The Pleasure Garden Incident -- as it's known to history, like the title of a novel Robert Ludlum deemed too fruity for publication -- tore a mighty rift through Christchurch's art world of the late 1940s.
Following Frances Hodgkins's death in 1947, the British Council sent six of her late works to the Canterbury Society of Arts for exhibition and potential purchase. Nearly three years of ridiculous argy-bargy ensued, as a battle was fought over the purchase of a single work, the Pleasure Garden. The progressive and conservative camps of the local art scene squared off against one another in public meetings and the correspondence pages of the newspaper, while the general public looked on with indignation and incredulity. The Garden City continues to use this method to conduct its cultural affairs: the Arts Centre's Heritage Carpark, anyone?
On the one side of the Pleasure Garden stoush were the go-ahead artists like Doris Lusk, Theo Schoon, Olivia Spencer Bower, Colin McCahon, and William Sutton, who wished the city to have the work. On the other were the keepers of what McCahon described in a vituperative letter to the paper as the 'three dead tombs of art' (the university's art school, the city's public art gallery, and the local art society); whose spokesperson, painting lecturer Cecil Kelly, suggested of Hodgkins's work that "The tone is not good. The colour is not good. And the composition is all over the place. A child could do it."
(Mind you, the progressive types were just as incendiary: one described the city's Robert McDougall Art Gallery as "a badly arranged museum of Victorian art ... that had died when photography came in", while another apostrophised Christchurch itself as a "curious and amusing backwater in the world of art".)
In yesterday's Press, Michael Vance looked at the incident in his 'The Way We Were' column, concluding that the row was not over one painting, but represented something much larger.
"It was the moment when cultural fogeyism, which had dominated Christchurch art since the colony's foundation, was first defeated, and, despite occasional stirrings, it has remained defeated."
And there we have it. Christchurch, New Zealand: free of cultural fogeyism since 1951.
As the Tui billboards would say... "yeah, right"
Canterbury fogeyism is one of New Zealand's cultural treasures. A rich potting mix for great art from Christchurch. So keep the aspidistra flying.
I think you're absolutely right about that Chris. Such a very odd place, which continues to produce more than its fair share of important artists. Something in the artesian water perhaps; or more probably in the culture, which is still a frontier town, really.
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