Posts Tagged ‘Chatwin’

Wrestling with icons

A while back I posted a bit of a rant about art writing in New Zealand as opposed to critique and stated “Well I am sick of hearing ‘about the artist’ and want to hear about the work“. Unfortunately my comments may have burnt a bridge or two to the author of that article. Because it was well written – just not what I wanted to read. I also have to say that the Listener art reviews have improved a great deal although its still a little patchy.

The point to this being that I have of course been guilty of writing about the artist rather than the work myself, although I try not to. The problem occurs when you are talking about icons. As this seems to be the year of Rita Angus, that is a good place to start. Again on reflection one of the worrisome things has been the intense focus on Rita the woman. The argument is that you can’t separate the art and the person but I think the emphasis on the personal influencing the art, can go too far.

I have recently been contemplating a trip up the Whanaganui River to Hiruharama and on to Raetihi as for a long time I’ve felt draw to the place of Baxter’s commune and the catholic mission there. Baxter is another tricky icon and I read this great piece today by Andrew Johnston. He writes…

“I suspect it’s going to be a few more generations before we’ve done with the contradictions that make up James K. Baxter, before we have any kind of settled picture of his legacy. If we’re talking legacy, though, why get hung up on his life? Why not stick to the poems? It’s a fit enough question with most writers, but Baxter’s work demands that we read it against his life. As he said himself, his poems are his autobiography”

Maybe Angus demands this too? More along these lines the wonderful essay “Jim Afloat” by Gregory O’Brien which begins with:

Almost October and the sky is jammed
with radio stations and biographies of Baxter . . .’

(G. O’Brien, ‘Along the verge’, NZ Listener, Dec. 1983)

The Holy Life and Death of Concrete Grady  –by JK Baxter (1976)
cover design by Colin McCahon

And so back to McCahon – an icon that I wrestle with a lot. The many layered meanings of I AM, my favourites being the misquote “I AM the light” because it seems to answer the words taken from Casselberg

Oh God it’s Dark. The heart beats and
from the fields there comes no answering
hark of hearer and no one to speak.”

But connections and parallels everywhere including this from Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines (a favourite book of mine)

‘I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First man shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, “I AM”‘.

Tingari” – Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Songline painting)

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