Monday, September 16, 2013

Commercial art no longer a crime

A guest post by Peter Alsop

In 1951, artist Denis K. Turner was fined 10 shillings, plus another 10 for costs, for painting on a Sunday. The crime wasn’t art; it was commercial art. It was illegal for a ‘tradesperson’ (as distinct from a ‘professional’) to work within view of a public place on a Sunday and, much to Turner’s dismay, the judge deemed his mural for a Karangahape Road motorcycle shop ‘an advertisement rather than valuable as a work of art’.

Dennis Turner's History of Transport mural

While the Turner example is at the extreme, commercial art has long been in the arts gutter; frowned upon as tainted with trade, a sell-out to capitalism or a last gasp for B-grade artists struggling to sell landscapes at the local art fair. Even highly accomplished artists avoided signing commercial work, keen on a ‘cheque’ but trying to avoid reputation loss from the tainted trade.

Billboard design (original artwork), Hillman Hunter, Railways Studios, c.1968, Collection of Peter Alsop

Such adverse perspectives on commercial art come mostly, of course, from those well-skilled in putting art in different boxes with different labels, some apparently automatically finer than others. But is it really a surprise that an art fraternity, founded upon historical definitions of ‘good taste’, would degrade commercial art – unsuited to exhibition slots and glossy catalogues – and instead direct its hyperbole on a ‘sophisticated’ audience elsewhere? Clean white walls. A modernist teak desk. Great jacket – Crane Brothers? Spotlights – just tilt that one a little to the left please … that’s it. Provenance. Oil on canvas. A signature work. Did you see the review? What about the Les and Milly Paris Collection?

The Public Art Gallery and invitation-only dealer gallery are a far cry from the unpredictable, distracted ambience within which commercial art often goes to work. Amongst poles and wires and other viewing limitations, posters and billboards must quickly engage and impress, and turn a split-second glance into something meaningful … and absorbable. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, being sufficiently persuasive and memorable to later finish the job. Is it any wonder that early advertisers trumpeted the ‘spirit of the poster’?

Spirit of the poster, Chandler & Co, c.1930, Auckland Libraries 7-C1802

Of course, things changed in the mid-late 1950s with the emergence of Pop art – a celebration of art and advertising; art confessing it was an advert or at least embracing advertising as prime content. Pop art would quickly become some of the most revered art in the world and, both at the time and since, in New Zealand as well. However, while Pop art did commercial art some favours, it also underscored that context is (apparently) everything. It is not an artwork itself that determines value, but who approves of it and in what setting – an art gallery versus a local run-down dairy; canvas or paper; or framed for exhibition or in a comic book or magazine. It is not enough to be a great artist; one has to be a great artist at the right time in the right place, comments from the ‘right’ commentators, the ‘right’ critics and the ‘best’ galleries. Pop art made it acceptable for an art gallery to receive, measure and approve of such work, even though its fundamental existence was often owed to a large number of unheralded artists working in a different genre. (Lichtenstein’s use of comic images by other artists being a well-documented example.)

Outside the gallery, art historian Warren Feeney has argued that
a more generous consideration of the history of New Zealand art would acknowledge that, although its purpose may differ, commercial art has played an important role in the country’s cultural development, even anticipating radical advances in the fine arts or, at the very least, reflecting shifts in contemporary art in the popular media. The fine arts have been fortunate to share a reciprocal relationship with commercial art – an arts practice that exists beyond the confines of the space of the gallery, readily and eagerly finding its way into the wider community, and growing potential audiences for the fine arts. [1]
That Feeney’s perspective is revisionist is surprising – to put it kindly – and it reflects poorly on the scope, generosity and accuracy of New Zealand’s present art history. The visual arts clearly have had, and will always have, a far wider influence on us than just the clean white space of the gallery. The interplay of fine and commercial art has also been much more extensive than typically acknowledged.

At the top of the pile, Colin McCahon was (in his own words) clearly influenced by commercial art during his early years in Dunedin:
The hairdresser had his window painted with HAIRDRESSER AND TOBACCONIST. Painted in gold and black on a stippled red ground, the lettering large and bold, with shadows, and a feeling of being projected right through the glass and across the pavement. I watched the work being done and fell in love with signwriting. The grace of the lettering as it arched across the window in gleaming gold, suspended on its dull red field but leaping free from its own black shadow, pointed to a new and magnificent world of painting. … I suppose my present glad acceptance of Pop Art is in some way related to this experience. [2]
(McCahon was also reportedly [3] influenced by a Rinso packet for The King of the Jews (1947). His mural designs for oil-giant Caltex are further commercially-influenced works. [4])

Rinso, Unknown artist, c.1950, Collection of Windmill Books

Rita Angus (then Cook) was also not immune from commercial influence (quite aside from her own graphic bookplate and cartoons). Christchurch Art Gallery note that ‘[Louise] Henderson and Angus developed a strikingly similar style, most obviously in their use of defined shapes, blocks of strong colour and a clear pervading light’ [5] – a familiar sounding style to this story. And as for potential commercial influences on her celebrated self-portrait of sophisticated independence, there were likely many. It hasn’t, though, been fashionable to celebrate such commercial foreplay, particularly not with an artist as fine as Rita Angus.

ATM Cigarettes, Gilbert Meadows, c.1933, Collection of Ron Meadows

William McCahon also recalls [6] his father’s like of Disney’s Donald Duck cartoonist, Carl Barks, and his combination of words and images – who would have thought? And, furthermore, that his father stated that Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1959) evolved out of the comic book format (often regarded as a form of commercial art). And then there is scale: McCahon’s 1959 Northland Panels, panelled like a comic strip, breaking free from the small scale of New Zealand painting up until that time [7]… except that is for the large hand-painted billboards that had graced the streets and countryside of New Zealand for many decades (even if ignored as serious art works).

Painting billboards, Railways Studios, c.1958, Collection of Alan Love

Billboards weren’t, however, ignored altogether. Almost as soon as giant posters and hoardings appeared, complaints arose regarding their visual pollution. A surprise defender – including interestingly of their artistic merit – was the Prince of Wales:
I do not for a moment believe industrial and artistic development are necessarily antagonistic. ... Our Hoardings might now be called without exaggeration the art galleries of the great public. [8]
The Duke of York would also speak of ‘the prestige of poster advertising’. [9]

While a number of companies produced hand-painted advertisements – recognising of course the limitations of printing technology at the time – for around 70 years the design studio of the Government’s Railways Department dominated outdoor advertising in New Zealand; a fact that takes many by surprise. Some of the stories of the Railways Studios are recounted in Promoting Prosperity (my own essay, ‘Pulling Power: Railways Advertising’). In an interview for the book, Ross Ritchie – now a respected post-Modern painter – started his apprenticeship at 15 and, despite feeling in prison at times, was
very, very glad for the experience. It whet my appetite about painting … It ingrained the skills. But it was broad enough and unstyled enough to not interfere once I got into the serious thing of making art. [10]
Even (former) commercial artists, it seems, create their own distinctions.

Outdoor Advertising, Railways Studios, 1936-37, Railways Magazine, Collection of Peter Alsop

However one might draw the definitional lines, arts commentators Jim Barr and Mary Barr say it all while saying a little:
Advertising and promotion have produced some of New Zealand's most dynamic and entertaining imagery but our art history has mostly ignored it as a source of either insight or information. 
It's high time that changed.

1. Warren Feeney, ‘High Art: The Fine Art of Commercial Art’ in Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart and Dave Bamford, Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2012, p. 73.
2. Marja Bloem and Martin Browne, Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, first published by Craig Potton Publishing and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 2002, p. 160. Available at
6. Personal communication with Warren Feeney, February 2013, related to his research for Gruesome! The Influence of Comics on Contemporary New Zealand Artists, 1999, p. 6. Published by McDougall Art Annex, feature essay Born Under a Bad Sign by Warren Feeney. Source reference for William McCahon’s comments: Wham, bam: striking a blow for art by Micheal Hewitson, The New Zealand Herald, 7 September 1995, Section 4, p. 1.
7. Gordon H. Brown, New Zealand Painting 1940–1960 Conformity and Dissension. Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, Wellington, 1981.
10. Endorsement of Promoting Prosperity, printed in the book.

Cover image: Edward Cole, c.1930, Alexander Turnbull Library C-151-001

This blog is dedicated to the late Ian Scott – 1945-2013. Comfortable himself with commercial art as both influence and subject matter, Scott painted a large number of commercially-inspired works, two of my favourites below (with permission from Scott's family, and with acknowledgement of Warwick Brown's 1997 book, Ian Scott (Marsden Press)).
Ian Scott, 1978, John Daley (from Warwick Brown’s 1997 book Ian Scott, Marsden Press)

Hairdresser and Tobacconist, Ian Scott, 1988, Acrylic and enamel on canvas, 1830x4260m, Collection of James Wallace Arts Trust

The Drink Drive Painting, Ian Scott, 1993, Acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 1980x3960m

A little note from me, seeing as this is the first guest post I’ve run. Peter is the co-author, along with designer Gary Stewart, of Promoting Prosperity, a book on the significance of early commercial art in New Zealand art and social history. Their previous title, Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, was – for reasons that should be entirely obvious to readers of this blog – one of my favourite books of last year . You can read another of Peter’s essays and view a gallery of images from Selling the Dream at Public Address, where he’s also written about the new book.
Promoting Prosperity is launching next month and is also available from the book’s website (with a 10% discount, and free shipping within New Zealand.) Go buy it.