It’s All About the Image,by Dick Frizzell (Godwit, 2011), 280 pp., $65.
Something about Dick Frizzell either irks or delights people: there is no scope for the in-between. I’ve just had my third student in as many years asking whether they might please write their Honours dissertation on him. Is there comparable demand, I wonder, at the Elam School of Art, where Frizzell taught for many years? Largely spurned by the curatorial and art historical world and simultaneously loved by the public, there are certain parallels between Frizzell (as he ruefully notes) and Peter McIntyre half a century ago. But whereas the literati — Landfall included — could pretend that McIntyre never existed, such mandarin hauteur is impossible to sustain in a noisier contemporary world. Frizzell is the favourite of the gallery shop if not of the gallery itself, and the time will surely come, one hopes before the master’s dotage, when he will be accorded an already overdue retrospective exhibition.
It’s All About the Image is not so much about the art of Frizzell but — something deeply suspect, and a word that he does not use himself — his taste. ‘Only a perverse form of prejudice emerges from taste’, claims the right-on contemporary art curator Okwui Enwezor, but it is precisely this prejudice (and indeed the perversion) that is guaranteed to pique any reader — or rather viewer — of this book. The cover, a-spoof-cum-tribute to Colin McCahon, with a background the colour of cherry yoghurt, sets the tone and invites a dip that soon becomes a gorge.
Despite the (pistachio-coloured) back-cover blurb claiming this is the ‘A-Z of Dick’s philosophy’, Frizzell’s book cannot really be considered an intellectual rival of Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand, or even the late Julian Dashper’s This is Not Writing. Yet I believe that Frizzell has produced certainly the most endearing — and just possibly most enduring — work of the three. He gets us — as very few art historians are prepared to do these days — to look and see. He applies his painter’s eye, his consummate knowledge of the brush (which end, for example, to use and where), of paints and surfaces, and in the process tells us as memorably as Justin Paton of how he looks at a painting. Repeatedly in the first half, Frizzell gets it splendidly right, suggesting that a serious and astute eye and mind belie his ‘self-proclaimed folksy style’.
What then makes the cut for the First Fifteen of what the author calls ‘“my” history of New Zealand art’? Frizzell (and I) share an affection for ‘ones that got away’ from the often tiresomely narrow modern canon, constructed many years ago by Gordon Brown, Hamish Keith and Peter Tomory, and essentially sustained (for all his protests) by Pound. In the autobiographical introduction, Molly Miller Atkinson’s Richard Bird, Peter McIntyre’s Major General Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC and Austin Deans’s Camp in the Kowhai deliciously sock it to the canon. With McIntyre and Deans it is the quality of the paint application on the surface, together with the pictorial structure, that counts, rather than the artist’s genre, style or place in art history. Frizzell has always opposed modernist snootiness towards illustration (which still bedevilled the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury when I taught there in the 1990s) and the assumption that it occupies an inferior artistic genre. If Frizzell is impressed or moved by an image (which often happens), then he includes it: hence Richard Birdand a few pages later, a positively surrealistic 1920s illustration from Tiger Tim’s Annual. We are then confronted by a lusciously coloured and beautifully composed detail from a mural shrewdly acquired by the forerunner of Te Papa in Frank Brangwyn’s Mediterranean Market, an inspiration to the teenage Frizzell; next, A Coaster about to Enter Port steams into view; while Edward Halliday’s portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary provides a breathtaking climax to the introduction. If it is possible, these images are trumped by Arthur Hipwell’s magnificent 1957 Kelliher Prize prizewinner, Mt Taratara, Northland. When confronted with this technical feat of light, paint, motif and shadow, any lingering modernist prejudices against supposedly stereotypical Kelliher art should simply evaporate. It’s all about the image.
|Hot Water by Dick Frizzell  oil on canvas, 50 x 70.5 cm
Image courtesy of Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington.
A fascinating — and highly personal — theme that emerges is the battle in Frizzell’s mind and brush between the intense, modernist education he received (from Rudolf Gopas and others) at Canterbury, which marked him for life, and ‘a fascination with everything’ that defies genre, style and political correctness. Spiritually Frizzell was an all-devouring, not to mention irreverent if never quite ironical, postmodernist well before his time. A related battle is Frizzell’s modernist compulsion to be intelligently ‘bad’, ugly, and to deliberately unlearn all the academic rules, which is countered by a relish in paint handled beautifully. We see this conflict in Frizzell’s own painting, Hot Water (2009), a still life or perhaps even a conversation piece between two big, elderly teapots, painted with a tonal exquisiteness that would have impressed William Nicholson. But their harmony is sabotaged by the labelling of the larger one as ‘TEA TEA’ and its neighbour as ‘Hot Water!’ This is echoed by his contemporary at Canterbury, Tom Kreisler, whose handsomely painted colour field (which might have pleased William’s son, Ben Nicholson), is likewise subverted by the crudely painted, Picasso-like (but not as good) tap of the title. We encounter many such resonances and sometimes — in successive pages — provocative juxtapositions. Perhaps Frizzell wants to avoid looking too corny by separating, for example, Joanna Pegler’s Lake Land swans from the ingratiating kiwi of Grant Whibley’s Look; likewise, Juliet Peter’s crayfish from Gavin Chilcott’s crab. Perhaps, though, we should take Frizzell at his word and accept that these were the artists — and paintings — that came into his life in the approximate order that they did.
Sometimes Frizzell falls victim to his own generosity. His ‘fascination with everything’ makes him include far too much. His opposition to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum ‘less is more’ is confirmed in as many words in Frizzell’s avowed dislike of ‘cool-minimalist’ painting. This surely explains the omission of several of his major Auckland contemporaries such as Geoff Thornley, Stephen Bambury and Gretchen Albrecht. The Milan Mrkusich reproduced here, Untitled (Abstract Composition), is an early, busily geometrical and colourful Ben Nicholson-influenced work, which provides a revealing comparison with that of Sara Hughes (Oceania), 112 pages and sixty years later.
The problem of excess applies particularly to the final forty or so illustrations where Frizzell’s former Elam students feature over-generously, as do artists represented by the Melanie Rodger Gallery. This compromises and vitiates the book in the process; why does Frizzell do this? A cynical reader might surmise that this hipster of hip-replacement vintage is determined at all costs to keep in with younger, edgier artists and perhaps garner some of their critical and curatorial kudos in the process, to support his own failing act. Yet to continue in this mode would be mean-spirited. Whatever my misgivings, even the later and sometimes weaker artists reproduced in this best-selling volume may well constitute a fascinating insight into early new millennium New Zealand taste for future generations of historians and art historians, and perhaps even collectors and curators in turn. By including them, Frizzell is implicitly arguing that ‘the death of the painter’, widely touted in all the right postmodern discourse zones of the 1990s, has not happened yet. Where will Sam Mitchell, a one-idea artist, be in twenty years? Likewise, the technically awesome but boxed-in Matthew Couper? Will André Hemer, an artist’s artist, uber-cool and sassy, grow into the Dick Frizzell of the future?
A book like this invites our own opinions and here are some plaudits: Bryan Dew (mad and brilliant, Honoré Daumier invited to a Kiwi wedding of the Keith Holyoake era); Bill Sutton (a marvellous, Sickert-like tonal portrait of his father that evokes personal warmth); Archibald Nicholl, Cedric Savage and Nugent Welch (all still somewhat underrated but terrific landscape painters as represented here); Raymond McIntyre (delicate yet decisive); and Rita Angus, whose Head of a Maori Boy, as Frizzell says, is so much better than ‘her goddess stuff’. Tony Delatour’s reprise of Synthetic Cubism looks convincing; and while Jude Rae may have ‘a strong socialist/feminist agenda’, her SL [Still Life] 225 would exquisitely grace any corporate boardroom. Richard MacWhannell, victim of New Zealand’s underdeveloped sensibilities about portraiture, comes over superbly in his tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s Young Lady with a Ferret.
Good examples are chosen, moreover, from the usual suspects: Julian Dashper at his early Neo-Expressionist best, Shane Cotton when he is not writing history for us, and an engagingly frenzied Peter Robinson. There is a Guston-like Michael Stevenson, when he was still a painter, and a Lowry-like Richard Lewer. Max Gimblett, Ralph Hotere and John Reynolds fare less impressively.
While there seem few omissions, I would have appreciated a faux-naïve landscape by John Oakley, who taught Frizzell at Canterbury but now is all but forgotten, and whose vision might provide us with a useful window into Frizzell’s own acclaimed Hawke’s Bay landscapes of twenty years ago. Oakley’s more charismatic colleague Rudolf Gopas does not appear either, and here we must acknowledge his copyright owners. Trevor Moffitt should surely be included; while he was homophobic, Anglophobic, a Rob Muldoon admirer, a heavy boozer and sometimes very rude, that man could paint. Moffitt’s angry dad immortalised in No Son of Mine Goes to University shares the comic element that is deeply ingrained in Frizzell. Where are the pudding-head children of H. Linley Richardson, surely consistent with Frizzell’s love of quirkiness? Or the glum black-singletted blokes of Nigel Brown, cousins of Frizzell’s equivalents? I would have preferred the real Richard Killeen to Chris Heaphy’s derivative; and likewise would have been tempted to salute Billy Apple by the inclusion of a blank page. There seems a conspiracy to exclude Eion Stevens from any stories of our art; yet his colours sing. Sydney Thompson might have been held up as an old fogey in Frizzell’s art school days, but he too is a terrific colourist.
Gustav von Tempsky is a frankly shocking omission; this artist, with his true tales of courage and fighting fleet Maori foe, was Frizzellian a full century before the author. Other worthy inclusions might include Alfred Walsh and Elizabeth Kelly from the more distant past to John Drawbridge, Ian Scott and Stanley Palmer, all active more recently. But I am aware that this ‘corrected’ book is now in danger of becoming all about the reviewer’s preferred images. It is a credit to Frizzell’s infectiousness that he has got me (and probably you in turn) to play these games.
MARK STOCKER is Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Otago and former editor of the Journal of New Zealand Art History (2022–11).