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19th Dec 2019

City Art Reader 26: Best Of

For the second year writer and critic Andrew Paul Wood presents his top five art books of 2019 (plus one honourable mention)


I love art books but they are expensive, so as previously with this list one of my criteria is value for money. I base this on usefulness as a reference, enjoyment and gorgeousness. The best art books this year have largely been dominated by two events, the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s exhibition Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys which ran from 4 May to 1 September this year, followed by another survey exhibition of another important New Zealand woman artist, Louise Henderson accompanied by another magnificent publication. Auckland Art Gallery dominates 2019 through various publications and publishers, which is a nice challenge for other institutions to rise to in 2020.

Louise Henderson: From Life
Felicity Milburn, Lara Strongman, Julia Waite
Auckland Art Gallery ($65.00)

A gorgeous book to accompany a gorgeous show, but then again it would be incredibly difficult to stuff up a publication full of so many beautiful pictures. A joint production between Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, this volume is full of marvellous essays to introduce a New Zealand artist who deserves to have the same name recognition as Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters. A Paris-born, Paris-trained trained Cubist with an Antipodean flavour. Mine retinae ravished. Can’t wait for the show to come to Christchurch in 2020!

 

Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction
Vol. 1, 1919-1959

Peter Simpson
Auckland University Press ($75.00)

Peter Simpson is a meticulous scholar who has given us many important art histories, not least of all his studies of Colin McCahon. McCahon is an unavoidable monolithic presence in New Zealand art and many have struggled to bring his art and work into some kind of comprehensive picture. This first volume of two does exactly that, teasing out the details of the first half of McCahon’s biography and career in a way that is illuminating, uncompromising and accessible. The main focus here is the sweep of the religiously themed paintings to the fractal kauri of the Titirangi years. I am very much looking forward to the next book. This is going to be the canonical art-historical resource for decades to come.

 

McCahon Country
Justin Paton
Penguin ($75.00)

This is a very different book again, by Justin Paton, formerly senior curator at Christchurch Art Gallery and now Head Curator of International Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Paton eschews the minutiae to focus on the big picture, the context around McCahon’s work with particular reference to the landscapes. While Simpson lets us have all the information to come to our own conclusions, Paton takes up by the hand and leads us around a McCahon show that only exists in his mind. It’s a personalised, curated journey, full of impressions delivered in Paton’s short, thematic and ravishing essays, which at times have the feeling of being a treatment for a television documentary. This is a book very much with the general reader in mind, if they can tear themselves away from the rich illustrations.

 

Finding Frances Hodgkins
Mary Kisler
Massey University Press ($45.00)

Auckland Art Gallery curator Mary Kisler took a trip around Europe in the footsteps of the redoubtable Frances Hodgkins and produced this delightful travelogue. Kisler views each location through both an art historian’s lens and a traveller’s, resulting in an intoxicating mix of past and present. We get the biographical details, the contexts to the paintings and the vicarious fun of distant and exotic places. It has the added benefit of being an easy read, not overly academic, and therefore an ideal gift for art lovers who aren’t particularly interested in theory and just want a rollicking good read. Kisler proceeds with a light touch, knowing when not to insert herself into the narrative gratuitously. She is an excellent tour guide and this is another excellent production by Massey University Press, rapidly becoming a major player in art publishing in Aotearoa.

 

Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys
Catherine Hammond and Mary Kisler
Auckland University Press ($75.00)

This book is the more academic of the two Hodgkins offerings, bringing context to the wonderful exhibition of the same name. Drop dead gorgeous, an artwork in its own right, European Journeys entices the reader through Hodgkins’ six-decade long career in self-imposed exile from her New Zealand birthplace. The book deals with artworks from 1901 to 1946 encompassing the charming watercolour sketches from French Riviera, Morocco and Venice, through to the Paris of Picasso and Matisse, and on to the radical abstract still lifes in oil from her later years in the UK. An important book about an important artist. Regardless of who they are working with, Auckland Art Gallery does amazing books.

 

HONORABLE MENTION

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania
Karl Chitham, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner
Te Papa Press ($85.00)

An indispensable, encyclopaedic and comprehensive reference to three centuries of craft in New Zealand, Crafting Aotearoa manages the difficult task of marshalling the contentious categories of craft, art, folk art, design and indigenous practices in a way that will surely set the standard for future scholarship. The stories of Māori and Pākehā craft are given equal weight and dignity, and it’s always a good thing when a publication of this significance takes into account the broader flows and currents of Pasifika as well. Although there have been sporadic books on craft in Aotearoa before, this is the first of its scope, and for a reference work it is surprisingly readable and not at all bogged down in its scholarship or the ever-volatile politics of craft.