The Awesome and The Sublime

A new book on Grahame Sydney is far beyond what any public gallery could mount. The Sunday Star Times. 01 February 2015. Written by Hamish Keith.

This book celebrates the life, the work and the landscape of a singular New Zealand artist. With some 230 beautifully printed plates it offers a survey of Grahame Sydney’s work far beyond what any public gallery could mount. There are no surprises here. Sydney’s imagery is a consistent exploration of the Otago landscape and has been for all of those four decades.

The book is substantial in its content and in its size, weighing in at a hefty two and a half kilograms. A magnificent size for the images, but more than a bit daunting for the two essays – Vincent O’Sullivan’s thorough account of the painter’s stylistic career and the artists own autobiography. These essays are brilliant and must be read. They could, perhaps, have been boxed as a more manageable separate volume.

Sydney’s own account of his life is one of the best of an archetypical New Zealand childhood I have ever read – well, of an Otago childhood, (which, slightly earlier, I and the artist had in common). It is also a splendid tale of how amazing things can emerge from the most ordinary of circumstance. And of course, like all satisfying stories of a happy childhood, it ends with the arrival of a fairy godfather – in this case a man in a suit from Auckland with a chequebook – the art dealer Peter Webb.

Nothing enriches a culture more than continuity. There could be no better exemplar of that in our own Grahame Sydney. In 40 years of unrelenting commitment to a place and in the larger continuity to which his painting belongs. Sydney’s work is a patient and passionate exploration of place – the vast and awesome landscape of Central Otago.

Awesome in this context, is not a tween expression of amazement, but a spiritual characteristic of landscape that has moved artists since landscape painting began. Sublime – another of these – is a word Vincent O’Sullivan restores to its proper place in his fine essay on Sydney’s work. Both concepts are the cornerstone of Pantheism – the definition of the Divine in Nature.

It is no accident that these two threads – the Awesome and the Sublime – run through almost all the years of Sydney’s work that this book records. They are not ideas foreign to New Zealand art. The Romantic ideas of Divinity in Nature, in everything but name, continue through the history of New Zealand art.

One of the pioneer founders of painting in Otago, William Mathew Hodgkins, father of Frances, in his youth studied the magnificent collection of drawings J M W Turner had gifted to the British nation. Hodgkins promoted those ideas in Dunedin and espoused them as a prescription for New Zealand landscape painting.

Sydney did not find these ideas at an art school, in fact he suspected with good reason that he would find nothing of use to him or his art there.

Stimulated by regionalist painters in the United States and Canada, he found them in his own landscape.

Perhaps as importantly he found a technique, one of the most demanding – egg tempera – which he taught himself – which ideally suited his particular vision and his particular landscape.