Sam Neill in his 1995 television documentary about New Zealand film: Cinema of Unease; a Personal Journey summarises his sense of ‘a dark and brooding landscape, where bad things seem in imminent danger of being about to happen’ throughout our cinematic history. Visual arts histories in New Zealand could be said to have embraced this brooding, metaphysical landscape long before our cinematic one. Petrus van der Velden and the Marken Funeral and Otira Gorge paintings series were the artistic genesis of our very own landscape of unease traversing New Zealand art history from the 1880’s to the present day. You could say that van der Velden and Girolamo Nerli brought a newly predominant ‘black’ into the New Zealand palette. This had not been seen since the late 18th century paintings of New Zealand by William Hodges R.A. as expeditionary artist aboard Capt. James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific on HMS Resolution. Hodges’ once pristine landscape now reels with new dark forces within - climate-change; new biological threats; intensive farming and not industrialisation are the current bêtes noir of our 100% Pure NZ. Kauri dieback disease, the invasive didymo, urea runoff and methane gas emissions are our new rural demons of darkness.
There is an art history cliché that New Zealand Regionalist painting was influenced by our vivid and extraordinary light. For a long time though, many artists in Aotearoa perceived a darker, more reflective terrain than the ‘sun-filled’ Heidelberg School artists across the Tasman. We have mined an existential landscape of unease where the darkness is not just in the vigour of the brushwork and a more sombre colouration, but also in the poetry of intent and foreboding.
Text extracted from Whangarei Art Museum press release.