Monday, July 31, 2006

Classical savages


Many years ago I befriended a pair of French botanists who had come to the Land of the Long White Cloud to share the fruits of the Old World with their poor relatives. My friends were effusive in their praise for France - for its food, wine, flag, national anthem, palms, and architecture - and frequently complained of feeling like exiles in this country of cheese toasties and fibrolite baches. I'd often end up accompanying the poor souls to Titirangi for a coffee and a therapy session, because Titirangi was the only place in Auckland where they felt at home. The sumptuous Lopdell House, a onetime pub turned art gallery, reminded my friends of the architecture of glorious France, and the view from Lopdell through Titirangi's trees to the blue waters of the middle stretch of the Manukau Harbour reminded them of the lakes of the French Alps.

The unhappy French friends have long since departed, but I still sometimes think of Lopdell House and of Titirangi in general as a sort of outpost of Europe. I'll be stirring my coffee and looking out at the French Alps when a grubby fishing boat will suddenly appear on the Manukau Harbour to remind me where I am.
It seems appropriate, then, that Lopdell House should be the venue for a sequence of lithographs by Marian Maguire, a printer and painter fascinated by the relationship between Europe and these islands. Maguire's lithographs collage Greek, colonial British, and Maori images to create imaginary encounters between all three cultures. At Lopdell House ancient Greeks eye Cook's Endeavour from southern shores; Ajax and a Maori chief play chess; and Athena observes a skirmish between the 'discoverers' of New Zealand and the people of Aotearoa.

Maguire has chosen to build her collages with figures, landscapes, and motifs drawn from well-known classical and colonial-era artworks. Her Ajax comes from the vase by Exekias, and he plays chess against the backdrop of Heaphy's Mt Egmont. The familiarity of Maguire's source material helps offset the whimsical undertones of her notion of a Maori-Greek encounter, and the result is a series of images that are both strange and familiar.

Maguire is inviting us to ponder hoary old oppositions like the 'old' versus the 'new' world and the 'classical' versus the 'primitive'. Were the pagan, martial Greeks, those supposed exemplars of 'classical' values, really so different from Maori, who were regarded as savages by Britons obsessed with the supposedly classical lineage of their own culture? In a lithograph called 'Ko wai koe?', a stylised Maori head and a stylised Greek head regard one another from close range. Are they about to hongi, or headbutt? Are they impressed, or perplexed? Are we even supposed to think about them in this way, as real people rather than mere motifs, cyphers for the cultural values of their creators?

Maguire has her precursors, of course. I think of CK Stead's free and easy translations of the poems of Catullus, which manage an odd fusion of Roman and Kiwi worlds:

Seeing you weeping at the graveside
Calvus
while trucks rumbled by beyond the hedge
and the mountains stood so still and so silent
against a sky
that went away forever


Tabatha Forbes' sequence Savage/Comfort occupies the room next to Maguire's collages, but it fails to make a comparable impact. Forbes mixes writing that Captain Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks produced during their 1868-1871 expedition to New Zealand with a series of rather enervated drawings of native plants. Forbes spent many hours researching Cook and Banks in the Auckland Museum and various libraries, and she accompanies her sequence with a rambling and pretentious essay. I have the impression that she had more fun producing these works than we can have looking at them. I certainly had difficulty understanding what she had added to her raw materials. No one could make the same complaint about Maguire's collages.

11 Comments:

Blogger Himself said...

While there's an old/new world dynamic at work here, I think there's something much more mundane going on. French people indeed tend not to like Australasia. The reasons are perhaps dual, as given in the phrase "cheese toasties and fibrolite baches". While the cheap and new architecture of Austraaslia (fibrolite) is repugnant ot Old World people, cheese toasties are precisely a testament to what is Anglo-Saxon in the New World – chemical beer, cheddar cheese and meat pies are hated by the French because they exemplify English, not New World, ceassness.

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Blogger maps said...

Ha! You're probably right there...

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Blogger Richard said...

Well if they don't like Australaisia - they can stay in France.

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