John Drawbridge: Joyous and International in Spirit

John Drawbridge New Zealand artist abstraction
John Drawbridge. New Zealand House Mural, 1963. Oil on canvas panels. New Zealand Government.

1963, London. A thirty-two year old New Zealander has just found himself at the beginning of a fast upward trajectory through the British art world. The Redfern Gallery, famous for showing the works of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth while they were still students—and, critically for New Zealand, one of Frances Hodgkins’ main London dealers—mounted an exhibition of this Wellingtonian’s works. The Rothschild family purchased a work, as did both the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert. He’d been shown in a summer exhibition alongside the likes of Picasso and Matisse; The Guardian had reviewed his works well. The same year, the artist won a commission to complete a monumental mural for the newly completed New Zealand House, a work that to this day remains one of the high points of twentieth century New Zealand painting, matched only, perhaps, by McCahon’s Northland Panels. His name is spreading fast, he has other dealers courting him wanting to show his work, and he’s the envy of the group of New Zealand artists living in London at the time (Ralph Hotere, Melvin Day and Don Peebles, among others). And then, seemingly just at the point of real breakthrough that every young artist dreams of, this young abstract painter and printmaker decides to move back home to the end of the Earth, settling with his wife Tanya, a well known silversmith and sculptor, in a house in Island Bay, Wellington. 

Why? Why did he move back? It was a decision that others would wonder about for the rest of this artist’s life. John Drawbridge himself, however, remained resolute. In his decisions and in his art, Drawbridge stands as a figure comfortable with the doors he has closed. It’s a kind of wisdom—something that this artist had in no short supply, as those who knew him attest, and as his work so clearly demonstrates. 

It certainly wasn’t easy in Wellington, in those days, as Rita Angus and Gordon Walters likewise knew. When in 1967 one of his wonderful geometric, textured works called Coastline, Island Bay was chosen by the New Zealand Government to be a gift to the Canadian Parliament, Drawbridge had to suffer the ignominy of a local newspaper publishing the painting and asking readers whether it looked to them like the Island Bay coastline (the implication being, of course, that abstraction was a joke because it did not represent reality faithfully). Why he didn’t get on the next ship back to London is a mystery to me. Drawbridge stayed, however, to New Zealanders’ collective benefit. And to thank him, we—with a few critical exceptions—forgot about him in favour of those artists who were Kiwis through-and-through. Artists were encouraged to go for their “OE”, as Gordon Walters did in 1950, and as Angus and McCahon did in 1958. But the imperative was always that whatever they did, they mustn’t have too much success over there, or get too directly influenced by those tricksy modern tendencies. And if they did? Well, they’d be better off staying in London, like Frances Hodgkins did. Then we’d claim them as ours after they were dead, as if  we’d been their greatest supporters all along. (The Canadians, by the way, loved Coastline, Island Bay so much that they asked for another of Drawbridge’s works).

It’s not that Drawbridge was neglected entirely, but he was placed, after his return to Wellington, in what one of his friends from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London called the “artistic wilderness”. He was there because of a few choices he had made. First, he lived in Wellington—a fact that made him practically invisible to this country’s art market, which operates primarily in Auckland. Second, in addition to his painting, Drawbridge was a lifelong printmaker, specialising in the mezzotint method (a process that, when practised as well as Drawbridge did it, produces stunning contrasts of light and dark, and a richness in colour not possible with other methods). What in retrospect seems a complement to his painting practise was not seen so at the time: printmaking of all kinds is to the art market a distant cousin to painting itself, a method good for making a quick buck and popularising an artist’s work, but not at all “serious”. Drawbridge was always more than just a painter, and printmaking was an essential part of his practise—for it, he was outcast. And third, again in the words of Drawbridge’s friend Robert Macdonald, who wrote his obituary in The Guardian in 2005: “His (Drawbridge’s) paintings were poetic and concerned with colour and the often subtle effects of light. They were very unlike the darkly brooding effusions of his more famous contemporary, the Auckland-based painter Colin McCahon, and so did not fit neatly into curatorial ideas of what New Zealand painting should look like. They were a bit too international in spirit and perhaps a bit too joyful.”

Joyous and international in spirit—these are the defining characteristics of Drawbridge’s work, the features that were irrepressible during his devoted fifty-year career. To see his 1963 New Zealand House mural in the twenty-first century is almost to rediscover New Zealand. No more brooding, no more melancholy, no more Manuka in bloom breeding despair. No more muddy hues, faux-“primitivism” or local landscapes. Instead: light, and energy, and dynamism, and colour, and seasons, and all the loveliness of the spirit of this country that “all too often goes unnoticed”, as the writer John Mulgan so long ago opined. At far left, a bright, burning orb of light sets the stage, while at far right, the deepest blues and greys of last light dominate—between these extremes, swirling, combed forms stretch across and move around the canvas. In places the colour and light are as soft and melancholy as Fra Angelico’s are at the Convent of San Marco in Florence; in other places, like just to the right of the centre panel, the blocks of colours are so rich, intense and geometricised that one thinks of Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Compositions of the mid 1910s. Seeing the painting in person for the first time at Wellington’s City Gallery I was left laughing out loud—laughing, because why could I not see this country this way before, and laughing, because how could such a monumental painter be so unregarded? I felt, seeing this mural, that I could conquer the world from Island Bay; and I still feel that way even just conjuring its combed forms and regal colours in my mind.

In the mural, which hung for many years in the foyer to New Zealand House in London before being repatriated, Drawbridge captured New Zealand. It is not a landscape, or a seascape, or a skyscape, or a cityscape, but rather all of those, at once. It is not sunrise or midday or sunset, but expresses all of those times of day—at once. There is no recognisable place. It is not New Zealand seen from the top of a hill, but New Zealand seen from thirty-six-thousand-feet above, or half a world away. “My intention is to convey a sense of the patterns of the movement of light over water and land”, Drawbridge wrote upon the painting’s completion: “There is the continuous flow of a kind of cross-section of the New Zealand landscape.” Never before, and never since, has a New Zealand artist tried to capture so incorporeal a sense of this country, and nor have they done so from the distance of London. (Not that we should be surprised. For does any country ever learn as much about itself as from its expatriates?) This is not provincial NZ art, a nice advertising project for New Zealand House. This is art of the very best kind, grand but never touching on grandiosity.

John Drawbridge Window Frank and Lyn Corner Wellington
John Drawbridge. Window, 1972. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

And there, somewhere between the borders of New Zealand and the porousness of international artistic styles, is where Drawbridge’s work most often resides. This country is never dealt with recognisably, naturalistically; instead we read it into the work through the artist’s biography, the work’s title and the constant play of ocean, earth and light. Window of 1972 is a large canvas, over two metres high, where we look out—as if through a window or door frame—on pure colour. It is a seascape, but one glimpsed perhaps through bush or forest at a time of day when the sun is just low enough to shine directly into your eyes so that all  you see are masses of colour. It is indeed a joyous work—one international in spirit, but to a New Zealander feeling rooted in a time and place.

At other times, particularly in later years, Drawbridge seemed to delve deeper than ever into art history. He engages directly and unashamedly with the art of all periods, proving—and therefore opening the door to other artists in this country—that you did not need to be in Italy, the Netherlands or Russia (for example) to engage with the best art to have been created in those places. I think of his 1984 watercolour Vermeer, Rembrandt and Malevich, where these artists’ works come together in an interior-like setting: viewed through a doorway we see Malevich’s Suprematist compositions hanging on a wall, with abstracted figures from Vermeer seated before them—and to the right, in a different space (and actually on a piece of card then pasted to the watercolour), hangs one of Drawbridge’s own prints from the year before of a detail from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. This is a secularist’s sacra  conversazione, a kind of holy conversation between artists from different times and places. Vermeer’s intense naturalism meets—and enjoys meeting—Malevich’s pure, tensile abstractions from over three hundred years later.

John Drawbridge Rembrandt Malevich Vermeer
John Drawbridge. Vermeer, Rembrandt, Malevich, 1984. Watercolour on card and paper. Private collection, Wellington. Copyright John Drawbridge Estate.

The work has a greater meaning to me: it is the first artwork I ever consciously knew. Hanging always on my parents’ living room wall, I remember looking into this interior space and wondering about the artworks and the colours and the lives of the figures depicted. Long before I knew Vermeer, Rembrandt or Malevich—long before I was consciously interested in art—John Drawbridge taught me, a child in Wellington, New Zealand, about the limitless depths and the irrelevance of geography to the great artistic conversation.

John Drawbridge was not forgotten by the London art world, with his obituary written after his death in 2005 in most major British papers; but he never again was part of it. And so why, again, did he leave England, on the cusp of the success that most artists spend their lives hoping for? He left because he was wise. Because, unmoved by the vagaries of the art market and instead prompted only by the purity and sincerity of that great artistic conversation, he knew he could more deeply undertake his work from the house in Island Bay overlooking the Cook Strait than from a flat in central London. In that task he remained irrepressible, painting, printmaking, mural-making and teaching right up until his death. His artwork stands, powerful and with so much more to be discovered, as one of the best reminders in this country of why the art market is often the worst guide of all to finding the most important and powerful art. For those with eyes of their own, able to look at art without a dealer in their ear or an auction catalogue before them, John Drawbridge has so much to give.

Summer With Picasso and Giacometti

2017 seems an appropriate year for two big shows, the Reina Sofia’s Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica and Tate Modern’s Giacometti. As the White House talks of showing us “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, gallery-goers in Madrid and London can look back to the future and see both how we got where we are and how we know where we’re going. This is particularly useful for those of us born after the Cold War and the age of existentialism, in case we might have believed that everything going on in global politics in 2017 was somehow new.

Here’s what you know before going to either of these exhibitions: Picasso’s Guernica is about the suffering of war, and Giacometti’s sculptures are symbols of existentialism. A woman with her head thrown back, screaming, a dead child in her arms; a gaunt, emaciated man walking onwards, to work or to the grave, but ever going nowhere. The twentieth century saw a lot of both war and existentialism, the latter likely growing out of the former. We know that, but because we’ve seen Guernica endlessly reproduced, and because Giacometti’s Walking Man is little more than a substitute for the word existentialism, it has become difficult to see anything more. The question each of these exhibitions asks is: can we un-see the images and artists we think we know, and re-see them in all their depth and relevance? By contextualising the artists’ work chronologically, can we see and feel afresh the stirrings and lessons the images contain; and might we then see more clearly this familiar world that suddenly seems so strange?

To each question, an emphatic “yes”.

Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937 for a giant wall in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, is, of course, a reaction to the blanket bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe just two months earlier. Yet before the bombing happened, Picasso had already been granted the commission to produce a painting of Guernica’s size for the Pavilion, and he had been experimenting with ideas for a few months. The original plan was to do a version of one of his favourite themes, “The Artist’s Studio”, and he had completed 12 sketches on that idea (and had even planned to put a bust of his mistress at the time, Marie-Therese Walter, on either side of the painting once hung at the Pavilion). As Anne Wagner, one of the co-curators of the exhibition, notes in an article accompanying the exhibition: “It is as if, in his [Picasso’s] eyes, the end was in sight.”

Then the bombing happened, on the 26th of April. What do you do, if you’re Picasso? You’re already recognised as perhaps the greatest living painter, you’ve been granted a huge commission by your home country (though you’ve lived in France since your youth), you’re on the home stretch with ideas for this, the biggest work you’ll ever produce, and then—bombs are dropped. Hundreds, even thousands, are killed (it speaks volumes that death estimates vary so greatly). A town in your home country is literally levelled, and by a foreign country merely practising bombing techniques, showing the world what it’s got, that it’s the most powerful country on earth… It’s a single event, of which you’re only reading news reports (which are vague, at this stage—some are arguing that the bombing was done by Basque anarchists; and you aren’t even seeing any actual photos, because journalists can’t get in or out of the town for some while), and yet—it changes everything. “The Studio: The Painter and His Model” suddenly seems quaint, to put it mildly, and the planned busts of your mistress now seem just daft, self-gratifying to the extreme. Events outside of your control force you to respond. And just five weeks later, you’ve declared Guernica complete.

In getting at the work’s dualities, the other co-curator of the exhibition, T. J. Clark, quotes A. C. Bradley’s description of the Greeks:

“Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end.”

It’s exactly that kind of duality that we see in all Picasso’s work. Picasso famously said that he never painted subjects, but only themes. Anne Wagner explains in an LRB article how Picasso told Andre Malraux after he had completed Guernica that he had painted death “as a skull, not a car crash”. His other themes included birth, pregnancy, suffering, murder, the couple, death, rebellion… For Picasso, there are hideous contradictions he needs to respond to. Just days before he had been working on a painting glorifying art and artists—himself, essentially—as well as his lover, Marie-Therese. He had been glorifying some of those themes like birth and pregnancy (Marie-Therese had given birth to his daughter two years earlier)—which for him were always associated with his own pregnancy, of ideas, and his giving birth to them in painting. He had been glorifying power, intelligence, life and glory, beauty—themes called into question by a senseless, needless bombing. How do you respond, if you’re Picasso?

It’s this kind of narrative that the Reina Sofia exhibition does so well at capturing. We see not just his sketches for Guernica, but his paintings all the way back to his post-Cubist still lives inside his studio, to his disturbing depictions of tangled lovers kissing/penetrating/attacking one another on a beach. We see his changing depictions of the (many) women in his life, and the themes of pregnancy, birth and suffering. And Guernica, when we do finally see it (albeit, perhaps appropriately, from behind crowds) we can’t help but see it differently. Even though we’ve grown up seeing the mural on coffee cups and t-shirts, it has now regained its poignancy and power, and it seems to contain both sides of Bradley’s description of the Greeks. All the death, murder and suffering, yes—but also all the things that cause us to suffer, like our children and our lovers, our ideas (is it Edison’s illuminating bulb that sits above the wails of terror, or Goya’s lantern from the Third of May?) and our religion (a candle is thrust into the scene through a window, giving us light in darkness and inviting us somewhere else—or is this merely a vigil?).

Swollen breasts, life-giving, hang over the child and point at the man pinned by the spooked horse to the ground. But look again, and are not the breasts shaped like bombs; areola, like explosive casing, and nipples like a trigger? For after all, even the dictator, now dropping bombs, did place his mouth here, did gain sustenance here.

— — — —

In London, at the Tate Modern, Giacometti shows us what humanity looks like when the death, murder and suffering themes win out over their counterparts life, birth and hope. Giacometti was twenty years Picasso’s junior: is this a generational difference, or merely a response to the post-war world? (The two were known to holiday together on the French Riviera, until a falling out, but they remained great admirers of each others’ work).

Walk into the exhibition and in the first room you will be greeted by perhaps fifty busts produced across Giacometti’s lifetime, from the first in 1917 (when he was just 16). At first they are done in plaster, the face a flat disc with features painted on. In the middle period, they are tiny—truly, tiny—because Giacometti was forced to spend the war in his native Switzerland holed up in a small hotel room. He produced sculptures the size he could bring back to France with him in a matchbox—and I think the results are some of his best; a head or body so small you need to strain to see its features, yet attached to a base so large that you can almost feel the unbearable weight of being (I almost felt that Kundera were trying to respond to these busts). And, in his later period, the characteristic elongation from nose to nape, where the face meets in a sharp point before the eyes and extends backwards, all the wrinkles and gauntness exaggerated and emphasised.

If you’re familiar with Giacometti, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these aren’t happy faces. But then again, what sculptor ever painted happy subjects? Bronze and marble (though Giacometti did not use the latter, he did have a preference for displaying the plaster originals before they were cast in bronze) are mediums that say permanence, timelessness, greatness—and so we expect to see grand subjects. Think Rodin, or, in non-figurative sculpture, even Brancusi’s objects have a kind of grand sincerity to them. But what struck me in this first room of the Giacometti exhibition, which I thought the best of all, was how decidedly ordinary and routine all these faces look, how haggard and temporary. To put it more bluntly, even the youngest subjects look not so far away from the grave. And yet—they are for the most part cast in bronze, and will outlast us all, thanks to the artistic efforts of one of our species’ members.

The exhibition is large. We see Giacometti as a struggling Surrealist, struggling because he seemed interested only in the human form (he was later expelled from the group for his continuing to create representational works). We see his Chariot, and The Dog (“It’s me”, Giacometti is reported to have said. “One day I saw myself in the street like that. I was the dog.”). We see the Women of Venice, the plaster originals brought almost all together for the first time since they were displayed at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1956. There are Giacometti’s oil paintings, with their cage-like interiors which so influenced Francis Bacon. And in the final room we see his towering tall women, double our height, so that we are left with the sense of having walked for a while among giants.

In Picasso: Pity and Terror we saw the coupling of all that is best in the world with all that we would rather not think about—death and suffering with birth and joy. In Giacometti we see the duality of temporality, or of being in human time on the one hand, with the permanence of humankind thanks to our endeavours, on the other. We trudge onwards to work and to the grave, and we have our crises along the way, but all that haggardness is outlasted by the permanence of what we accomplish. It’s a strange duality—and strange too is the sight of Giacometti’s brother Diego throughout the exhibition, looking always so tired of it all, yet being looked at tirelessly by thousands each day, thousands who somehow come out of the gallery with a new vitality.

— — — —

I might be too frank here, but 2017 has had me thinking a lot more about death. Just a few days before I saw Giacometti in London there had been the terrible terrorist attacks on a nearby bridge and at Borough Market. Then there are the talks of war, maybe of the nuclear kind, on the Korean Peninsula—and bombs continue to drop in Syria. More personally, I’ve had to attend the funerals of close family members, and bad bicycle crashes have left me feeling very mortal. (Days after I wrote this Las Ramblas in Barcelona became the site of another terrorist attack—Picasso’s childhood home given a new relationship to Guernica).

These threats and worries aren’t out of the ordinary. Certainly my awareness of them at this age indicates the relative comfort of my upbringing. The second half of the twentieth century has been called the nuclear peace for a reason, and deaths from terrorist attacks have statistically never been less likely. Maybe all that is unique in my thinking about death is having the combination of a growing individual awareness of death—call that growing up—at the same time as politics itself seems for the first time in my conscious life to present death as a possible outcome.

High on a wall in the Guernica exhibition was printed a quote of Hannah Arendt’s, getting at the heart of the idea of death in both Picasso and Giacometti:

“Death, whether faced in actual dying or in the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most anti-political experience there is. It signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearances and leave the company of our fellow-men, which are the conditions of all politics. As far as human experience is concerned, death indicates an extreme of loneliness and impotence. But faced collectively and in action, death changes its countenance; now nothing seems more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, namely, that our own death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group we belong to and, in the final analysis, of the species, moves into the centre of our experience. It is as though life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourished, as it were, by the sempiternal dying of its individual members, is ‘surging upward’, actualised in the practice of violence.”

What I’m talking about is becoming aware of both of these kinds of death, at the same time: death as the most non-political event there is, and death as an ultimate outcome of politics. That’s why 2017 was an appropriate year for these two big shows. In Giacometti we see not death itself, but the non-political awareness of it: the slow decline towards an unobserved, solitary, nighttime departure. And in Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica we see all the contradictory vitality of political death. Mortality, solitariness, ageing and sickness in Giacometti; terrorism, war, energy, and pain in Picasso.

Summer in London was bookended this year by two very different kinds of events. Maybe it’s crude to speak of them in the same paragraph, but it’s the kind of opposition we’ve seen throughout these two exhibitions, the kind that Picasso spent his life depicting. Summer began with terrorism, and it ended with Wimbledon—and at Wimbledon, with an old genius, facing ageing, mortality and decline, showing it’s not all over yet. “Genius is not replicable”, David Foster Wallace wrote of Roger Federer (and I read him as writing of genius everywhere, including that of Picasso and Giacometti): “Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”

It may be fleeting indeed, but that reconciliation is what art—and especially that of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti—finally offers us.


Note: As if to emphasise the point, from late 2016 to early 2017 the Musee Picasso in Paris curated an exhibition called Picasso-Giacometti, putting together for the first time the work of these two artists. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, but it seems too fitting that the two artists met in Paris, half way between their later stand-alone exhibitions in Madrid and London.