Friday 5 August 2022

In A Wizard's Garden.

In The Wizard’s Garden: George Dunlop Leslie, 1904

IT ALL SEEMS so long ago now, and, to be fair, in human terms, 48 years is a long time. New Zealand was a different country in 1974. Someone unafraid of courting controversy might say it had achieved “Peak Pakeha”. Although the Labour Government of Norman Kirk had struck out boldly in the direction of a truly independent foreign policy: recognising “Red China”, and sending a New Zealand frigate to “observe” (but really to protest) the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll, this was still a very “European” place. In the South Island, particularly, the two largest cities – Christchurch and Dunedin – had been built to look as though they were founded in the Middle Ages – not the mid-Nineteenth Century.

Born and bred in the South Island, I had not been back there since 1969, when the family moved to Heretaunga in the Hutt Valley. Barely 18, and in search of – well, I wasn’t quite sure – I boarded the Union Steamship Company’s inter-island express steamer, the TEV Rangatira, and sailed south to Lyttleton. Yes, that’s right, Lyttelton. Forty-eight years ago it was still profitable to run a ferry service a wee bit further than Picton. I’ve seen many beautiful places since that journey in 1974, but none of them could match for sheer wonder sailing up Lyttelton Harbour on a brisk Autumn morning, as the sun came up behind the Rangatira’s stern and bathed the hills and houses in a magical golden light.

Magical, yes, that’s the word. Magic is what this essay is about. The magic of art and memory.

It was on that journey south, in the autumn of 1974, that I first encountered George Dunlop Leslie’s mysterious painting, “In The Wizard’s Garden”. It was hanging in the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, situated behind the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch’s splendid Botanic Gardens. Leslie’s painting stopped me in my tracks. The room in which it hung was deathly quiet, I was the only person in it, and I felt myself drawn to it like Edmund and Lucy in C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. The melancholic gaze of the young woman, the painting’s principal subject, held me spellbound. Who was she? Where was she? And who was the dark figure striding through the garden’s narrow gate?

I can’t remember registering the artist’s name. If I did, then I soon forgot it. But the painting itself, its eerie stillness and its disconcerting sense of menace – that I did not forget. Passing through Christchurch many times in the latter half of the 1970s, I always made a point of making my way to that quiet room, and to the half-sad, half-challenging gaze of the young woman in the garden, and the dark figure who kept her there.

Until the day came when I entered the room and found Leslie’s painting had been replaced by another. Not unusual, of course, for art galleries to rotate the works in their collections, but I was devastated. “In The Wizard’s Garden” had become a kind of talisman, a corporeal reminder of a time in my life when magic seemed very close. It’s removal struck me as both a judgement and an instruction: time to put away childish things. But, the child in me preferred Leonard Cohen’s poetry:

Magic is afoot
It cannot come to harm
It rests in an empty palm
It spawns in an empty mind
But Magic is no instrument
Magic is the end

And so the years passed, and New Zealand changed, and I changed with it. Magic seemed very far away indeed in the narrower and more materialistic nation we had become. If I thought of the painting at all, it was only as a symbol of what had been lost. Our culture had become much less European and much more global in its focus. This was thought to be a good thing. A better thing, though, was the indigenous culture of the Māori, unfurling from the cracks in the colonisers’ concrete, and shimmering with a magic all its own.

And then, just a few weeks ago, I saw it. No more than a tiny circle of colour beside Lynda Clark’s Twitter handle, but the human brain is a marvellous thing and mine instantly recognised the sad figure of the young woman in the red dress. Not hesitating for a moment, I messaged Lynda and shared with her my longstanding fascination with the image she had chosen. Turns out I wasn’t the only person enchanted by Leslie’s painting: Lynda, too, had visited it whenever she could, transfixed, like me, by the young woman’s soulful gaze.

It was Lynda who supplied me with the artists name and the painting’s title. (I had thought it was called “The Magician’s Garden” – which was close, but not close enough for Google Images!) With the correct details, the Internet flooded me with images and information.

According to the Christchurch Art Gallery:

“In response to the adverse impacts and uncertainties of the industrial age, many late Victorian and Edwardian British artists were drawn to somewhat escapist historical or literary themes. Lavishly displaying this tendency, George Dunlop Leslie’s In the Wizard’s Garden was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1904, and in New Zealand at the 1906–07 Christchurch International Exhibition. Because the painting puzzled visitors, Leslie was asked for an explanation of its meaning. Its unhappy subject was a young medieval noblewoman who had sought an alchemist or wizard’s guidance to discover the secrets of the future. The theme originated from American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappacini’s Daughter’, a macabre tale featuring a garden filled with poisonous plants. The setting of the painting was, however, English rather than Italian: it is known to be based on Leslie’s own garden in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. London-based, former Dunedin merchant Wolf Harris, a friend of many leading artists, bought the work almost as soon as it arrived in Christchurch and then gifted it to the Canterbury Society of Arts.”

The secrets of the future, ah yes, that is the stuff of wizardry. For me, however, the joy of being able to look again into the wizard’s garden served only to unlock memories of the past. Like the works of those Victorian and Edwardian artists among whom Leslie’s skills shone so brightly, the New Zealand of 1974 strikes me now as an elaborate lie, designed to protect its Pakeha inhabitants from the “impacts and uncertainties” of their inescapably Pacific destiny.

The Christchurch I arrived in that autumn morning in 1974 is no more, shaken to bits by the constantly moving tectonic plates upon which Aotearoa does its best to stand upright. “God is alive, magic is afoot”, wrote Leonard Cohen. “It moves from hand to hand”. And it is moving now. Perhaps, in her half-sad, half-challenging way, the young woman in the wizard’s garden is urging us to step, finally, beyond its enchanted walls, and discover who, and where, we really are.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 5 August 2022.


greywarbler said...

I don't look to the Wizard for magic, I look to Terry Pratchett. He had magic grow in his brain and it bloomed for decades and many Discworld and other novels before his style of dementia took over. Even when it was beginning to debilitate him he found a way to bring forward his latest through friends. As he dealt with his advancing illness he galvanised others to do something definite for alzheimers sufferers, previously neglected. Magic, can be built out of imagination, and outcomes can be directed from possibilities with a feeling of accomplishment working with good-minded others committed to the same results. That would be satisfying at least.

In this country it might be that we need to develop an idea that can be managed as if we were building a polity for Ankh-Morpork. Our past seems to have been irretrievably lost. We need to start a Movement to Re-Imagine NZ/Aotearoa from the tattered thing it has become.

David George said...

Thought provoking essay. No wonder the pensive expression - that's Waititi coming through the gate with God knows what mad plans for your future.

Chris: "discover who, and where, we really are"

"people don’t tend to talk much about their ‘identity’ unless it is under threat. The louder you have to talk about it, the more you have lost. Once an entire country is talking about nothing else, that’s a pretty good sign that the Machine has sprayed the roots of its people with Roundup and ploughed the remains into the field.

‘Our age is so poisoned by lies’, wrote Weil, ‘that it converts everything it touches into a lie.’ Everything deeper, older and truer than the workings and values of the Machine has been, or is in the process of being, scoured away from us. We turned away from a mythic, rooted understanding of the world, and turned away from the divine, in order to look at ourselves reflected in the little black mirrors in our hands. Some people are quite happy with this, and have no time for Romantic Luddites like myself when we lament it. Even we Romantic Luddites are here on the Internet, lamenting. But some day soon we will all have to look up and begin to turn back again. I have a feeling that this process has already begun."

Odysseus said...

It is indeed a wonderful painting and its sense of foreboding is entirely appropriate for our present times. Many things have changed around us both since the mid 70s and not always for the better. The high-points perhaps have been the advances in medical science and lifespans, as well as mega events such as the collapse of Soviet communism. But now everything seems under threat again, particularly from the so-called "progressives", the modern brownshirts. One can only take one's bearings from what is within. As the Oracle at Delphi says, "Know Thyself", "Nothing to Excess", and the clincher, "Certainty Brings Insanity". I don't know what she was smoking but the Pythia rocks.

greywarbler said...

Thinking about Jack's magic beans and the story behind. Jack and his mother were poor and they had to sell their cow perhaps to pay the rent. Jack is naive and not adept at thinking hard about problems, actions and consequences. So he is a doozy for some smart con artist selling what he claims are magic beans. The mother recognises that they are inadequate to deal with her immediate problem which has worsened because of Jack's action. The beans are thrown on the ground where they might come to something, though they are unsure of exactly what.

Then wonders! - a thick and fast-growing green monster of a stalk reaches up into the dim reaches of the sky and Jack, full of beans or something, hares off up it and finds a great house with good things in it and proceeds to steal them. He is nearly caught by the owner, a giant, but it goes against the morality of the housekeeper to see the young feller harmed and she hides him from the owner. So he doesn't have to face up to his thefts and be punished.

End of story the mother and son live comfortably, respected by the community, on the income from stolen goods, so they are immoral. Their owner is deprived of his possessions which he enjoyed, the housekeeper who behaved morally in protecting Jack from harm probably suffered for helping Jack, who chopped the beanstalk so was unable to go back and offer her recompense. She lost her job as a result of Jack killing the Giant who fell with the severed beanstalk. This story is not a triumphant one of good over evil when unpicked eh.

And it is the story of the NZ Labour Party, living their comfortable lives, enjoying their ill-gotten gains, very sly having twocked* the Party from the originators, the lower income wage workers and strugglers.

* Over the last decade or so, twoc, an acronym of Taken Without Owner's Consent, has been used as an alternative way of describing the concept of joyriding, stealing a car and driving it for pleasure, usually in a dangerous way. Twoc is an informal transitive verb which has found official recognition in, among others, the Compact Oxford...

greywarbler said...

Reading Terry Pratchett it occurs to me that it is really zany but written so that there are threads of joined-up thinking in it that bind it to reality here and there, and the rest of Discworld life is able to move fairly fluidly around, like a helium balloon that is still tied to the earth and can be hauled in for inspection.

Compared to the reality (supposed)that I read or hear about, no tv, every day it actually seems very similar. I think we need to stop pretending that we think logically and rationally in straight lines or nearly. Time to admit that we make up our history regularly after we have rationalised the latest permutations. That could add a much-needed prismatic view of the politics we should aim for for the latter part of the 21st century.

'Imagination is funny, it makes a cloudy day sunny' is a truism. Pratchett on the dimensions of the Unseen University is similar to the Tardis of Dr Who.
'Unseen University was much bigger on the inside. Thousands of years as the leading establishment of practical magic in a world where dimensions were largely a matter of chance in any case had left it bulging in places where it shouldn't have places. There were rooms containing rooms which, if you entered them, turned out to contain the room you'd started with, which can be a problem if you are in a conga line.'

Perhaps Canterbury's earthquake disaster of the CTV collapsing is an example of our present dysfunctional system. Perhaps if it had been built like a
Hundertwasser building it would have lasted through as others did.

Shane McDowall said...

New Zealand was going to become the "Switzerland of the South Pacific" thanks to the brilliance of Milton Friedman.

Farming was a "sunset industry". I note that farming, in particular dairying, is all that props up our economy. Dairy is to New Zealand what mining is to Australia.

We sold off state assets for a handful of free market magic beans. I note that the beanstalk leading us to Switzerland status has manifestly failed to materialise.

The Act Party and a chunk of National remind me of the Japanese soldiers still fighting the Second World War in the 1970s.

Nothing like a bloody minded refusal to face up to the reality that Friedmanism has been a disaster for all but the wealthiest decile.

greywarbler said...

Examples of amazing design that are the opposite to the prison-type chicken coops being built in NZ now by the financial Dr Frankensteins here.
keywords for google: hundertwasser designs in building
Here are 12 -

Chris Morris said...

I also remember the Christcurch to Wellington Ferry. I think we did 4 trips on it. It was the Cooks and Stewards union that killed it. I also remember a trip on the shopping train that came into town. Full of mothers and young children - to give them several hours in town in the middle of the day. There was also the electric passenger trains from Christchurch to the port. Those lasted until the mid-70s from memory. But then there were also the West Coast railcars and the Southerner using the station as well. That closing of the railways was a big change to the centre of town. All those shops down the south side between the station and the square rapidly got dilapidated. The earthquake did allow that redevelopment that would never have happened otherwise.
Greywarbler - CTV survived the first quake. I should never have been reopened as the damage was known about. The reason for that has never been satisfactorily explained. That previous damage was the problem. Go back and read the actual engineers' analyses. The public's commentary about CTV was written by people that didn't understand what they were writing about.

Is there any particular reason why you spelt Lyttelton the way you did, or was your spellchecker at fault? I notice mine gets it wrong.

greywarbler said...

A point from Shane McDowall about us planning to be the Switzerland of the south. That is a very interesting country, very practical in their behaviour, and not easy-peasy as we seem to be at core, and not a great sense of humour. And they are concentrated and committed to doing the right thing for them. We seem more wild west, rip-snort-and bust.

So our 'Switzerland-style' was based around getting rich people to park their money with us on the quiet, but also another thing, to raise our GST to wealthy Swiss levels of 15% (when I was there in 70's) but at the same time set in place reduction in wages, brought competition for low-paid jobs from poorer countries, and got rid of unions in the main. Finished off I think by disgust at the contretemp over the Bank of NZ building left as a skeleton for about 3 years by the unionised workers in metal construction.

Chris Morris mentions the Cooks and Stewards Union and the too frequent strikes often at school holidays which cast the whole union system in a bad light. Because they had good pay and long holidays where they could work in their own business or farm at home; and got free transport to work from anywhere in NZ.
Also they were anti democratic and became a closed shop so that they were a protected elite.

And that second quake damage to CTV had slipped my mind thanks. But underlines the fact that our so-called good, modern systems and practices, so precise we are told, are not reliable at all. We are not advancing in any way I think. There's got to be change, better if it is thought out, rather than forced on us with hurried, make-do responses that become the new paradigm.

Chris Morris said...

If you go back to the papers between the two Christchurch earthquakes, you will see there were lots of protests about the buildings being demolished because of damage in the first one. No doubt that played on the minds of those making the assessments. Invariably, the major factor leading to systems and practices failures are human error. That has to be addressed. With regards to the first lots of buildings demolished, I would wager none of those protesters want to be reminded of their actions - more human error.
CTV was a very badly designed building but the reason for it being there and occcupied on the day of the 2nd earthquake is from a whole series of bad decisions - not just one mistake. It is very likely that problems still exist in a lot of other infrastructure - main streets of most NZ provincial towns is a good example. NZ can't afford to replace it all. Maybe we just have to live with risk