60 Makers of New Zealand: 1930-1990: is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery from 24 November 2011 to 12 February 2012. It was curated by Brian Easton.
Keywords: Literature and Culture; Political Economy & History;
This exhibition is an experiment to see whether a history of New Zealand can be represented by a series of portraits. The period it covers is often seen as one of great change and transformation, beginning with the Great Depression, struggling through the Second World War, followed by post-war affluence and change until the verities of the age were challenged at its end. Other than the land, few things remained the same; even the All Blacks, that exemplar of amateur sport, were drifting towards professionalism.
All the nuances of the period could not be captured in a limited exhibition, and each curator or visitor would have their own choices. But it has been important to include not only the key players but also some of the key changes transforming New Zealand.
Although very proud to be a New Zealander, I have not chosen to present a triumphalist account of New Zealand. Indeed the last two portraits deliberately raise questions of success and failure. Nor is every one of the sixty my choice of a dining companion, although the portraits frequently suggest there is more character to the man or woman than the public image allows.
When the portraits were put in order of date of birth (with a few exceptions) I found they were telling a story of the development of New Zealand, as the accompanying panels expand. I hope especially, those who were to young to remember most of the period, will come away with an appreciation of what happened and of some of those who made it happen.
Something we learned from the exhibition is that New Zealand’s portrait record is erratic. We have had, and have, some excellent portrait artists, and some terrific portraits. But in the course of looking for suitable images we found some severe lacuna. Why is unclear. Perhaps it is that we are over modest, perhaps many do not appreciate that a good portrait adds something that a snapshot cannot. The director of the gallery, Avenal McKinnon, has done a marvellous job of identifying so many portraits – often filling the gaps with imaginative alternatives. I am very grateful for her initiative, energy and support and for those who have loaned us their part of New Zealand’s precious heritage. Most of all I am grateful to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery for presenting me with such an interesting challenge.
Brian Easton is an economist and public intellectual, one of whose books The Nationbuilders covers the same period as the exhibition.
Know someone you would like a proper portrait of? Be they nationally significant or just significant to you, leave your name and contact details at the desk, and the New Zealand Portrait Gallery will make some suggestions of artists you might approach.