The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography

New Zealand typography signage design, Robin White
Robin White, Fish and chips, Maketu (1975). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Robin White.

I’m reminded of an American friend who visited me in New Zealand. We took a road trip down the West Coast, from Wellington to Queenstown, and after a few days of driving through small towns, my friend said something along the lines of: “Typography and signage in this country are fascinating. Everything is so clear, direct and uncluttered.”

Peter was talking specifically about shop signs and billboards—the Tip Top dairy and Fish&Chip shop kind of signs. But his comments stuck with me for some time afterwards.

Comparing some twentieth century NZ and British printing for instance, New Zealand’s is refreshing in its simplicity. Yet it’s a simplicity with strength and directness; it’s not watered-down “minimalism” or any kind of Instagram-age aesthetic (it has obviously existed long before any of that, as Robin White’s painting shows). I almost want to say that printing work like the Caxton Press’ has a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. I’ll stop just short, but it’s nice to think about the signage of your local fish-and-chip shop in the same way as Winckelmann once pondered the Apollo Belvedere.

Maybe, perhaps, possibly the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light” is expressed somehow in our typography, and maybe our book printing? Perhaps the peculiar quality of our direct and un-ozone-mediated light influenced our typographers as it was said to influence the likes of Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins and Colin Mccahon?

I joke. I read Francis Pound’s art history before I read Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown’s, and, after that, any talk of “harsh clarity” reads like a very particular kind of greenness.

I’m not as interested in causes as I am effects. Our signage and our typography is as it is (is as great as it is)—what now? Kris Sowersby’s National typeface is now in use all around the world, from the Huffington Post’s website to a new biography about Mies van der Rohe. (Of all accolades for a modernist-tradition designer, being called upon to help sell Mies’ design must surely be among the highest.) My personal favourites are Sowersby’s “Untitled” typefaces, a kind of distillation of type design to a level where our subconscious barely recognises them as design at all. They have a kind of simplicity to them, even a noble one, but that’s coupled with a—well, screw it, a quiet grandeur. They aspire.

Kris Sowersby Klim Type Foundry New Zealand Typeface
Kris Sowersby and Klim Type Foundry’s Untitled Serif. The choice of sample text is his not mine.

Sowersby is drawing on the “Super Normal” philosophy of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, where design is so subtle as to be invisible. He didn’t invent the idea. But again, a New Zealander is at the cutting edge in typography, as, supposedly, one was at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s it was said by a “leading English typefounder” that “‘For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand”—this being a reference to the work of Robert Coupland Harding and his Typo journal.

To belabour the point about Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry: what I am most enamoured with is the insistence that (as he titled an exhibition last year at Objectspace) “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” That’s right! This is not a New Zealand typeface. It’s just a typeface, a really good one. One that happens to have been made by a New Zealander. Whether you’re talking about his “National” or his “Untitled”, or even his “Newzald“, they’re just typefaces. They also just happen to be some of the best that designers around the world can get their hands on.

In an interview in 1944 Jackson Pollock said:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problem of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.”

I think that’s what Sowersby and Objectspace were getting at with “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” It’s also why I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem “solves itself”, because a New Zealander is a New Zealander and his or her work will inevitably be shadowed by that fact.

Peter Robinson was then half right with his 1998 work Strategic Plan, where the challenge was laid down: “Mission statement: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.” Well, they’re being taken—but not quite with Robinson’s instructions, like “Always attempt to speak the native’s language”, and “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity, marginalisation and globalism.” Robinson’s work is still in Auckland, but the typographers are well and truly in Manhattan and Berlin.

I’m being unfair to Robinson. His work is much more nuanced than that, and points out the hollowness of those “instructions” as much as it implies we should follow them. But I raise it because really, the New Zealanders doing some of the most groundbreaking work, in art, writing and typography are doing it in the most New Zealand way possible: so damn modestly that it’s sometimes hard to even see. No emphasising idigeneity, no American-style self-promotion. Just fantastic work. The best seem to have absorbed the lesson of Allen Curnow that somehow or other was forgotten along the postmodern way: “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular that any of these songs are news: if they are good they cannot but be news of the human condition.”

One more quotation, this one Donald Judd’s: “The importance of art done in the United States since World War II… is most easily explained by saying that a few artists simply decided to do first-rate work.” Granted, it was maybe a little more complex than that; but unless artists know they’re doing first-rate work, what can dealers, curators, publishers and politicians ultimately do? I end with this quotation because people who happen to have passports issued by New Zealand are doing first-rate work.

Can you tell I’m excited?

Peter Robinson New Zealand art
Peter Robinson, Strategic Plan (1997). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Peter Robinson.

The Smell of New Zealand Books

Landfall New Zealand Charles Brasch, Oxford, books
The wonderfully textured paper of the early Landfalls.

Perhaps it’s obvious, from some of the essays I’ve recently posted here, that I’m missing New Zealand. As soon as winter seeped into Oxford my reading turned to home, and I began to spend each evening at the library with piles of books on New Zealand ordered from the closed stacks. (The Bodleian has a good pre-1950 collection of NZ-related books, I think because New Zealand publishers must still have fallen under the legal deposit). I decided not to return home over the Christmas break but instead to travel to Italy, Amsterdam and Berlin—and I took with me the only book from home I could find in time, a copy of the 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, with Allen Curnow’s famed introduction.

Because I hadn’t brought any books with me from home when I moved here, I also began to buy second-hand books on New Zealand whenever they popped up in bookstores in Oxford or online. The first I bought was a set of the second volume of Landfall, from 1948. They arrived in the mail, I opened them—and the experience was for me the equivalent to the old Proustian Madeleine.

The smell! Immediately, I was back in my grandparents’ living room, foraging in their bookshelves for the not-seen-in-forty-years third-row-deep books. Instantly, it was summer in Wellington with pohutukawa in bloom down the street, and I felt again my fear of getting any sunscreen on the books. Or maybe it was winter, and I was in my Mum’s old villa beside the fire, youthfully dog-earing pages of books that now I think should be kept behind glass. Smelling the covers again now—those peculiarly knobbled, rough covers of the early years of Landfall—all the same memories and feelings flood back.

I remember reading (though cannot find the book here in Oxford to check the quotation) of John Mulgan’s first winter in the UK, and the arrival of a letter from home containing some leaves his parents had clipped from their back garden in Auckland. He described in his diary the feelings and memories they brought back, and the consequent longing for home. Well, my equivalent leaves are the leaves of Mulgan’s Man Alone, and of so many other touchstones of our culture. Their smells make what I’m missing so much more palpable.

But back to Landfall: there was something more to the smell of their pages than simply the knowledge that they were from home, or that the words they contained were significant to me. They smelled like New Zealand, of specifically what I have come to know New Zealand’s culture to smell like. Writing this seems odd, even laughable. Now, when books are digitally printed and publishers source paper from ever more similar (read: cheaper) suppliers, the material differences between books have been so reduced as to be barely worth commenting on. But it wasn’t always like that.

I don’t know if The Caxton Press found their paper in New Zealand (maybe someone can help me on this?), but I do know that the paper Glover and Bensemann printed on—especially their covers!—I haven’t seen or smelled elsewhere. Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s quarterly that Brasch and the others modelled Landfall on in the early days, feels and smells (not to mention looks) cheap in comparison. Partly this may have been war shortages limiting materials; but more likely, I just don’t think the same sense of art was given to their printing as was given to Landfall.

Many important New Zealand books were printed in England (many still are), so this thought of a specific smell to New Zealand books can’t extend too far. Mulgan’s Man Alone was printed at the start of the war in the UK, and few copies even made it to New Zealand. John Beaglehole’s journals of Cook were published by the Hakluyt Society in London. But even then, I wonder if New Zealand dust smells differently, peppering the pages in an air not to be found elsewhere. After all, is the smell books acquire over time not simply the condensed smell of the air in which they live?

I won’t take those thoughts further (smells slip away the moment they’re put in words). But to any friends who catch me awkwardly lifting Landfall too frequently to my nose, let these thoughts suffice as an (admittedly odd) explanation.

“I’ve Lived for So Many Days Now”: Rinus Van de Velde at König Gallery, Berlin

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

There are more pleasant places to spend early January than Berlin, but, finding myself there on a particularly bleak day, the thought of visiting the brutalist church that now houses König Gallery seemed to offer some respite. Perhaps only in Berlin would that be said of brutalism—nevertheless, it was palpable relief I felt to step off the wind-and-sleet blasted boulevard and into the gorgeous gallery spaces. I came for the architecture, but stayed for the art.

What I knew of König Gallery before visiting was this: in 2015 they moved into the old St. Agnes Church after renovating it, and now displayed art in two separate gallery spaces, the former chapel and the nave. I also knew that the owner and founder, Johann König, is legally blind (a childhood accident involving gunpowder). These two curious facts were enough to make me think of visiting the place when I had a free afternoon before flying back to London.

What I knew of Rinus van de Velde before visiting the gallery was, on the other hand, precisely nothing, not even his name. In retrospect, this made my unexpected encounter with his art all the more invigorating—it was the art on its own terms. Normally I would research an artist before visiting a new show, ensuring I knew at least the basics of biography and style, but here I walked into the first room figuring I would read the exhibition pamphlet after looking at the art.

The first “room” of the exhibition was more literal than normal. Van de Velde had constructed a room inside the room that is the former church nave: past the gallery reception, you walk through a threshold and into a smaller room that immediately gives the impression of some kind of gamer’s or coder’s lair. The light is dim, cigarette butts are haphazardly put out in an ashtray, computer screens give off their glare, and other contraptions let you know that the person who inhabits this room knows far more about all this technology than you do. The entire room is constructed by the artist using cardboard, wood and paint. Nothing is “real”, not the computers nor the cigarette butts, but everything is real enough that you feel you’ve entered a different space, a different frame of mind, a different world. You can walk around the room, jostle with other bodies (it’s not a large space), and some people tapped on the computer keyboards to see if anything would happen.

And who does inhabit this room? Looking for clues, I walked out the other door to this room-within-a-room, on the other side from where I entered. The brutalist architecture is back: a poured concrete floor with its stains and cracks intact, and beautiful brick walls. The floor ends a few centimetres away from the wall which gives the impression that the wall is a plane continuing through the floor, and this sense of verticality contrasts wonderfully with the horizontal brickwork. This room is one I could spend a long time in even if it lacked art on the walls—but again, I came for the architecture, and ended up staying for the art.

Three large canvases (the largest is over four metres horizontally) hang in this room, one on each wall. All are black-and-white charcoal drawings. And this is still Van de Velde’s room: because we passed through his constructed room, we enter this further gallery space in exactly the frame of mind that he wanted us to. Ahead of you is the work that gave its name to the exhibition, where we see a crowd of people, some gesticulating and yelling, others looking dejected or resigned. The jackets and name-badges that some of the figures wear give credence to my first thought that this is a scene from perhaps the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. And below the work in a horizontal strip is written, all in capital letters:

I’VE LIVED FOR SO MANY DAYS NOW. THAT’S WHY I AM ABLE TO BATHE IN A CONSTANT PERFECT REGULATED HARMONY. I CAN CALCULATE AND PREDICT WHAT IS ABOUT TO COME AND WILL HAPPEN IN FUTURE DAYS. THIS SETTLES MY THOUGHTS. IN MY BASEMENT I CONTROL THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON MY SELF-MADE COMPUTERS. CAUSING STRESS AND ANXIETY AMONG THE ONES WHO DON’T SEE THE PATTERNS.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition

Is the inhabitant of the room depicted in the scene? Or is he just the mastermind of it? Maybe he has hacked into the NYSE cameras and is looking on this mass of people from the comfort of his private island somewhere. Maybe he’s like a James Bond villain. Maybe he’s just a millennial geek. Certainly he is philosophical and self-reflective, as the canvas on the left-hand wall shows us: we catch this man in flagrante, a woman on top of him, the contents of his room strewn over the floor. But here the text beneath the image (a constant in all of Van de Velde’s drawings) reads,

ONCE IN A WHILE I RETURN AND FIND MYSELF A THING THAT STRIVES TO PERVERT, CONFUSE AND OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. WHEREFOR ALL THIS NOISE, THE STRAINING AND STORMING, THE ANXIETY AND WANT? WHY SHOULD A TRIFLE PLAY SO IMPORTANT A PART, AND CONSTANTLY INTRODUCE DISTURBANCE AND CONFUSION INTO MY WELL-REGULATED LIFE.

From afar, the artist’s charcoal drawings seem perfectly rendered—almost like a black-and-white photograph on the front of a newspaper. Move closer, and the forms collapse into one another as your eyes focus on details. The canvas is so large that the figures appear life-size, and the way Van de Velde has blurred and blended the lines (he uses his hands and sometimes even his elbows) gives him the ability to hint at gestures and expressions without fully developing them. In this medium just when you think you’ve got a hold of what is depicted, you wonder if that grimace is not actually just someone with their eyes closed. The works gain energy from the ambiguity of the lines—as in the work I just described, where the man’s face looks not at the woman’s breast above him, but to the left, maybe into the distance or perhaps just into his deepest thoughts.

My favourite was the work on the right-hand wall. Ostensibly a seascape, the light shimmers and moves over the surface of the water. Of course, the “light” is made up of those parts of the canvas that the artist has not drawn on. I thought of one of Anselm Kiefer’s small seascapes I recently saw in London, and of another small seascape by Colin McCahon. But this surpassed them both, for its reserve (it is just smudged charcoal lines!), its melancholy effect, its movement as you move closer and then further away. Here, beneath the drawing:

AFTER ALMOST TEN YEARS NOW I REALISED THAT I GAINED SOME HERE AND LOST SOME THERE.

Rinus van de Velde Konig Gallery Berlin art exhibition
Rinus van de Velde Belgian artist, Konig Gallery in Berlin, Germany

Read this, and suddenly what appeared as a melancholy image (I thought of this Bitcoin bro James Bond geeky villain dangling his legs over the side of a jetty and looking down into this water) comes across as self-reflectively ironic. This coder villain seems to realise the banality of his melancholic statement, even as he says it or thinks it nonetheless. I could almost see him smirking, wryly laughing at himself. This is a step beyond the postmodern irony and cynicism we’ve come to expect. I think it’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.

We are told, in the exhibition pamphlet, that the room Van de Velde has constructed is in fact the set for a film he has been working on for over two years—and that it will screen by the end of 2019. I already look forward to seeing it. But I hope, whatever it contains, that it doesn’t give away too much of the character behind this room and these drawings. Because it is our own relationship to the questions raised by them that give the drawings so much life. That’s why I felt that the weakest part of the exhibition was the fourth drawing, back by the gallery’s reception: a self-portrait of the artist, Jackson Pollock heroic with cigarette in his mouth, with the text beneath musing on a lost love. It almost gave us too much—but only almost, because I still went back to the other room and enjoyed the drawings even more on second, third and fourth viewing.

Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.