Otago Daily Times 25/11/86
This is the “Picture of the Month at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery”.
Titled “Alvin Pankhurst’s Surrealist Painting”.
The “Picture of the Month” for November at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is a large tempera painting by Alvin Pankhurst titled Maybe Tomorrow. The work is a great favourite with the public and in 1974, the year it is dated, it won the Benson and Hedges Art Award. It was purchased by the Gallery on the night the award was announced for a price which was then a record for a painting by a living New Zealand artist.
Despite these apparent signs of success the painting and its artist have never won much recognition from critics and historians and it is interesting to consider why.
There is a popular belief that art historians and critics are biased against what are called “realistic” paintings out of intellectual snobbery. But this is really only a prejudice and we may safely suppose the critics’ and historians’ reason for disregarding Maybe Tomorrow is more specific than that.
But merely stating the prejudice reveals the inadequate or inadequately understood terminology we have with which to talk about broadly different kinds of painting. We need to sort that out, before trying to identify the particular objection critics have to Maybe Tomorrow.
In the sense of the word “realistic” that is most often used of paintings Maybe Tomorrow is realistic because it is not abstract, (it depicts things.) Even so, it is misleading to describe it simply as “realistic”. That is because several of the things it depicts can not happen.
For instance, it shows a fireplace with a mirror in the fascia under the mantelshelf. Another mirror is hung over the mantelshelf on the chimney breast. The two mirrors thus face the same way into the same interior, one a little higher than the other. But the lower one reflects the face of an old man at dead centre while the upper shows the back of someone’s head in the same place.
Moreover the interiors reflected beyond each of these figures are different and incompatible. Thus the painting is presumably depicting something that can’t happen. (The alternative is to suppose that the artist is depicting a scene that could be contrived by super-imposing painted or photographic images where the mirror images appear to be. But that would be to make the rather trivial point that a painted picture of a mirror does not perform like a real mirror and presumably the artist did not have that in mind.)
Thus in another sense of the word “realistic” the painting is not realistic because it does not show us a scene that exists, or even could exist.
Because there are so many paintings like Maybe Tomorrow which, while they depict things nevertheless depict things that do not or could not exist, art critics and historians have long ago made use of the rather awkward term “representational” (or more rarely “objective”) to distinguish those works that depict something or other from those, like purely abstract paintings, that do not depict anything at all.
The advantage of calling these paintings “representational” rather than “realistic” is that we avoid the suggestion that the word “realistic” seems to make, that the things that are depicted exist.
In this way Maybe Tomorrow is better called representational than realistic.
Perhaps unfortunately there is another sense of the word “realistic” which people sometimes use of paintings in which it means very precise and detailed and particularised. In this secondary sense Maybe Tomorrow is realistic because it is so very precise and detailed.
From all this it may be seen that we will not have any very clear agreement about whether the painting is realistic or not until these different senses of the word have been spelled out. But having done that we can agree that while the painting is realistic in the sense of being detailed, it would be better to call it representational, rather than realistic, if we want to emphasise the fact that it is not abstract. And having cleared up the question of terminology, the important thing to note is that Maybe Tomorrow does depict things but that the things it depicts not only do not, but could not exist.
Paintings of this sort have been made at various times for different reasons. A notable modern movement that produced a lot of such works is “surrealism”. It grew up and flourished in Europe between the World Wars and aimed to reveal a kind of super-reality or surreality. It was thought this super-reality would eventually come to exist by some kind of fusing of the ordinary matter-of-fact world we know from waking experience, with such phenomena as dreams and hallucinations and the unconscious workings of the mind.
It might be objected that the ordinary notion of reality already includes both the world we know from waking experience and our dreams, hallucinations and so on. Also that the fusing of these two things in the way the surrealists had in mind poses logical problems that are probably insuperable. But is is not so important here to criticise the surrealists’ metaphysical ideas as simply to grasp essentially what they were.
Because of these beliefs some of the surrealists, such as Salvador Dali painted dreams or anyway scenes whose descriptions make them sound like dreams, as a means of representing the super-reality they believed in.
Pankhurst may have been influenced by Dali and his connection with surrealism has been noted by Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith in the most recent edition of their book, An Introduction to New Zealand Painting. Indeed in the 1960s and 70s one can see a number of our artists painting a kind of belated New Zealand surrealism in which Brent Wong is the follower of Magritte, Siddell perhaps adapts Delvaux, and Pankhurst, with this one painting, momentarily assumes the role of Dali.
It would be interesting to know the extent to which any of these artists shared the original surrealists’ beliefs about the nature of the world and the purposes of painting. Probably they knew altogether less about Freudian psychology and the writings of Andre Breton than their European precursors. It is no doubt this sort of reflection that has led some critics and historians to dismiss Maybe Tomorrow as an example of “record cover art”, a kind of shallow fantasising that looks like surrealism but does not have its intellectual framework or psychological depth. In fact if prompted for an explanation it is probably this sort of reason, rather than any other, that our critics and historians would give for disregarding Pankhurst’s painting.
But it seems a little harsh. We have already suggested that the surrealists’ metaphysic was not particularly sophisticated, and one suspects that their psychology was only what may be quickly assimilated from a fairly superficial acquaintance with the works of Dr Freud. Indeed however ill read in Freud Pankhurst may have been, by the 1960s or 70s it can be assumed that with the great majority of middleclass New Zealanders he had assimilated Freud’s principal ideas, especially about the primary and suppressed nature of the sexual urge. He was no doubt similarly familiar with notions of a fundamentally irrational metaphysic whether he picked these up from the surrealists, the popularisation of the works of Sartre and Camus, or from science fiction.
In terms of philosophy and psychological theory, Pankhurst even if he had not read the same books, was probably no worse equipped than most of the European surrealists of the 20s or 30s and whether or not the painting is regarded as truly surrealist its success or failure as a work of art, must, anyway, be judged on what it has to convey and how successfully it conveys it.
Its simple message is that all things change and, though unpredictably, ultimately decay and perish. It shows us one end of a still well-preserved Edwardian room that might be found even now in many New Zealand villas (though nowadays rarely so intact.) The prominent fireplace has not been modernised; the wallpapers are of the period (although not in their details): the numerous objects that fill the space were nearly all made before the first World War.
Two wine flagons are exceptions. These locate the scene in the New Zealand of the 1960s, and 70s and part of the public’s fascination with the work arises from this fact. It could be in a particularly well-preserved flat in Dunedin’s North End for instance or anyway in such a place at the beginning of a student’s occupancy.
By comparison the scene of a similar room reflected in the mirror above the mantelpiece seems to show what the room might become after being vandalised. It is stripped of cupboards and fireplace fittings and obscene graffiti cover the walls which once were embellished by patterned, lascivious wallpaper. Such derelict Victorian and Edwardian rooms were also fairly common in the city at that time and it is thus a convincing detail. And the relationship between the two seems fairly clear: the one is what the other may become. Even the well-preserved room refers to the past, and by implication, decay.
So many of the things in it are conspicuously old-fashioned: they belong to another time however well they may have survived. And as if that hint were not enough many of them are floating, defying the law of gravity, caught up in a creeping vine that has grown out of a vase in the corner and seems to be in the process of engulfing the whole scene. In the end nature will consume us all.
The other theme that runs through the work apart from mortality and the irrationality of the world, is a sexual one. It is an undertone that is there in the erotic details of the wallpaper and the obscene graffiti of the devastated room. Perhaps the point is that even as nature consumes us all, so too is she constantly renewing.
The artist makes use of a large scale, precise detail, dramatic lighting and exaggerated perspective to grasp the audience’s attention at a distance, to draw it in and to absorb it in the busy minutiae of the work. The deliberate illogic of the mirrors, of vines that are and are not a part of the fireplace tiles, piques the expectation and puzzles the viewer with its implications – which means that people return to the painting repeatedly.
Since he made it the artist seems never to have painted anything comparable and the place of this work in our art history is therefore today more singular and perplexing than ever. Its power to intrigue has not diminished but the idea of a New Zealand surrealism seems strained and some will say that Pankhurst owes as much to Walt Disney as to Dali.
But perhaps when he is seen in perspective, Walt Disney, in some of his works, will appear as a significant artist of the twentieth century. And that may be the clue to locating the work critically. It is a fantastic image and fantasy is something we have difficulty treating seriously as art. JRR Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings has an oddly undetermined position in modern English literature despite its immense popularity and clear concern with heroic themes. It took a long time before the equally singular Alice in Wonderland came to be regarded as literature.
Perhaps in a hundred years Maybe Tomorrow will be accepted as an important part of our culture, a nostalgic, indulgent Vanitas painted at the height of the mid-century’s prosperity to remind us that all is stranger than we usually care to admit and anyway mortal. The painting is on show in ‘N’ Gallery.