Eyes Wide Shut

by John Coley / 23 August, 2008
Stanley Kubrick loved Ted Bullmore, but New Zealand didn't do surrealism.

Why did Ted Bullmore become the forgotten man of New Zealand art? Edward Bullmore: A Surrealist Odyssey at Tauranga Art Gallery answers the question. Art historian Penelope Jackson, the show's curator, has selected 68 works covering the two post-art school decades until the painter's early death. Like all good retrospectives, it illustrates an artist's progress in crisp focus.

The young Bullmore was a burly, rugby-playing, red-blooded Southlander. Even his name smacked of machismo - Bullmore could be the title of a tough cop TV series with Ted starring. Few who observed his bone-crushing charges as a Canterbury rugby representative realised the hard-man exterior harboured a compassionate, sensitive, even poetic, nature.

He was the eldest of seven children from a Southland farm. Clearly talented, he was sent to study in the early 1950s at the Canterbury University School of Fine Arts in Christchurch. Classmates were future luminaries Pat Hanly, Gil -Taverner (Hanly), Hamish Keith, Bill -Culbert, William Main and Trevor Moffitt.

Bullmore married fellow student -Jacqueline La Roche, taught art in -Tauranga, sojourned in Italy, and successfully pursued his career in England, where he was hailed as a leading British surrealist. Homesick, he returned to New Zealand with his family, exhibited his work to an indifferent reception, thereafter fading from the art scene until his early death at 45 in 1978, virtually invisible in the art milieu of the time.

After stints teaching at Tauranga District High School and Tauranga Boys' College, the Bullmores left in 1959 for Italy, where Ted was to assist part-time in the studio of Pietro Annigoni, famed for his portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth. With Bullmore's minimal Italian and Annigoni's equally sparse English, communication and the job foundered within days.

In Florence, scraping along on savings, Bullmore painted full-time. Among the many works he completed were a Raphaelesque- portrait, Jacqueline, studies of friends and views of the city.

There is also a remarkable romantic self-portrait, with hair seemingly tousled by a Canterbury nor'wester. His arms appear frozen in mid-gesture, as if he were a conductor, his masterful glance about to bring in the thundering timpani.

The Thorn Tree, a crucifixion in which the body of Christ becomes a contorted, spiky tree form, has an earnest emotional tone, a tortured religiosity with a surrealist twist.

Similar early paintings have kinship with the darker edge - thought a Kiwi trait - found in Colin McCahon and in films like The Piano, Utu and Vigil. Telling of emotional states and salted with symbols, his works demanded close reading.

After the Italian sojourn, the Bullmores moved on to London, where a few art school chums had gravitated, Culbert and the Hanlys among them.

Ted found employment shifting scenery alongside Pat Hanly at the Royal Court Theatre. This was a time of intense anti-nuclear activism. Hanly painted a series of apocalyptic canvases around the theme of nuclear holocaust, while Bullmore's work showed flayed human figures destroyed by radio-activity. His canvases of cadaverous figures projected a profound anxiety, but these, unlike Hanly's, retained elements of their academic training.

Swinging 60s London had an exhilarating social and sexual revolution under way. Its energy freed Bullmore's imagination - he became more adventurous conceptually and technically. Hanly and Culbert were inventing their individual expressive languages and Bullmore caught the spirit. Working at the theatre, he found redundant scenic canvas that, drawing on his rural wheat sack-sewing skills, he began to fashion into large, abstract wall works painted and stuffed into 3-D relief. He even incorporated a pair of cast-off trousers belonging to Laurence Olivier, with whom he had a backstage acquaintance, into one abstract assemblage.

These works, often formed around found wooden structures - table legs, bent wood chair parts - broke new ground. No longer angst-ridden monochrome, they challenged the viewer with their clear references to genitalia and plump interior organs.

The images linked his surrealist concerns with a colourful Carnaby Street flamboyance. The sensuous life force they pumped out attracted collectors, curators and critics. Stanley Kubrick acquired one that can be seen evoking a future world in his film A Clockwork Orange.

Reviewers favoured Bullmore. Mario Amaya noted how the artist had discerned the flavours of the 60s and perceptively recognised the distant rural independence that gave his works the un-English quality that set them apart. Jazz singer, historian and surrealism enthusiast George Melly wrote fulsomely about Bullmore as a British surrealist.

But Bullmore could not see himself as a British artist. While established comfortably in the UK, he had grown weary of constant attendance on art world grandees and gallery openings. Longing for home, he arranged a position at Rotorua Boys' High School, returning there in 1969.

In 1971 at Auckland's Barry Lett -Gallery, he showed his large-shaped works to indifferent reviews. New Zealand didn't do surrealism; it was about art of National Identity, works of rising anti-establishment painters who had found their themes and motifs in the Heartland. A London reputation and imported European isms cut no art critical ice back home.

Had the Bullmores settled in a bigger centre, it's certain his vision would have prevailed, as had Hanly's. In the then small town of Rotorua, Bullmore, with a family to provide for, had a regular income and the lifestyle he knew as a child for the children. As an artist, he drifted out of visibility below the horizon.

He worked on creating his Icons series, not as bold or big as the London works, but still retaining the sexual references. Few saw or appreciated his output.

In his early 40s, he contracted Paget's disease, commencing a long decline until his death.

Historian Dr Mark Stocker has observed: "Anyone whose work straddles the Royal portraitist Annigoni and Stanley Kubrick has got to command interest."

Penelope Jackson and Tauranga Art Gallery have done New Zealand art a great service revealing the wide-screen, high-definition view of Edward Bullmore's odyssey.

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