Sarah Hillary

The Back of the Painting – A Journey

Article Detail

In the spring of 2019, Linda Waters, paintings conservator at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Jenny Sherman, conservator at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and I met to discuss The Back of the Painting book project. We have all had long and interesting careers working on diverse collections and had known each other for some time: Linda and I had studied conservation at the University of Canberra together in the early 1980s before she eventually took on a painting conservation position at the National Gallery of Victoria; and I had met Jenny when as a conservator she had couriered the Rembrandt to Renoir exhibition to the Gallery from The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1993, before she moved back to New York to private practice and teaching at New York University. We had all ended up working in public art galleries around New Zealand and kept in regular contact. Because of our different backgrounds, each of us approached this book project slightly differently, with a focus on Old Master paintings (pre-1800) by Jenny, and for Linda and me, 19th-century and later.

To conservators, paintings are not merely the image on the front, which is so frequently reproduced. Instead, we see paintings as three-dimensional objects that reveal their materiality and unique histories. It is the backs of paintings, which are often hidden, that can contain important information and contribute to our understanding of them as works of art, as well as informing the approach we end up taking to their treatment and care. The Back of the Painting was an opportunity to share some of our observations and discoveries and to give a sense of what a wonderful privilege it is to be working so closely with works of art.

Long Red Line, 1964 by Ralph Hotere, seemed an obvious candidate for me to include in the book because of the significance of the materials used to make up the structure, which are only clearly identifiable from the reverse. In a conversation with Ralph Hotere, late in his life, we discussed this and other works from his Human Rights series and he described how he had used the packaging for televisions found in a London dump to make the painting structures.[1] Their significance had been so great that Hotere brought them all the way back to New Zealand. Friend and dealer Rodney Kirk Smith recalled that in 1965: ‘He disembarked from the boat carrying strangely painted luggage which turned out to be works of art he had nailed together to make them portable.’[2] This included Long Red Line, which is now part of the Chartwell Collection at the Gallery.

The re-use of everyday materials and appropriation of commercial products was very appealing to artists in the 1950s and 60s as they distanced themselves from the traditional approaches to art making. The television boxes provided a reference to contemporary culture and consumerism, but Hotere was also re-purposing them to make an art of protest. The Human Rights series was a response to French colonialism, and a statement about injustice and imperialism.

My interview with Hotere was carried out as part of a collaborative project with conservators at Te Papa and conservation scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute to investigate the early use of modern paints by New Zealand artists, with funding from the Lottery Grants Board and Creative New Zealand. The study formed the basis for the exhibition Modern Paints Aotearoa (2014–15), at the Gallery, and its associated catalogue, and provided a wealth of new information about artistic practice in this country, including the wide use of PVA emulsion as a paint medium in the 1960s.[3] In London, too, artists were mixing PVA glue with dry pigments, which is how Hotere described his approach in Long Red Line. The medium was relatively fast-drying and the brushstrokes remained visible, which was not entirely to his liking as he preferred a more impersonal surface without obvious gesture. Orange on Black, painted a few years later in 1968, is sprayed with nitrocellulose lacquer used for car paint, resulting in a smooth high gloss. In Linda’s entry in The Back of the Painting book, she refers to Hotere’s preoccupation with the surface and how this was further explored in the back-painted glass works such as Black Painting, 1968. In this example, it was possible to see brushwork applied to the other side of the glass and yet retain a smooth glossy finish.

Long Red Line was first shown at Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland in 1965, shortly after Hotere had returned from four years abroad in England and France. The six works that form the Human Rights series were all made up with the same modular boxes but formed into different shapes. The construction included sheets of cardboard, strips of linen tape, screws and battens. The appearance is raw compared with the finish on the front and is worth comparing with the back of a work by Geoff Thornley, which is also discussed in The Back of the Painting. In Linda’s piece about Construction #11-Tondo, 1981, she describes the painting as being expertly engineered to project the work forward and create a feeling of weightlessness, as if it is floating from the wall. Thornley built the structure and used materials to precisely suit his concept of form and scale, whereas for Hotere the boxes themselves were significant and dictated the final size and shape.

A couple of months after the book had been published, I was climbing Te Aroha in the Waikato thinking about what the publication meant to me. I was on my second or third ascent for the Summit Challenge to raise funds for the Himalayan Trust and still had thousands of metres to achieve my goal. Rather than think about the pain and exhaustion, I had plenty of time to consider the book project but, as I climbed, I found that I was feeling quite emotional – and it wasn’t just the thought of having to summit another time. I realised how incredibly grateful I am because without the generosity of so many people, both friends and colleagues, my involvement in this book would never have been possible. I have worked in conservation a long time, but without the collaborative opportunities to carry out in-depth research, I would not have been able to piece together the trends that I was seeing or dig down to clarify hunches, all of which have enabled me to contribute so much more. I hope that this book, which is on sale now, will enable a broader understanding of how conservators not only care for and treat art but also contribute to its appreciation, and that the next generation of conservators will also be nurtured and given opportunities as I was.

1. Interview with Ralph Hotere and Mary Macfarlane, Sacred Heart Home, Dunedin, 18 July 2010.

2. Gregory O’Brien, Hotere: Out the Black Window: Ralph Hotere’s Work with New Zealand Poets, Godwit Publishing, Auckland, p 21.

3. Sarah Hillary (ed), Modern Paints Aotearoa, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland, 2014.

Shop online