I continue to find Digital New Zealand‘s sets a delight as the site encourages me to explore and engage with the heritage of my adopted home. Take, for instance, its visual art, which is well-represented among content providers. From my first visit to the Auckland Art Gallery nearly seven years ago, when William Sutton’s “Nor’wester in the Cemetery” enchanted me with its fierce, windswept beauty — not to mention a memorable retrospective of Julia Morison‘s diverse opus at the Dunedin Art Gallery a year later — I’ve taken an interest in how such works express a uniquely Kiwi perspective, appreciating their range of vision across a variety of media, whether they inspire love like Sutton and Morison, polite disinterest, repulsion or something else entirely.
Let’s face it: websites can’t compare to in-person interactions, particularly where art with non-visual sensory elements is concerned, but Digital NZ nevertheless gives us the opportunity to see, if not all of it, then a good chunk in one virtual place, where we can experiment with stylistic juxtapositions and strange anomalies as well as situate New Zealand in the wider history of art. It’s introduced me to Auckland-born Max Gimblett, who has called New York home since the early ’70s. I am smitten with the way his influences — Buddhist thought, calligraphic brushstrokes, other artists — manifest in alternately bold and subtle studies of color and form. The “Disasters of War” series, a response to Francisco Goya’s early nineteenth-century prints on the same subject, are particularly haunting:
Max Gimblett, Disasters of War – after Goya, drawings towards etchings – 30, Memory (2005), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Max Gimblett and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, through the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation, 2008, 2008/6/35, W4316.
I’ve also discovered the non-New Zealander Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), a Swiss-born draughtsman and painter who changed his name to sound more Italian after a pilgrimage to that country. Although perhaps best known for his Milton- and Shakespeare-inspired classical works, Fuseli also composed eerily modern pencil/ink and watercolor compositions, some of which are currently on display at Auckland Art Gallery. There is something magical about his quick, sure hand, mythological themes and restrained use of color. The unabashedly romantic “Undine and Huldbrand,” referring to a popular take on the Melusine legend, is one of my favorites.
Henry Fuseli, Undine and Huldbrand (c. 1819-22), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1965, 1965/67.
Sets allow us to interact with New Zealand’s digital heritage in less linear, oftentimes more interesting ways, too. I find variations on a particular theme especially fruitful. A simple search for colors and some careful arrangement led to my most popular creation, an art historical rainbow. See also clouds, tears, gymnastics, modernism (which led to a giddy love affair with the Grosvenor School), and this set of the dreamiest portraits Herman John Schmidt’s prolific camera captured in the early 1900s. I’ve been imagining stories about Mr. Jenkins, with his spectacles and stylin’ hair and little upside-down spray of flowers, since discovering him a few months ago:
Herman John Schmidt, 1/4 portrait of Mr Jenkins who is wearing spectacles and has flowers in the buttonhole in his jacket (1909), Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 31-58135.
An Auckland photographer, Schmidt (1872-1959) left behind 27,000 glass plate negatives now held by Auckland Libraries. I will write more about him in a future post, but he provides the perfect bridge for the direction I want to take now: how Digital NZ not only allows us to learn about New Zealand history, but makes it inevitable, as the initial search term leads to a painting or photograph or article or film that inspires another, until we find ourselves wandering curiously from one snake’s-hand to the next. Take, for instance, this set of self-portraits. I’ve given Ben Cauchi’s piercing gaze the starring role, but the second spot went to a man I wouldn’t be so delighted to meet: Lionel Terry, whose work embodies the unheimlich.
Lionel Terry, Self portrait, University of Otago Library – Hocken Pictorial Collections – 74/174.
This isn’t an easy portrait to overlook. I added it to the set before noticing the chilling categorizations: Dangerously mentally ill, Mentally ill offenders, Murderers, Violent offenders. (Quick note: I question the utility of such tags given that, in most cases, Terry is the only result.) These led me through an unsettled search to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and its subset, the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, a freely available analogue to the subscription-based Oxford DNB.
As someone who didn’t grow up here, I don’t know whether Terry’s story is a familiar one, but it certainly constitutes a crucial component of the history of racism in this country. Englishman Edward Lionel Terry (1873-1952), an artist, soldier and reasonably successful businessman, immigrated to New Zealand in 1901 after spending some time in South Africa, the US and Canada working in close proximity with Chinese immigrants. His fear of the “yellow peril” and belief in racial segregation came to a head in 1905, when he put pen to paper in a tract entitled The Shadow. This book of verse dedicated “to my Brother Britons” advocated racial purity. After having the pamphlet printed in Auckland, in July he embarked on a journey to the capital — by foot! in the middle of winter! — distributing his work and lecturing along the way. He arrived in Wellington in September and campaigned against non-European immigration.
When MPs proved unreceptive, Terry took matters into his own hands, shooting an elderly Chinese man on September 24, 1905. Penniless and in ill health, Joe Kum Yung had spent much of his life mining in Westland. Terry surrendered to police the next morning and was tried for Yung’s murder in a widely publicized trial two months later. He acted as his own lawyer and was found guilty, a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment the following day on the grounds of insanity. Authorities later diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia.
Terry spent the remainder of his life — nearly half a century — in Sunnyside and Seacliff mental hospitals. He escaped a number of times and, while in Seacliff between 1914 and 1940, was granted a number of concessions in exchange for good behavior. He traded solitary confinement for a suite, painted and wrote poetry, kept pet goats and sheep, gardened and turned to religion, imagining himself a prophet or messiah. The self-portrait can probably be dated to this period, when Terry grew out his hair and wore white. He died at the age of 79.
What stories have you (re-)discovered with the help of digital archives?
Chrystabel Aitken, Untitled (c. 1919), The Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury.