Van der Velden: Otira

Petrus van der Velden Mount Rolleston and the Otira River 1893. Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1965

Petrus van der Velden Mount Rolleston and the Otira River 1893. Oil on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1965

A first encounter with a painting by Petrus van der Velden more than twenty years ago was the start of many years of research for Gallery curator Peter Vangioni. Peter is the lead author of the Gallery's new book on van der Velden, and talks here of his fascination with the artist's Otira works.

Some time during the late 1980s a few mates and myself drove our rattly old Honda Civic hatchback into Arthur's Pass to climb Avalanche Peak via Crow Stream in the southern shadow of Mount Rolleston. The trip was a complete disaster due to a severe southerly storm that hit the area just as we began our tramp. The DOC ranger at Arthur's Pass recommended we cancel the climb, but at the invincible age of nineteen we naïvely thought we could easily manage the ascent, and pushed on. We were on the opposite side of Mount Rolleston to the Otira River, but the mountain dominated the entire trip, looming over us in the rain and snow and occasionally allowing us a glimpse of its peaks. We ended up trapped in the Crow hut for two nights before the storm cleared enough for us to make our escape back through the valley the way we had come. This included two seriously perilous crossings of the swollen Waimakariri river and to this day I still shudder at our foolishness (hearing the muffled sounds of rocks being carried down the river bed by the torrent, my legs feeling like they were about to give way to the force of the river's flow).

Later that year I went to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery for the first time, to see the Andy Warhol screenprint (I was the drummer in an obscure garage band heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground and Warhol's Factory). I found myself instead standing in front of Petrus van der Velden's Mount Rolleston and the Otira River, reliving my tramp up the creek bed beneath the mountain. I found I had a far stronger connection with this work than I did with the Warhol print, and even now I remain thankful every time I see van der Velden's painting, with its turbulent rushing waters over the broad rocky river bed while the darkest of storm clouds hang threateningly above the valley—very much the same weather we experienced at the junction of the Crow and Waimakariri rivers all those years ago.

The Otira Gorge and Arthur's Pass region is as spectacular today as it was when Petrus van der Velden first visited it in January 1891—a watershed moment, not only for the artist's career but also for the history of New Zealand art. Van der Velden's paintings of the Otira Gorge remain to this day some of the most powerful and emotive works to have been produced in New Zealand and have appealed to generations of art audiences since they were first painted 120 years ago.

In 1891 Otira was a must-see destination for any visitor to the country, a justifiable reputation that was enhanced by numerous accounts of the dramatic coach ride along the steep and narrow road. Awe-struck travellers related tales of the surrounding majestic mountains, the thunderous roar of falling water that reverberates throughout the Gorge, particularly when it rains, and the dense primeval bush that covers the mountain slopes. Many published descriptions from the late nineteenth century expounded the Victorian notion that to experience pure nature, untouched and unsullied by human hands, brought one into closer communication with God—a notion that appealed to van der Velden's thoughts on spirituality. His tempestuous visions of the Otira Gorge reveal his deeply personal ideas about God, nature and art:

Colour is light, light is love and love is God and therefore on Sundays instead of going to church I teach my children drawing after nature. I have come to the conclusion that painting and drawing after nature, instead of being a luxury is the most necessary for the education of man ... The aim is the most necessary for the education of man ... The aim of our existence is nothing else than to study nature and with so doing to understand more and more how grand and pure nature is.1

Petrus van der Velden A waterfall in the Otira Gorge 1891. Oil on canvas. Collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery, purchased 1893

Petrus van der Velden A waterfall in the Otira Gorge 1891. Oil on canvas. Collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery, purchased 1893

Van der Velden's first trip to Otira took place over January and February 1891, when he spent six weeks based at the George Dyer Hotel. His major Otira motif, that of a mountain stream, was developed out of his experiences on this visit, and his masterpiece A waterfall in the Otira Gorge was an undisputed success when shown at the annual exhibitions of the Canterbury, Auckland and Otago art societies in 1891 and 1892. The reviews he received suggest that van der Velden had made his mark on New Zealand's fledgling art scene. Comments such as 'The pride of the exhibition', 'the best picture of its kind [to have been] shown in Auckland' and 'the great feature of this year's exhibition' highlight the accolades he received at the time for this painting.2 Van der Velden had secured his position as one of the country's leading artists. Establishing his reputation even further was the £300 pounds paid for the above painting by the Otago Art Society, an unprecedented amount for a New Zealand painting at the time.

Van der Velden returned to Otira for a second visit in the winter of 1893. During this trip he developed his second Otira motif, that of Mount Rolleston, a view taken from in front of the George Dyer Hotel at the foot of the Gorge where the Otira and Rolleston rivers converge. As with his mountain stream series, van der Velden completed numerous versions of this motif, varying the atmospheric conditions from darkened stormy skies and flooded rivers to less turbulent scenes with the sun setting over the ranges to the west. With an almost obsessive zeal, he returned to them again and again throughout the early 1890s, exploring compositional and tonal variations.

In 1912, van der Velden returned to the Otira again, at least in his studio. He completed several studies of the mountain stream motif that ultimately led to his last major painting. Now in his twilight years, he had come to the realisation that the Otira series was one of his major achievements as an artist. This is clearly evident in Self-portrait with Otira background, completed just three weeks before he died, in which the artist pays modest homage to himself and his Otira works, proclaiming to the world the importance he places on his Otira paintings above all his other work from his long career.

Petrus van der Velden Self-portrait with Otira background 1913. Charcoal. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, bequeathed by Miss D.C. Bates, 1983

Petrus van der Velden Self-portrait with Otira background 1913. Charcoal. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, bequeathed by Miss D.C. Bates, 1983

Van der Velden: Otira brings together for the first time a comprehensive collection of the Otira paintings and drawings, including the masterpiece A waterfall in the Otira Gorge, which will be shown alongside lesser known examples based on his mountain stream motif as well as examples from the Mount Rolleston series. Collectively these works highlight the artist's single-minded approach to painting the Otira, exploring the range of variations in his compositions. Alongside these will be exhibited a selection of van der Velden's sketchbooks, drawings and his last major work, Otira Gorge (1912).

Artists who also worked at Otira, or have produced work influenced by van der Velden or his Otira motifs, will also be included. John Gibb, Charles Blomfield, Alfred Walsh, Margaret Stoddart as well as colonial photographers W.A. Taylor and the Burton Brothers will be shown alongside more contemporary artists such as Colin McCahon, Ann Shelton, Elliott Collins, Brenda Nightingale, Derek Henderson, Jason Greig, Rudolf Boelee, Andrew Drummond and the sound artists Torlesse Supergroup.

In 1997 I drove some friends from Chicago over the main divide via the Otira Gorge. Even from the comfort of our Nissan Sunny it was a revealing moment as we reached the top of gorge and began our descent into the ravine. The chatter fell to silence and there was a palpable sense of wonder at the dramatic landscape that was unfolding before us. I could also sense a little fear in our guests at the sheer drop over the side of the road. We stopped halfway down and were struck by the scale of the mountains that engulfed us—and not least the volume of the thunderous torrent crashing its way down the Gorge below us. This is a landscape that still inspires awe in much the same way as it did for van der Velden and his Victorian counterparts over 120 years ago.

Peter Vangioni

Curator

NOTES
-------
1. Quoted in T.L. Rodney Wilson, Petrus van der Velden (1837–1913): A Catalogue Raisonné, Sydney, 1979, pp.111–12.
2. In order: Lyttelton Times, 6 November 1891, p.5; 'Brother brush', The Observer, 19 March 1892, p.4; and The Otago Witness, 17 November 1892, p.15.

Appeared in
B.163
B.163

1 December 2010

Peter Vangioni

Curator

Peter's primary interest is in historical New Zealand art and printmaking however he also enjoys the opportunity to collaborate with contemporary artists on exhibitions. His ongoing research of the permanent collection often informs the Gallery's exhibition programme which he helps shape with the curatorial team. His interest in hand-printed books has led to the development of an artist's book collection in the Gallery's library.


Related

Exhibition
Van der Velden: Otira

Van der Velden: Otira

This exhibition brings together a comprehensive selection of Van der Velden's paintings portraying the wild, untouched natural beauty of the Otira region's mountainous landscape.

Exhibition
McCahon / Van der Velden

McCahon / Van der Velden

An exhibition of two of New Zealand's most respected painters.

Notes
Canterbury Landscape by Colin McCahon

Canterbury Landscape by Colin McCahon

In 2014 we purchased an important landscape work by Colin McCahon. Curator Peter Vangioni speaks about this new addition to Christchurch Art Gallery’s collection.

Collection
Nor'western Sky
Petrus van der Velden Nor'western Sky

“‘Colour is light’ and there is no darkness at all – there is light or less light. In each part, even the darkest, there is some light and the difficulty is to get the different kinds of light showing in even quite small parts. There are no hard lines in nature – the light shines in and round everything and breaks all the hardness by modifying and diffusing the apparently sharp edges.” —Petrus van der Velden

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Article
Gazumped

Gazumped

One of the exhibitions brought to a halt by the 22 February earthquake was De-Building, which critic Warren Feeney had described only days earlier as 'Christchurch Art Gallery's finest group show since it opened in 2003'. Seven months on, the show's curator, Justin Paton, reflects on random destruction, strange echoes, critical distance, and the 'gazumping of art by life'.

Interview
Otira: it's a state of mind

Otira: it's a state of mind

A short road trip to the Otira Gorge was the scene for a conversation between Gallery curator Peter Vangioni and two of the artists included in Van der Velden: Otira, Jason Greig and the Torlesse Supergroup's Roy Montgomery.

Exhibition
Coming Home in the Dark

Coming Home in the Dark

Fourteen artists with connections to the Mainland are represented in an exhibition that explores the dark underbelly of the region's genteel appearance.

Collection
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Colin McCahon As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land

‘As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land.’ Colin McCahon quoted this text often on works between the mid-1960s and early 1970s: he took it from the writings of a twelfth-century Japanese Buddhist monk, Shinran, who was the founder of a tradition known as Pure Land Buddhism. McCahon had long been interested in light as a metaphor both for faith and enlightenment, and had begun a related series of dramatic semi-abstract waterfall paintings in 1964, in which a curve of white light cleaved through darkness. Here the landscape element has been reduced to a simple horizon, a dividing line between sky and sea, or sky and land, at the very edge of vision. (March 2018)

Collection
Light falling through a dark landscape (A)
Colin McCahon Light falling through a dark landscape (A)

For the exhibition Untitled #1050 (25 November 2017 – 14 October 2018) this work was displayed with the following label:

“As a painter I may often be more worried about you than you are about me and if I wasn’t concerned I’d not be doing my work properly as a painter. Painting can be a potent way of talking.

“Do you believe in the sunrise?

“My painting year happens first in late winter and early spring. I paint with the season and paint best during the long hot summers. I prefer to paint at night or more especially in the late summer afternoons when, as the light fades, tonal relationships become terrifyingly clear.

“At night I paint under a very large incandescent light bulb. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I am only now, and slowly, becoming able to paint in the morning. After a lifetime of working – farming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the Auckland City Art Gallery – I find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work-time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.”

—Colin McCahon, 1972

Collection
Burial in the winter on the island of Marken [The Dutch Funeral]
Petrus van der Velden Burial in the winter on the island of Marken [The Dutch Funeral]

Research for the exhibition Closer (16 December 2017 – 19 August 2018) resulted in the restoration of this work's orginal title. In Dutch 'Begrafenis in den winter op het eiland Marken' and in English 'Burial in the winter on the island of Marken'.

Collection
Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is
Colin McCahon Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is

In April 1958 Colin McCahon travelled to the US, responding both to the expansiveness of the American landscape and to the modern American painting that he saw in museums. On his return, his works increased in scale while economising in gesture: the landscape elements of Tomorrow have been reduced to a horizon and lowering sky, with the land bisected by a grey river. He converted his Titirangi garage into a studio, and built an extra bedroom for his children underneath. The studio was gloomy – there was only one small side window for light when the garage door was closed – but it precipitated dozens of new works. Tomorrow was an unfortunate painting, said McCahon, ‘in that it wouldn’t go right, and I got madder and madder. I hurled a whole lovely quart tin of black Dulux at the board and reconstructed the painting out of the mess.’ The black paint (a commercial flooring paint, mixed with sand) dripped down the surface of the work and ran between wide cracks in the studio floorboards, ruining clothes and bed linen in his sons’ room below. He finally finished the painting in May 1959.

(March 2018)

Collection
Van Gogh: Poems by John Caselberg
Colin McCahon Van Gogh: Poems by John Caselberg

Vincent van Gogh was an artist with whom McCahon strongly identified. He produced this suite of lithographs based on several poems about the troubled Dutch artist written by his close friend John Caselberg.

As an aside, van Gogh had met van der Velden in Holland on several occasions, and in 1883 wrote to his brother Theo of his admiration for the artist:

I met Van der V. once, and he made a good impression on me at the time. I was reminded of the character of Felix Holt [the main character in George Eliot's novel Felix Holt, The Radical, who favoured a life of working class poverty over the comforts afforded through the wealth within his reach]. There’s something broad and rough in him that pleases me greatly – something like the roughness of torchon [a rough-surfaced paper]. A man who evidently doesn’t seek civilization in outward things but is much further inwardly, much, much further than most people. In short, he’s a true artist, and I’d like to get to know him for I would trust him and I’m sure I would learn from him.

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Collection
Windmill by Moonlight
Petrus van der Velden Windmill by Moonlight

“The greatest of all lessons is to learn to see. Many are ‘colour blind’ till they have their eyes opened to nature’s lessons, which she is always trying to teach us. But we must always tell what nature says to us, simply and directly without pretence or falsehood. Tell the Truth. Christ was the greatest artist. His words and pictures are a simple telling of nature's lessons – they are always the Truth. ‘We reason with colours. Colours are dead’, but by telling what nature teaches us the dead colours enable us to express the wonders and beauties of the Creator’s work.”

—Petrus van der Velden

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Collection
Atmospheric Study, Sumner
Petrus van der Velden Atmospheric Study, Sumner

Petrus van der Velden valued the medium of drawing as highly as painting and was an extremely talented draughtsman. Spontaneously drawn outdoors directly before the subject, this small study shows Van der Velden’s interest in depicting dramatic, stormy atmospheric conditions with strong contrasts of light and dark. In the early 1890s, van der Velden and his family settled in Sumner, Christchurch where they stayed with the Van Asch family. Van der Velden immediately went about sketching in the region, and by the end of the year he had completed several major paintings based on Sumner scenes. Born in Rotterdam, van der Velden established himself as a painter, particularly of marine subjects, before he and his wife emigrated from Holland in 1890. He struggled to make a living in Christchurch, however, and moved to Sydney in 1898. He returned to settle in Wellington in 1904 and died in Auckland.

Collection
Mount Rolleston and the Otira River
Petrus van der Velden Mount Rolleston and the Otira River

Van der Velden described his first visit to the Otira Gorge: 'For the first three days I did nothing at all but just looked, it took my breath away.'

The lines between religion and art were blurred for van der Velden, and he often drew similarities between the two: 'There is as much nonsense talked about art as Jesus and because it's the same business nothing is understood. Tell the people sometime that Rembrandt and Jesus have the same meaning; how they would laugh, and yet it is true – Rembrandt made a study of light during his life, and Jesus did nothing else.'

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Collection
Blind V
Colin McCahon Blind V

The word ‘blind’ refers to a screen that cuts out light, but Colin McCahon also uses it to refer to an absence of vision. Questions of faith were important to McCahon and he often used references to blindness to suggest the inability to see the real essence and value of things. McCahon’s style was highly personal and distinctive. Blind V is part of a series of five works painted onto window blinds. The abstract forms have the feel of a beach and sky and it has been suggested that the ‘blindness’ which McCahon refers to was the inability of New Zealanders to really see and appreciate their own unique environment.

McCahon is regarded by many as New Zealand’s greatest contemporary artist. Born in Timaru, he studied art in Dunedin. He lived in Christchurch for a time, became keeper and assistant director at Auckland Art Gallery, then lecturer in painting at the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, before taking up painting full time in 1970.

Collection
Sumner
Petrus van der Velden Sumner

“Colour is light, light is love and love is God and therefore on Sundays instead of going to church I teach my children drawing after nature. I have come to the conclusion that painting or drawing after nature, instead of being a luxury is the most necessary for the education of man. […] The aim of our existence is nothing else than to study nature and with so doing to understand more and more how grand and pure nature is and gives evidence of so much love.”

—Petrus van der Velden

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Collection
Northland drawings
Colin McCahon Northland drawings

“Once more it states my interest in landscape as a symbol of place and also of the human condition. It is not so much a portrait of a place as such but is a memory of a time and an experience of a particular place.” —Colin McCahon

(McCahon / Van der Velden, 18 December 2015 – 7 August 2016)

Collection
Nor’western Sky
Petrus van der Velden Nor’western Sky

The hot, dry nor'west winds of Canterbury produce dramatic cloud formations and an atmospheric light. Petrus van der Velden has captured these effects with what is probably Christchurch's River Avon in the foreground. He lived near the river between 1890 and 1893. The colonial woman bent over, occupied with her task of work, has echoes of his earlier Dutch paintings, which focused on Dutch peasants at work. Van der Velden painted in a realist manner, which was influenced by his association with the Dutch Hague School of painters who favoured dark sombre tones and a loose style of brushwork. The nor'west scene is created by using strong contrasts of light and shade (chiaroscuro). Born in Rotterdam, Van der Velden established himself as a painter, particularly of marine subjects, in Holland, from where he emigrated in 1890. However, he struggled to make a living in Christchurch and in 1898 went to Sydney. He returned to settle in Wellington in 1904 but died in Auckland.