LOVE NOT FOR SALE
What can a beautiful but austere painting tell us about the marriage between one of our greatest artists, Gordon Walters, and celebrated academic Margaret Orbell?
Maho. What does this word mean? Consult a Māori dictionary and you will be told it means “quiet, undisturbed”. Literature and language professor Margaret Orbell called it “a poetic word, which can be used in a mystical sense”. When Orbell wrote that precise line, in a letter to Auckland art dealer Sue Crockford in 2003, she was also describing a painting by her late husband, the artist Gordon Walters. The painting was titled Maho.
The mystical sense of the word maho “conveys something of the stillness and calm which this painting communicates”, Orbell wrote.
Quiet, calm, stillness. Are those qualities contained in the Walters work, with its severe division into a black half and a grey half, with each side containing a sliver of the other, presented in the stylised koru form that Walters made his own?
Others say you can go even deeper under the painting’s smooth surface and return with further meanings. Walters exhibited Maho in dealer galleries in Auckland and Wellington in 1974 and 1976 before changing his mind, withdrawing it from sale and giving it to his wife. A legend has grown around the painting that borders on the sentimental, an idea that it expresses something about their marriage. Is it over-reading to see the two koru forms in a push and pull that might also represent a relationship? To be even more specific, Walters’ koru forms were usually horizontal. Here, they are vertical, standing up like people.
“Margaret did say to [art critic and historian] Francis Pound, while standing in front of the painting, that they did come to think of it as a painting that was emblematic of their relationship and marriage,” says Auckland University academic and art curator Laurence Simmons, who knew Walters, Orbell and Pound.
“I think it’s a very romantic idea,” says Te Papa’s senior art curator Sarah Farrar, who is more “cautious” about the sentimental reading.
Walters died in 1995, Orbell in 2006 and Pound in 2017, so none can be consulted – although Simmons did hear the story directly from Pound. But one of Farrar’s predecessors at Te Papa, art curator William McAloon, who died in 2012, was on the less romantic side of the debate when he wrote that “while it is tempting to read the painting’s composition as a testament to Walters’ and Orbell’s marriage and their mutual support for each other’s careers, the motivation for the gift may well lie in the fact that Walters regarded Maho as one of his finest works”.
The McAloon view is immortalised in the online description of the painting in the Te Papa collection. The national museum bought Maho from Walters’ estate, then administered by Orbell, in 2004.
Farrar agrees Maho was one of Walters’ finest works: “It’s austere, it’s very simplified. He reduced the things he was interested in right back.”
We can probably settle on a compromise. Walters may not have intended for Maho to be a stylised impression of his marriage, but the fact that he pulled it from sale, despite “a number of potential buyers”, according to McAloon, shows it had unusual value for him. Over time, Walters and Orbell came to see it as a work that reflected their relationship back to them, including their combined bicultural interests and groundbreaking explorations of Māori culture from Pākehā perspectives.
“Over time, Walters and Orbell came to see Maho as a work that reflected their relationship back to them.”
“They were such pioneers,” says artist Richard Killeen of Walters and Orbell. “They probably influenced each other. There weren’t many like-minded people about.”
Killeen met Walters in Wellington in 1970 and would often stay with the couple after they moved south to Christchurch. His memory of Orbell is of someone “academic, intense and incredibly knowledgeable” busily translating old Māori poetry. As if to complement her, Walters was “incredibly visual”. Soon after Walters’ death, Killeen and Orbell collaborated on a small book called The Presence of the Dew, dedicated to Walters’ memory. It drew on Orbell’s deep knowledge of Māori traditions about dew, including the notion that after Rangi’s separation from his wife Papa-tuānuku, mountain mist is her love rising to meet him and dew is “Rangi’s tears poured out over Papa-tuānuku”.
Dew is also connected with laments for the dead and it is not hard to also see meaning in the small book’s closing line: “The poet mourns the absence of all whom death has taken below.”
How does Simmons remember the couple? “Gordon was an incredible person. He was very selfcontained and calm, for the most part. He had strong ideas and was very generous, particularly with other artists. Margaret I knew less,” Simmons says. “I found her more of a formal person, although her personality did seem to change when she was involved in Māori things. She was a very scholarly person.”
Killeen marvels that Walters was born in 1919, the same year as Colin McCahon – but whereas McCahon was “much more colonial”, Walters was looking forward. “He was much more of a modernist.”
BICULTURAL BRANDING OR ‘PLUNDERING’?
Walters started working as a commercial artist in Wellington in the 1930s. A breakthrough came in 1941 when he met Indonesian-born Dutch artist Theo Schoon, who introduced him to the Māori rock art of the South Island. In the 1950s, after some time abroad, Walters began to develop a unique form of abstraction that famously included the koru motif – which some say is actually a pītau, not a koru, but the mistake seems to have stuck.
At the time, Pākehā mostly saw Māori imagery as either kitsch or decoration, rather than material for fine art.
Walters went 19 years without exhibiting before he unveiled the koru works in a landmark 1966 show at the New Vision Gallery in Auckland. McCahon bought one work and helped persuade Auckland Art Gallery to buy another, but sales and wider acceptance were otherwise marginal.
“He had some supporters,” Simmons says. “A few people got it, a lot of people didn’t.”
When Simmons bought a Walters from art dealer Peter McLeavey in Wellington in 1981, he remembers visitors asking: “Why have you got that? It’s like wallpaper.” The other common description Simmons heard back then was “stick and ball painting”. But some grasped the work’s importance.
“It was a colossal achievement in terms of our culture,” Killeen says of the koru images. “You don’t see many McCahons on the side of trucks. He embedded something in the culture. And he did it very well. It’s an extraordinary body of work.”
The line about the side of trucks is a reminder that Walters’ images could double as bicultural branding. Commercial work included the logo for the New Zealand Film Commission. The impersonal nature of abstract art means the koru images quickly looked like a shared visual language – some would be surprised to learn that they ever had an author, as they seemed organic and somehow inevitable.
A major Auckland Art Gallery survey show in 1983 confirmed his status. But in the same decade, Walters started to be targeted for his appropriation of Māori
imagery. An intellectual debate spilled over from the US, where it erupted out of a New York Museum of Modern Art show about “primitivism”. Pākehā artists were accused of “plundering” the storehouse of Māori images. There was talk of “residual colonialism”, with Western culture always seeing itself as central and non-Western culture as marginal, something to be raided from.
“Appropriation is really just influence,” Killeen says. “You can’t avoid appropriating things. That’s how we think.”
But in New Zealand, Killeen adds, appropriation came with “the overlaying of the colonial”.
The argument peaked in 1992 when a notorious show of New Zealand art called Headlands opened in Sydney. The word Headlands still sends shivers through some in the New Zealand art world. Simmons recalls that Walters was invited to take part, but had no input into the work that was selected or how it was shown, and was flown to Sydney for the opening “only to discover that there was a very negative essay written about his work in the catalogue”.
Simmons asks: “Why would you send one of your major artists overseas to then denigrate him, almost in public? He hadn’t seen the essay, he hadn’t seen the catalogue. It was a debacle from that point of view.”
People in the art world took sides. Pound, arguably the greatest New Zealand art critic of his time, was on team Walters. In his book The Space Between, written quickly as a defence of Walters and designed by Killeen, Pound explained where the art came from and where it was leading. He noted that Māori artists such as Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting saw Walters and McCahon as translators or mediators between the worlds of Māori and European art. There was respect on both sides, not cynical exploitation.
‘AN OUTSTANDING SCHOLAR’
In The Space Between, Pound also showed how Margaret Orbell fitted into the story. Born in Auckland in 1934, Orbell gained an MA in English literature and
pursued a career as a translator and editor of Māori writing that may otherwise have been lost.
In 1962, she became editor of Te Ao Hou, a quarterly magazine produced by the Māori Affairs Department. Māori artists such as Matchitt, Whiting and Ralph Hotere contributed illustrations and designs, as did Walters. Pound called Orbell “a propagandist for Māori art, a propagandist who would rebuke Pākehā for so long ignoring the Māori artistic triumph”. Orbell herself wrote in 1964 that without Māori art, “there would be in this country very little art of any real interest at all”.
In 1963, she married Walters in Wellington. They had two children, Alexa and David.
Even more than her husband, Orbell was a mediator and translator. Her post-graduate work was in Māori and anthropology and in 1976 she joined the University of Canterbury’s Māori Department. Books included The Natural World of the Māori, Birds of Aotearoa, Traditional Songs of the Māori and, in 1970, Contemporary Māori Writing, which introduced Witi Ihimaera to a reading public.
The publisher of Birds of Aotearoa, Peter Dowling, called her “an outstanding scholar and author who never sought the limelight but was determined to make a contribution to the presentation and promotion of Māori writing and culture”. In 2002, she became a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
But like Walters, she also worked within Māori culture during a period when Māori started to reassert sovereignty.
“Māori were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the fact that Pākehā scholars were the ones dealing seriously with Māori history, work, art, their taonga,” Simmons says. “People like Margaret had backlash. Gordon had backlash. [Historian] Michael King had backlash. One of the things that Margaret did is she learned classical Māori so she could transcribe and translate waiata. She saved for us a whole tradition of important songs and poems.”
Her editorship of Te Ao Hou and later scholarship was also a crucial influence on Walters, Simmons adds. “It gave him access to all sorts of material and places he probably wouldn’t have gone to or known about without Margaret.”
The evidence of that engagement is all over the walls of the Auckland Art Gallery, where the major show Gordon Walters: New Vision runs until November 4. Of course Maho is there. Simmons, who co-curated the show, sees that viewers are blown away, not just by the neon-bright colours of some koru works – we usually picture solemn black and white – but by the sensuousness of work that might look mathematical on the page.
It is not just the work that looks “fresh”, as Farrar puts it, but the issues it raises. It’s very now. In 2018, an artist like Walters would be called out in a lively discussion at an online publication like The Spinoff or The Pantograph Punch.
“We’re in a global moment when identity politics and issues of representation are extremely important,” she says. “In fact, we almost want to know more detail and make more sense of his lifelong engagement with Māori culture.”
Cross-cultural influences have become more complex. Farrar says she came to know and love Walters’ work, not through the dusty Pākehā art history canon but through newer Māori artists such as Christchurch’s Darryn George, who reclaimed what Walters borrowed and made it Māori all over again. History has a funny way of working out.
Viewers are blown away, not just by the neon-bright colours of some koru works, but by the sensuousness of work that might look mathematical on the page.
Margaret Orbell and Gordon Walters, Wellington, c1965, courtesy of the Gordon Walters Estate. Below right: Maho, 1973, collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Gordon Walters, Drawing 14, 1965, Private Collection, Auckland.
Gordon Walters, Koru, 1971, Private Collection, Wellington.
Gordon Walters, Tamatea, 1969, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.