Rewriting New Zealand art: Francis Pound (1948-2017)

The art team at Te Papa were saddened to hear about the passing of art historian and curator Dr Francis Pound on 15 October 2017. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

Here, we acknowledge the work of an extraordinary scholar who made a significant contribution to New Zealand art history with his well-written, wittily acerbic and polemical commentary.

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Francis Pound, Warkworth, 1970, by Max Oettli. Courtesy Max Oettli.

In Frames on the Land: Early Landscape Painting in New Zealand (1983) Pound famously challenged the idea that “there is a ‘real’ New Zealand, a ‘real’ New Zealand landscape, with its ‘real’ qualities of light and atmosphere, to which some artists are true and others untrue”. He was referring to a view of New Zealand art espoused by Peter Tomory, Hamish Keith, and Gordon H. Brown, among others. Instead, Pound’s book sought to provide “a brief sketch of some of the mental frames – imagine them, golden, cumbrous, elaborate – that artists have carried to the land.”

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James Nairn, Wellington harbour, 1894. Te Papa

Pound’s revisionist approach to New Zealand art history was influenced by post-structuralist and post-modernist theories and he boldly challenged his art historical elders. He championed abstract painters and worked closely with artists of his generation, most notably in his long-time collaboration with Richard Killeen. Pound, who wrote his PhD thesis on Killeen’s work, is also the author of the book, Stories We Tell Ourselves: the Paintings of Richard Killeen (1999).

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Richard Killeen, Age of fishes, 1980. Te Papa

Pound’s exhibitions sometimes proved to be as polemical as his texts. His 1988 NZXI exhibition (co-curated with Alexa Johnston and William Wright) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales sparked a fiery response in the New Zealand Listener and led Auckland painter Ian Scott to create Enzed dead zone (1988). The 1992 exhibition Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art was also developed, curator Robert Leonard notes, as a reply to and critique of NZXI.

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Ian Scott, Enzed dead zone, 1988. Te Papa

In 1994 Pound published The Space Between: Pakeha Use of Maori Motifs in Modernist New Zealand Art. Although the debate has since moved on, the book remains an important touchstone in an examination of cross-cultural influence and appropriation in New Zealand art. Pound freely admitted that his books were a product of their time and would be subject to revision by future art historians. As he once wrote: “there is no last word in art history.”

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Gordon Walters, Karakia, 1977. Te Papa

In 2009 Auckland University Press published Pound’s magnum opus, The Invention of New Zealand Art & National Identity, 1930-1970. Originally intended as a sequel to Frames on the Land, it was 22 years in the writing, and offers a serious consideration of a particularly formative moment in New Zealand art and art history. The book was a finalist in the general non-fiction category of the 2010 New Zealand Book Awards.

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A selection of books written by Francis Pound in Te Aka Matua, Te Papa’s library. Te Papa

In 2013 Te Papa opened Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa with a suite of exhibitions drawn from the national art collection. Te Papa curator Sarah Farrar had curated a selection of Gordon Walters’ koru works, charting its development in his oeuvre over 30 years.

Te Papa Press commissioned Pound to contribute an essay to accompany the exhibition. He was given license to interpret the works as he wished. His response was to pointedly make only a couple of references to the koru and, instead, focus on Walters’ use of colour.

“Walters’ palette inclines towards a total repetition, but it only inclines. Here we may sense the presence of a kind of conceptualism of colour, the artist turning a somewhat arbitrary set of restraints or rules (you may use these colours only, and you must use all of them in every colour you mix) into a stimulus to invention. Such restraints—self-imposed, arbitrary and fertile—are entirely typical of Walters’ mode of painting. Typical, too, is the setting up of rigorous rules, and, in Borges’ phrase, ‘the continual and delicate infraction of those rules’.”

Pound’s work attests to him possessing a similar ability: to thoroughly know the rules, if only to know how best to break them.

Rest in peace.

– Sarah Farrar, Senior Art Curator and the art team at Te Papa

4 Responses

  1. mary newman-pound

    Thank you for these words.

    Reply
  2. Scott Pothan

    A lovely tribute Sarah. It’s hard to overestimate his importance – he was such a true interrogator of the pompous nationalism the artworld was swept up in then in the 1980’s. I was just beginning my own NZ art career in 1982 after a lifetime away ( I’d left in 1962 ) to country in schism over the Springbok Tour and rabid rural nationism pitted itself against strident urbanity night after night on the evening news. I despaired that I had ever come home. My point is that the artworld was divided unequally too, by strident nationalism, as the unquestioned status quo, and those very few mellifluous voices of a wider viewpoint. Petar Vuletic was the first to actually get a media voice, Alexa, Andrew and Ron were just starting careers at the AAG and really they did so so much to revolutionise the way we ‘see’ as did Denis Cohn and Rodney Kirk-Smith. I knew them all in those days, and gradually the world changed for the better. What Francis did was to elevate these personal professional agendas into intellectual realms of understanding – to coalesce and articulate so very brilliantly that he established a new status quo. He was the fountainhead of change for so many of us because he could articulate with shimmering accuracy what we in the 1980’s were doing. This is why it’s so very unfair he dies now, before his predessors of nationalism. Bless you for your work Francis.

    Reply
    • Sarah Farrar

      Thank you for your comments, Scott. Francis Pound certainly had a great impact on generations of young New Zealand art historians and curators. I love this description from Robert Leonard on City Gallery Wellington’s blog: “He made the scene seem consequential and sexy—a theatre for argument and play. He wanted to shape art, in the future and the past.”

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