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?

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY - By Philip Matthews.

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.”


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.


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.

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