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

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.

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.”

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).

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.

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.”

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.

Books are displayed on a table
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


  1. I met Francis Pound in 1966. He would have been about 17 or 18. I think he had just enrolled at the Elam Scool of Fine Art (but I could be wrong about this). He talked non-stop about art, artists and art history – subjects about which I was ignorant. So I always learned something listening to Francis. Though mainly an art critic, I seem to remember an exhibition with goulish skull-like forms in open-ended black boxes…

    I was more the literary type. However, I discovered Francis knew about literature as well. I am sure we discussed Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett and Mann. At the time, Henry Miller’s controversial books Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn had been allowed into New Zealand for the first time. We were also reading Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Norman Mailer – authors rather different from the writers I was nominally studying – T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens. I remember Francis clutching a copy of Dr Faustus by Thoman Mann, saying,”I was more moved by the description of Leverkuhn’s compositions than by any music I have heard.” A typical Francis statement – unexpected and provocative, yet also with a tinge of amused irony.

    As I recall Franicis had a girl friend called Zooey, beautiful naturally. We called them affectionately, Franny and Zooey after the novellas by J.D Salinger, very much in vogue at the time. I reber his subsequent girlfriends affectionately – Sue Reid, another whose name I have forgotten, and of course Sue Crockford who run a downtown dealer art gallery.

    In the 1970’s. Francis had occupancy of the flat at 56 Grafton Road, the quintesstial Grafton dwelling which I had always benignly coveted. In fact, I had occupied the house next door – number 60 – in the late sixties while Rodney Kirk-Smith had lived at 56 Grafton. The neghbourhood was small but resolutely bohemian. Around this time, both marijuana and LSD arrived, the marijuana was weak, the acid strong. The thing to do was to wash down a green paper tab saturated in LSD and repair to the domain to relish it becoming a garden of wondrous delight. Not sure if Francis did this but I think the probability was high.

    Well those were the days.

    Thank you Francis for livening things up.

    Below is my review of his magnum opus The Invention of New Zealand

    THE INVENTION OF NEW ZEALAND: Art & National Identity 1930-1970, by Francis Pound, Auckland University Press, $75

    The idea that New Zealand, having been discovered a mere 700 years ago – making it the most newly encountered landmass of any size in world history – had also to be invented has been a notion that has haunted intellectuals and serious artists and writers for some time. The phrase was heavily underscored – with italics no less – by our greatest poet Curnow, in 1945, and was also mooted by our greatest painter Colin McCahon, in 1966. Also, as Pound acknowledges, it was the name of a series of lectures given at the University of Canterbury in 1978 and the title of an essay by Roger Horrocks in 1983. So the path has already been conceptually blazed, but none of these predecessors, I would surmise, have examined the notion in such detail and thoroughness as Pound, in this monumental book of ten essays, most of which are 50 pages long. A pleasing aspect is footnotes on the page instead of at the conclusion; conversely, some of the illustrations are disappointingly small. The book itself – an invention too, no doubt – has a cool formal elegance and features a reproduction of Colin McCahon’s painting, Walk. No trace of Kiwiana or hard light here!

    In Pound’s evaluation, the major figures apart from the dominant McCahon, are Rita Angus, and Toss Woollaston (these three have been bracketed as the leading trio more than once), and, moving more closely to the present, Gordon Walters, who is to be the subject of a further monograph by Pound. Other painters who figure prominently include Richard Killeen, Milan Murkusich and Theo Schoon, the latter because of his being inspired by Maori rock drawings and his European adaption of Maori patterns. The aforementioned trio spearhead Pound’s extended examination of the Nationalist art movement which, appropriately, is interwoven throughout the text. The aloneness/ loneliness and the silence of the land – a Pakeha-European-Colonial perception haunts the psyches of Curnow, Holcroft and Brasch (writers all) even more darkly than the painters. Indeed, Pound re-echoes the notion that this is a South Island perspective, prompted no doubt in part by slender population, a reaction against the overly confident colonisation and a relative lack of Maori culture which has no such misgivings.

    If McCahon is perceived as the dominant force in New Zealand art, then Cezanne is inescapably referred to as the European father of many of our leading painters. Woollaston and Angus were enthusiastic, even worshipful acolytes, and I recall McCahon in a talk saying,”The big problem in modern painting was what to do after Cezanne”. Indeed, a few reproductions of Cezanne might have been of interest to show his neo-Cubist influence on Angus’s work and arguably McCahon’s. Always acute in his distinctions, Pound writes, “Woollaston, in contrast to Angus’s Cubist-inflected reading, stressed Cezanne’s ‘brushworky’ aspect.” In comparable manner, McCahon’s visit to America had an enormously liberating impact on him from the late 1950s onwards and, in measure, prompted his shift from oil to house paint. These are but two references from hundreds where Pound, the well-read art historian, constantly reminds us of powerful historic forces operating on our artistic culture. Thus, the much commented on isolation of New Zealand, is nothing like, say, the isolation of a small locale like Easter Island or the interior of New Guinea. In my view, this colonisation, as it were, of our artistic psyche, has never really left us, in spite of the muscular efforts of the Nationalists to shuck it off.

    Pound renews his attack, which he made at an earlier time, on what he calls meteorological determinism (here shrewdly rephrased as, “Harsh clarity as an alibi for style”) – the notion that the hard/harsh clear light perceived in New Zealand skies, particularly in the North Island, prompts a corresponding style of painting – a theory vigorously contended by Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown in their important earlier work, New Zealand Painting: An Introduction. While Pound tellingly makes the point that Binney – one of its main practitioners, could only draw thus between noon and 3 30 pm – one could add to it a remark made to me by such an important artist as Pat Hanly (perhaps not given so much emphasis in Pound’s account as might be expected) on the intense clarity of New Zealand light. As an Aucklander, I find it a frequent phenomenon, despite frequent cloudy days or “magic hour” soft luminosity caused by cloud-filtered sunlight usually after or before rain on mornings or late afternoons. The darker aspects of McCahon could also be partially traced to looking at hilly landscapes just as dawn was about to break or examining the light at dusk, not to mention the man’s broody temperament. In chapter nine, Pound recognises the Borgesian principle of writers creating their predecessors as having a parallel effect when the Nationalists invented their predecessors by imitating them. Might not the same logic be applied to the Regional Realists (significantly an American and, originally, a literary term) who having noticed the light, make it a precursor, as it were, of their style?

    In chapter five “God in New Zealand Nature”, Pound meditates (as it were) unflinchingly on the prominence of Christian imagery and symbolism in McCahon’s work. In the luminous work of Angus, on the other hand, God becomes a Buddhist / Polynesian goddess and the cold land a warm mother, rather than a somewhat severe father, as in McCahon’s work. Indeed, McCahon’s obsessive use of words in painterly imagery might be seen as biblically influenced – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” thus does St John begin his gospel with sublime mystery.

    Pound’s book is so compendious I can only quickly mention a few aspects that resonated. Among them, his examination of decayed trees in the work of Eric Lee-Johnson; his wide ranging look at primitivism, his full recognition of Theo Schoon’s use of Maori art and the more abstract Mondrian-esque deployment of the same imagery by Walters.

    In my heretical personal view, Angus, who at present is more or less a distant second to McCahon’s overwhelming first, will continue to rise in imortance as the feminine and feminist qualities of her work are more greatly valued – not to mention her mythic power and the blazingly warm appeal of her colours. Move over gloomy Colin, here comes smartly modern Rita! Post Pound, future art historians may meditate less on our landscape and more on portraiture (the self portraits of Angus and Mary McIntyre, for instance), the nude or the half neglected wild child of surrealism. I also predict that – and here friendship makes amiable prompt – that Philip Clairmont (psychedelically prompted expressionism), Tony Fomison (more sepia angst but more dramatically playful than McCahon’s) and Jacqui Fahey (family vibrancy rendered with painterly warmth) will also rise to a prominence even more than that which they currently enjoy. Meanwhile, before these cheeky prophecies are put to the test, we have Pound’s exhaustive and deeply learned book – probably our grandest work of art history and analysis thus far.

  2. Thank you for these words.

    1. A wonderful tribute, thank you!

  3. 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.

    1. Author

      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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