Figures from Life

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Friday 25 August 2011
Ron Brownson

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Gallery Director Peter Tomory once said that Toss Woollaston's Figures from Lifewas the first modern portrait in New Zealand. He was both right and wrong. 

Modern portraits really began here in New Zealand with the arrival of James Nairn and Petrus van der Velden in 1890. Their example was paralleled by Grace Joel at Dunedin. 

What Peter meant, I think, was that Figures from Life was the first modernist portrait in New Zealand. That would be much closer to the truth. In 1936, it was a radical work. 

The Woollaston has always meant much to me because I recall seeing it for the first time as a child reproduced on the cover of Tomory's book on New Zealand painting. I stared at it for hours. It intrigued me then and it still does now. 

When the Gallery reopens in just over a week Toss Woollaston's Figures from Lifewill be on show for the first time in some years. I have taken a lot of care to ensure that it looks terrific. I have used a coloured archival over-matt so the pastel paper ground has the best possible surrounding. As well, I have had a new frame constructed that is much more appropriate to the painting. The red umber frame has a smudgy and worn rusticity that is nothing like the decorator style frames which are still so much in fashion. It looks better for seeming to be more home-made. 

Woollaston adored this work, it is his first major portrait. It shows his fiance Edith with their friend Rodney Kennedy. Rodney was a long-long friend and he helped organise Woollaston's first solo exhibition in 1936. 

The dry paint is sketchy, using colours that express feeling rather than the colour of flesh. This was a provocative approach. It energised Colin McCahon, who, by gifting it to the Gallery in 1954, ensured that this is the first artwork by Woollaston to enter the Gallery's collection. 

Credit: 
Toss Woollaston (1910-1998) 
Figures from Life, 1936 
oil on paper 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of Colin McCahon, 1954