walters' letters from 1970-81, around 90 handwritten pages, are expected to make $8000-$12,000.

The collection is open for viewing, with the auction scheduled for Wednesday night.

Gordon Walters wrote to Michael Dunn about learning how to use the koru. Photo / Tony Arrow
Gordon Walters wrote to Michael Dunn about learning how to use the koru. Photo / Tony Arrow

Honouring rising talent

This year marks the eighth iteration of the biennial Walters Prize, regarded as New Zealand's most prestigious contemporary art award, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.

The winner gets $50,000 and each finalist $5000.

The Walters Prize, named in honour of Gordon Walters, was started to help create a greater understanding of contemporary art in New Zealand and to make it a more widely recognised, debated and prominent feature of the country's cultural life.

Four artists are chosen by a four-person jury of well-known New Zealand contemporary art experts and then invited by Auckland Art Gallery to re-exhibit the work for which they were chosen.

This year, for the first time, they can propose an alternative work.

The Walters Prize exhibition runs from July 16 to October 30 and entry is free.

The winning artwork is chosen by an international judge and announced at a gala dinner.

The 2016 jurors and finalists will be announced next month.

- NZ Herald

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