by Francis Pound,
with Foreword & Afterword by Leonard Bell
“There is no doubt that [Gordon Walters] is the most striking painter in New Zealand, who can hold his own with the best company anywhere in the world.” – Theo Schoon.
We are very fortunate that a figure of the University of Auckland’s art history department and a producer of some of the country’s finest art historical writings, Francis Pound (1948–2017) dedicated many years to producing this remarkable study of modern abstract artist Gordon Walters. Walters’ work is iconically New Zealand, with his best-known works being the koru paintings, like Makora. But what do we know about this Wellington born artist?
Francis Pound writes in his introduction -
It has long been my experience that when we New Zealanders want to show something of our art to visitors from Europe, we show them McCahon. But what they want to see is Walters.
I want to see how Walters invents himself, becomes himself, makes himself. How does he get from the arts society banality of his first exhibited work, Wellington Wharves, to the Koru paintings?
This is a book about one artist and his art, and the primary focus is on the art itself.
Gordon Walters’ long and productive career, spanning five decades, is celebrated in this 464 page, large jacketed hardback book. It is written by Francis Pound, with a foreword and afterword by Leonard Bell.
We are introduced to the making of a New Zealand modernist – tracing the work of Gordon Walters (1919-1995) from student charcoal sketches in the 1930s to the revelation of the mature Koru works at the 1966 New Vision Gallery exhibition in Auckland. Pound follows Walters through steps and missteps, explorations and diversions, travel in Aotearoa and overseas, as the artist discovers new forms, invents others and discards many more. Pound looks hard at the paint, the brushes, the rulers, the scrapbooks, to reveal an artist at work. And, resolutely internationalist like the artist, the author provides not only astute insights into Walters' art, but also a guide to the elements and ideas that informed the work – notably, Māori and Pacific art, surrealism, Mondrian, De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Euro-American abstraction, conceptual art and minimalism. With Francis Pound accompanying us through the work as guide, critic, wit and enthusiast, Gordon Walters is an extraordinary journey into twentieth-century art.
Pound’s last book, The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity, 1930–1970 (Auckland University Press, 2009) was an exceptional and ground-breaking study of nationalism in twentieth-century New Zealand art.
When Francis Pound died in October 2017 he had been working on this book for many years, but it remained unfinished. While he was in hospital he met with his friend of fifty years, Leonard Bell and discussed how his book could be completed for publication, along with fragmented notes.
According to Leonard Bell; Gordon Frederick Walters, (born in 1919) was one of New Zealand’s first geometric abstract painters. During the 1950s and 1960s, ‘modern’ art, especially abstract painting, could run into antagonism and derision in mainstream society. Cultural nationalists, who aimed for supposed New Zealand-distinctiveness in art, marginalised abstraction as ‘foreign’ or ‘international’, somehow not really of New Zealand. Indeed, Walters later said that he did not exhibit between 1949 and 1966, because the climate ‘was so hostile to abstraction, there would have been little point in showing his work publicly’.
Walters married Margaret Orbell, a scholar of Māori language and culture, at Wellington on 14 May 1963. By 1964 he was making large acrylic paintings the first of which was entitled ‘Te Whiti’. By using Māori titles, Walters acknowledged the inspiration he received from the koru and related motifs such as rauponga. He created a new kind of painting in which Māori motifs and European abstract painting were drawn together. He was criticised in the 1980s for appropriating these motifs, but Walters himself saw it as a positive response to being an artist with bicultural roots, and Margaret Orbell undoubtedly contributed to his awareness of Māori and Oceanic art.
He died in Christchurch on 5 November 1995, survived by his wife and children. He was 76.
Gordon Walters is a book for all New Zealanders to treasure and be inspired by.
Author: Francis Pound, with foreword and afterword by Leonard Bell
Publisher: Auckland University Press