The genesis of Gordon Walters’ groundbreaking 'koru paintings'

by Sally Blundell / 05 February, 2018
Gordon Walters in 1978: his koru-like form has come to dominate his legacy. Photo/Marti Friedlander Archive, EH McCormick Research Library, Courtesy Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Estate

Gordon Walters in 1978: his koru-like form has come to dominate his legacy. Photo/Marti Friedlander Archive, EH McCormick Research Library, Courtesy Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Estate

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March 1966. Country Calendar debuts on TV; James K Baxter takes up the Robert Burns Fellowship; a small exhibition by a relatively unknown artist working in a relatively unfamiliar art form opens in Auckland’s New Vision Gallery. As curator Lucy Hammonds writes, Gordon Walters: Paintings 1965, including 12 large abstract configurations of stylised koru, was a “key moment in New Zealand art”, eloquently locating European-inspired geometric abstraction within the context of New Zealand as a Pacific nation.

Walters’ so-called “koru paintings” act as a springboard for Gordon Walters: New Vision, a handsome, insightful book published to accompany the survey exhibition of Walters’ work in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. In eight essays and a generous sampling of images, the writers trace the genesis of Walters’ groundbreaking synthesis of geometric abstraction and Māori art, pushing out the long-established parameters of his influences to include outsider art, surrealism, early abstraction, the unsteady geometries of American modernism, and Oceanic indigenous art.

We encounter Walters as a 16-year-old being exhorted by art tutor Roland Hipkins to look not only to European trends but also to New Zealand, to Māori art. As Walters later said, “I never forgot his words … they worried me and went on worrying me for a long time.”

Hipkins’ exhortation took him to the ethnographic collections at the Dominion Museum, later moved to the Buckle St building downstairs from the “fine art” collection of the National Art Gallery. For Walters, it was a compartmentalisation he flouted until his death in 1995.

As well as drawing on museum artefacts and magazine reproductions of new modernist art, he found inspiration through his friendship with Dutch artist Theo Schoon in the untrained drawings of Rolfe Hattaway, a patient at Auckland’s Oakley Mental Hospital, and in South Canterbury’s Māori rock drawings.

From far left: Tamatea (1969), Untitled (1955), Drawing No 14 (1965).

From far left: Tamatea (1969), Untitled (1955), Drawing No 14 (1965).

“The realisation that such powerful images could be produced with such economy of means,” he later said, “was crucial to me in my development.” The sheer eclecticism of Walters’ research is evident in his scrapbook, described here by curator Julia Waite as a “map of Walters’ mind” in its collation of European constructivist art, First Nations masks, the chequerboard pattern of an Incan poncho and the drawn stem and bulb of the koru.

In his overseas travels, he continued to straddle that arbitrary staircase-divide. In France, he encountered the work of abstract artists Auguste Herbin, Jean Dewasne and – most importantly, argue Rex Butler and ADS Donaldson – Edgard Pillet. At the same time, says Victoria University’s Peter Brunt, Walters was frequenting the Oceanic collections of ethnographic museums.

These, say Butler and Donaldson, were Walters’ “un-New Zealand years”, when he “first became Gordon Walters” – a period often overlooked, they argue, in nationalist readings of the artist’s work. It was only on his return, first to Australia, then to New Zealand, that these many influences – European, Marquesan, Papuan, Māori, Australian, Asian and, insists Laurence Simmons from the University of Auckland, Chinese – were translated into his own aesthetic vocabulary, ameliorating the “intellectual puritanism” of European abstraction with the motifs and forms of indigenous art. As Simmons writes, these multiple voices were not something Walters thought about, “but something he thought with”.

Not everyone approved. Walters was accused of appropriating Māori motifs, stripping them of meaning. He was not unfamiliar with such conflicts – his wife, leading Māori-studies scholar Margaret Orbell, had encountered similar difficulties – but as the University of Auckland’s Deidre Brown explains, Walters was not interested in the social or cultural context of such forms but rather in the formal relationships between line and curve, figure and ground. The koru-like form, he said in an interview, was not a reproduction of the koru used in Māori kowhaiwhai: “It is a horizontal stripe ending in a circle … it is not used in a Māori way.”

Since then, it has come to dominate his legacy. It appears on the NZ Film Commission logo, on Air Zealand jets and, briefly, on designer Michael Smythe’s striking design for a new flag. This very elegant book, its design perfectly tuned to what the exhibition curators describe as Walters’ “remarkable formal exactitude and refinement”, is an enlightening investigation of the diverse influences that turned Gordon Walters into “Gordon Walters”.

GORDON WALTERS: NEW VISION, edited by Zara Stanhope (Potton & Burton, $78.99)

Exhibition, Dunedin Public Art Gallery until April 8; Auckland Art Gallery, July 7-November 4.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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