Friday 25 February 2011

Toss Woollaston

I have been a fan of Toss Woollaston’s art since I first encountered his watercolours at the Eric Scholes Gallery in Rotorua when I was a child. These 1960s drawings were luminous with bright, clear colour. I have never forgotten how impressed I was with them and I did not have an understanding then how exceptional Toss was as an artist. The hues were not the cuspy colours of his oil paintings, but pure pigment with an undercurrent of earthy tones.

Toss’s paintings from 1937 to 1940 have a tonality that I like to describe as masculine colour. The colour feels smudged with work and the earth. The portraits and the landscapes, both. One of Toss’s finest early landscapes is underknown. Unlike his postwar watercolours, this is a smudgy scene. All the watery tones are closely related and play about with ochre, umber, taupe green and tawny yellow.

This painting was a gift to the Gallery from Colin McCahon in 1961. Colin had met the older artist during 1936 when Toss held his first one-person show at Dunedin. Colin was 16, and Toss 26 years old. They instantly became close mates. Colin admired Toss’s art and said later that they were ‘wonderful and magnificent interpretations of a New Zealand landscape; clean, bright with New Zealand light, and full of air.’ As always, Colin hit the nail squarely. You can feel the air in The Artist’s house at Mapua. That title is not ironic it is strategic. He is laying claim to the land as his subject. This is the nationalist spirit, incarnate.

Colin went to stay at Mapua in 1937 for the fruit-picking season. In 1934, Toss had built a house out of mud brick and his cottage is the subject of this charcoal and watercolour landscape. Toss’s painting was made in 1939, it clearly shows how the shapes were first laid down using charcoal and then watercolour drawn over to fill each separate zones. Much care has been taken with the direction of the paint hatching within each zone, so that when colour accents are overlaid they increase our perception of depth. This quick and assured application of paint counterpoints his careful methods which appear to an untutored eye to be random but which are, in fact, carefully predetermined.

In The Far-away Hills, the memoir which the Friends of the Gallery commissioned in 1962, Toss wrote one of his clearest manifests ‘After a time the strident angularity of both the colours and shapes I had been using…began to seem inappropriate to the feeling I had for the landscape... I wished to paint the colour of sunlight – but after it had been absorbed into the earth.’

Toss Woollaston
The Artist’s house at Mapua, 1939
Charcoal and watercolour on paper
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki,
gift of Colin McCahon, 1961

1 comment:

Robert McCall said...

Nice article - a great NZ artist!