Self portrait as my father. 1995.
N.B. The following is a scanned OCR document. It is close to Grace Russell's original and as such contains some minor errors. The chronology at the end is annotated where in error, but it is not an extensive survey of my working life. I do not want to clutter this page with a long C.V.
WHY I chose Richard McWhannell. I had
to choose an important New Zealand artist to study.
I saw one of his paintings at the Tony Fomison exhibition early this year.
It was a portrait Richard had done from memory of his friend. I decided to find out more about him, so I wrote him a letter.
I was really pleased to get a 14-page reply! My questions, and his answers now follow.
l. When were you born,. and where? Do you
have brothers and sisters? Was your father or mother an artist?
Richard McWhannell: (*Born, Akaroa, Banks Peninsula, 1952.) I have three brothers. My older brother is musical ( an organist & harpsichordist). My next brother is a jeweller and has started painting recently. They're very interesting.
My parents were not artists, but in later years my mother has had time to pursue pottery and various craft interests. My maternal grandmother had a lot of talent as a painter but had heaps of children and wasn't motivated to make a life in art as well. In fact, her family including her mother, seem to have been keenly artistic ( in Australia, mostly.)
2. What inspired you to become an artist?
Mostly what inspired me to become an artist was my talent for it. As a child I loved pictures and the world around. We lived on a farm in a very beautiful place, and I had a lot of time alone. My brother was bookish and we had singular childhoods. I loved being outdoors - making things, sculpting the clay banks around the farm, and painting and drawing. I dreamed of boats and being a sailor ( a French warship came to Akaroa and we went there on a school trip - I loved the sailors' hats and the bread we were given and the idea of travelling the oceans.) It seems like I painted ships and sailing boats for years trying to make them look natural and full of movement with the expression of their sailors brought to life. And I never had a boat or went to sea! I painted trees and streams, too. Always trying to give them life and movement. Always excited by a good result and thrilled to get praised often. So to put it simply, I just never stopped and even when it seemed too impossibly hard, held on to the idea that my struggle was a just one. If you have a talent, you have an obligation to use it.
3. What other artists in NZ or overseas
do you like a lot? Who is your favourite of all?
There are too many artists in history for me to mention here. I call it my artistic ancestry. Top of my list would be El Greco, Goya, Daumier, Cezanne, and Rouault. NZ artists I most admire are: Tony Fomison, Toss Woollaston, Colin McCahon, Allen Maddox and Philip Clairmont. That is two handfuls!
Its hard to pick favourites. I did tell a group recently that the French painter Georges Rouault is the pinnacle for me. So he'll have to be "HE .
4. Where did you study art? Has any
teacher or painter been really special in your life?
I studied art at the Canterbury School of Fine Art in Christchurch 1970-72. My most important teacher there was Rudi Gopas. My most influential teacher (not off icial) was Toss Woollaston, who I met when I was 18. He was very generous with his knowledge and love of painting. So too, have been Tony Fomison and Allen Maddox - but in a different way, they being closer in age and more casual friendships. Again, there have been, and there are still, special other artists in my life.
6. Do you remember what made you decide to become an artist?
Apart from what I mentioned in (2), there were two significant events that made me choose to be an artist. The day I left high school (I was already going to art school the next year) my art teacher met me on the stairs and we were in the process of saying goodbye and he said "McWhannell [they didn't use Christian names at our school] whatever you do, don't become a teacher!". Secondly, at the beginning of my second year at art school one of the teachers, Bill Sutton, said: "I'm only interested in teaching people who are serious about being artists!"
7. What is your own favourite in your
paintings so far?
I don't really have a favourite painting. Always what you are doing at the time seems the most interesting, well that's the case at the moment. Some things work better than others, and you have to decide what is worth keeping. After some time it almost seems as if a stranger did the work, anyway. So my favourite painting is in the future, or is it the portrait Ive been painting of my wife Donogh today? I have a feeling of elation about it.
8. What do you like to do best - do you
like best to paint in oils,, or in watercolours,, or what?
I like all the ways and means I work in best. I paint and draw and sculpt. Painting in oils is what I do most. It is, perhaps the hardest and yet most magic when it works. Ink drawing and watercolour is especially enjoyable because it is so fluid and you can have lovely and simple ( happy) accidents.
9. Which person in the world would you
most like to paint? Why?
This one is hard. At the moment, I am painting a number of pictures of Donogh. It is hard these days to get people to sit because it is such hard work for them, too. I'm loving painting her and feel I could go on for ever. She is beautiful, interesting and I know her very well and I get such pleasure out of painting flesh and clothes and furniture and how it all goes together. So I just want to paint her, and more and better. Then start on my friends.
10. What part of a persons face do
you like most to paint?
I seem to get most pleasure out of painting noses and ears the sticky out bits.
11. What part of someones face do
you think tells you the most about what they're like?
Well, the traditional answer would be " the eyes" but really you can't say which is the more important in my opinion. All painting has to work from corner to corner and edge to edge. In a way, the quality of the painting is more important than the characterisation of the person. I have a print of a Toss Woollaston drawing on my wall, its a portrait of his daughter-in-law, Chan, and it has no mouth, yet it is a masterpiece. It is so audacious, as if he was under the influence of some spirit when he drew it and knew before he put a mouth in that the spirit had left him and to do so would be self conscious and wreck the whole thing. Its a curious business in that regard.
12. How do you know when a painting is
finished and you should stop?
The French Cubist Georges Braque said that he didn't finish paintings so much as abandon them. That's pretty much how I feel too. It can be a difficult yet crucial decision. I know a good deal of work has been abandoned too soon; when I have lacked the courage to risk painting further. Im much better and more confident at pushing on now. For some years my paintings have been stainings more than paintings; I've begun treating paint as an accretion again, putting layer on layer and making it richer.
Sometimes I might have done a painting very quickly and stand back and know that to do more would be to kill something essential in its expression. These paintings are fresh and free and special in their way. Other pictures can be hard-won and I might work on them over and over and they're finished when they've sat for some time and after looking again and again you have no urge to do more, yet at no point have you said: "Yes, that is done." Sometimes I have the feeling that this or that painting is just too much of a struggle and I've put it aside for a good time and came back to it and been surprised that it worked after all. Its as though you have just got in a negative frame about it and didn't see past the difficulties which is the end became more interest.
13. If you didnt live in NZ where
in the whole world would you like to live the most? Why?
In 1982, 1 went to Europe for four months and loved it. I looked at the art in churches and galleries in England, Spain, Italy and France. It was a great experience but I never had the feeling that I would want to live there. Although I found the society far more exciting than in New Zealand, it seemed more generous and a lot less violent than here. I felt homesick for loved ones and the physical beauty of New Zealand and felt I could bring back something of what I found there. To a raw culture by comparison, and to a place where there is room for me. Since then I have made two short trips to Australia and very much enjoy it there. I could live there. It seems so exotic, it is vast and beautiful and the society there seems vital too, more like Europe and seemingly more connected to the wider world. And perhaps I will spend some of my life there. But I am native born and since one of my interests is to look at and paint the face of the land, I cannot see myself leaving Aotearoa for too long except in the unlikely event of being forced into exile.
14. Are NZ faces much different from the
faces of people from other countries like us?
To think about the difference between faces here and elsewhere you'd really have to look at comparing similar racial groups. I can't pinpoint many particularly NZ characteristics; if you look at Caucasians say here and in England. The most obvious difference would be in complexion; as generalisation NZers look more rugged. Since our migration is more particularly Anglo-Saxon than say Australia you can see certain differences, again generalising, between white NZers and Australians. America, which was colonised long before us or Australia does to my mind show strong characteristics in the physiognomy( the facial characteristics) of its white population. With intermarriage, diet and climate etc, my guess is that these national characteristics will become slowly) more marked. A big question, and I'm getting out of my depth!
15 & 16.. When youre painting,
do you listen to music? What sort of music do you like best? Do you have a favourite song
Yes, I listen to music when I work. Actually my day is quite routine. In the morning I have National Radio on as a rule. I seem to be able to work and listen to Kim Hill at the same time, In the afternoons I usually listen to Student radio BFM which is primarily an alternative music station. Occasionally I listen to tapes. But the radio is mostly sufficient and has a good variety. My musical taste is very varied. In any one day I might listen to Chris Knox, to Sebadoh ( US alternative) to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss' 4 Last Songs.
My current favourite song is by Dunedin singer Andrew Brough and his group "Bike" and I can't remember the name of it. Its enjoying reach-to-turn-it-up status. If I find something I like I usually play it to death.
17. What are your favourite past-times,
when youre not painting? Are there authors you really like to read?
When I'm not working I do enjoy reading, walking, watching television or going to the movies. Authors I like :currently reading the "Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon" by Daniel Farson. Have recently read "The Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes and The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi. They're all very good, but what you'd call adult books.
18. When youre painting someone.,
do you try to draw what you feel about them and what theyre like,, or do you try to
paint them just exactly the way they look on the outside?
When I paint somebody/someone I simply concentrate really hard on how they look and how the colours and tones are arranged and their proportions and disposition. And bring together my knowledge and abilities to render the essence of that person. Its as if I put careful looking (at their features) and instinct together to give a "sensation" of the person. I don't think: "I like to show this or that characteristic of the person." If a painting of someone is incisive ( gets to the character) its usually because through concentration and will I have been taken over by that kind of force I mentioned before.
Georges Rouault called it "a jet of spirit on the alert."
19. Why do you like to paint people
rather than other things?
Most of (*my) painting is of people, but I do paint other things, too. Many years ago I painted the landscape and portraits, but not together. When I moved to Auckland I got interested in the urban landscape. And continued with my people pictures. When I'd come back from Europe I started painting the landscape again for a time. Then my interest in the human form and portrait slowly took over and I began working more from the imagination or putting imagination and observation together. In a way I painted a gallery full of people paintings to make up for the art I'd seen in Europe but that we didn't have here. Sort of my version of art history. Now that gallery is finished and I'm more interested in the quality of painting based on simple but strong observation. Its a bit like going back to a paddock I ploughed and planted years ago, and now its been lying fallow for long enough to start again. ( I think I lost a gold watch there.) Its very exciting for me,. and is the advantage of ageing (there aren't many). Paintings of people are really; at the top of the hierarchy of human interest. We are most interested in our own species as a rule. Next comes the land and the elements amongst which we are so insignificant. I love being in the landscape, especially where it is grand and dramatic and where I feel like a speck of dust and full of awe, wonder and vulnerability. There seems to be so much to do, and not enough time to do it in. The landscape has figured so prominently in New Zealand art and the human not so much, perhaps that is part of it.
20. Do you want to be famous? My
mother and father and our children think I already am and I don't tell them otherwise. But
seriously, I would like to be the creator of wonderful art works - to move people to look
at my pictures and say " that is how it is, that is the sensation, that is powerful
and that is beautiful." If ever I do a great painting or make a great sculpture then
fame would be attendant. But I'm not an artist to get fame. It would not make a jot of
difference to how well I do my job and would not make me happier, and as a fairly insular
person I would not have much occasion to bask in it. The good effect would be to give me
more money so I could build a big wall to hide from the fame. And I could get a CD player
and halve my root canal work done! (* progress has been made in both cases)
Meanwhile, its good to have someone like you say nice things about a picture and ask intelligent questions. They're the best I've ever had and I hope I've answered them at least half articulately! And that you can read my handwriting. Good luck.
I like Richard McWhannells paintings
and style because of the gentle lines and colours. There is no harshness,, but a kind of
openness, and even the straight lines are unsharp and soft-looking. Soft,. but not
I was happy to find that his paintings describe what he sounds like in his letter.
For example, in Pleasure Palace the balance of the mans face is so gentle and the light and shadow so exact the result is quite shocking.
The lines of the house and the lines of the mans face make you quite surprised how different houses and humans are.
One of the beautiful things about the house is the windows. None of them are the same. The man seems like he's looking casually back at the house., but you cant see exactly how hes feeling; whether he's feeling sad happy or wary.
1952: Born at Akaroa.
1971: Met Toss Woollaston
1972: Diploma of fine arts, School of fine arts, Canterbury.
1978: Awarded first of four QEII Arts Council Grants.
1979: Solo exhibition - Denis Cohn Gallery (Auckland)
1981: Married Donogh Rees. (*. 1984 infact)
1982: Went to Europe for four months.
1984: Exhibition Janne Land Gallery (Wellington)
1985: Had first child.
1987: Aberhart North Gallery (Auckland) - The first of many shows with this dealer gallery.
1989: Exhibited in group show - International Biennale of Graphic Arts, Yugoslavia.
Richard McWhannell | Pictures | Grace Russell's questions | More Pictures | Sculpture