Remembering Melvin Day 1923-2016

Remembering Melvin Day 1923-2016

We were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Melvin (Pat) Day on 17 January.  Pat was a well-known Wellington artist who was at the forefront of developments in abstraction and cubism during the 1940s and 1950s. Most importantly for Te Papa, he was also the director of the National Art Gallery from 1968 to 1978.

Melvin Day (centre) hosting a visit by Prince Claus and Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands to the National Art Gallery, Wellington, 1977. The display to the right contains a selection of works by contemporary New Zealand studio potters. Photo © Te Papa

Pat’s lifetime spanned a period of great change and development in the local art world. He was in his eighties when I met him, but he always seemed much younger: he was so witty, articulate, and generous in sharing his immense knowledge. He was full of insights about New Zealand culture in his youth. In the 1940s, he explained, art was still regarded as a genteel feminine pursuit: ‘Your average red-blooded Kiwi bloke would rather be dead in a ditch than caught talking about art.’

Pat was just eleven in 1934, when he attended Saturday morning classes at Elam Art School in Auckland. In 1940 he completed his full-time art studies, receiving a rigorous academic training based on the importance of good draughtsmanship. His most important teacher was John Weeks, who had studied art in Europe and developed a cubist-influenced style.

The war interrupted Pat’s artistic development (he served in the New Zealand Army and the Royal New Zealand Air Force) and it was not until the late 1940s that he was able to resume painting on a regular basis. He was one of the few practitioners of a cubist style in New Zealand, and in 1949, desperate to see modern art for himself, he spent a year in Britain and Europe. In London, a major exhibition of the work of Paul Cézanne was especially influential.

From the late 1950s Pat exhibited widely in New Zealand, and his work was included in Commonwealth Art Today at the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1961. Two years later he returned to London to study art history at the Courtauld Institute.

Coastline by Day, Melvin. 1964, London. Oil on canvas. Purchased 1972. Te Papa (1972-0023-1)

Pat returned from London to take up the directorship of the National Art Gallery in 1968. One of his first initiatives was to organise an exhibition of abstract art, and in the following years he did much to bring a more contemporary focus to the gallery programme. But it was a frustrating task. Every year he reiterated the gallery’s problems in his reports to Parliament: the sub-standard building, low staffing, and sorely inadequate funding for acquisitions. 

After a decade as director, Pat left the gallery to take up a position as Government Art Historian. And he continued to paint: his Wellington Harbour series, begun in 1972, brought a Cézannesque analysis and simplification of form to the local landscape. In 2004 City Gallery Wellington celebrated his achievement with a major exhibition: Melvin Day – Continuum. A year earlier he was created a CNZM in recognition of his outstanding contribution and services to New Zealand art.

Pat and his wife Oroya (née McAuley) were well-known figures in Wellington cultural circles. They were long-time Friends and supporters of the National Art Gallery and Te Papa. They had a close and mutually supportive relationship, with many interests in common, and her death in 2014 ended 62 years of a remarkable marriage.

Pat will be much missed in the New Zealand art world.

Jill Trevelyan, Curator of Modern Art (contract)

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