The exhibition is comprised of two rooms; the first covers the earlier years of Pauline's life and includes pencil sketches from when she was a child and graphic illustrations from when she worked for an ad agency in Hamilton, through to some small but very surreal paintings of the Waitomo Caves. It includes some of her earliest landscape paintings where she's experimenting with oil painting and watercolour aswell as sketch book drawings documenting her trip through Europe and Asia.
The second room covers the second part of her life, a 20-year period in which she becomes a mother and also has to undergo treatment for cancer. All of these events recorded in oils, ink studies, acrylic sketches, pencil drawings and etchings.
The idea to create this exhibition was inspired by a gallery visit from 19 women's studies students from Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, U.S.A. Pauline and Emma presented a 45 minute talk about the exhibition to the group, who were on a 4 week trip around New Zealand with Beth Hackett, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Nell Ruby, Associate Professor of Art.
The group were drawing on feminist theory and applied studio practices to explore how issues and images are “framed differently” in the US and New Zealand.
In June 1975 Alison Mitchell, also known as Allie Eagle – a central figure in the New Zealand woman’s art movement, wrote:
A basic premise needs to be established though, in order to understand the notion of a woman’s art: That is, that while there is in the country at least, as yet, very few stylistic differences between New Zealand women and men painters there are a great many cultural experiences and socio-economic factors that make them quite different.[i]
This notion is relevant to understand the dominance of male artists in New Zealand, and is an experience that in general, has been shared by woman artists in the Western world. As literature was gradually imported from feminist hubs in America, Britain and Australia during the 1970s/1980s, women in New Zealand became conscious of the inconsistencies in the critical treatment of their own art when compared to their male peers. Faced with different social pressures and without the support given to their male counterparts, many women would abandon artistic pursuits for more practical work and home lives.
Early on in her art career, Pauline Bellamy (b. 1950) was not exempt from these pressures. While she had passion to become an artist from a young age, Bellamy enrolled in a commercial graphic arts course in Auckland. Pretty Dreams – Hard Work – Survival, traces Bellamy’s art practice from beginnings as a hobby alongside her commercial art production for advertising agencies to her current position as an established artist, known for her expressive landscapes and portraits, paintings and etchings.
There are two stories that run through the chronology of this exhibition. Firstly, the development of an artist’s practice – from trials and experimentations towards what Bellamy has called “painting competently, contentedly,”[ii] And then concurrently, the story of a woman artist in New Zealand who has been constantly reconciling the external pressures of life with her passion for painting.
Following her graduation from the Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT) in the late 1960s, Bellamy worked producing advertising images for a shoe factory. The controlled and disciplined drawing required of her began to waver in nighttime life drawing classes, where Bellamy, while still portraying technically accurate figurative works, would begin to display her knack for expressing a more emotive depiction of her chosen subject.
Leaving Auckland, and the location of her commercial art training, Bellamy moved to Hamilton and then to the South Island. Bellamy was often isolated as a practicing artist and without much outside influence her works could have retained a stiffness granted through commercial art. When living in Central Otago, however, her works begin to develop to a loose landscape style that is familiar in New Zealand art. During classes with John Parker and Don Binney, Bellamy had access to the works of her tutors and their peers, including Colin McCahon and Toss Wooloston. Works like, xxx (197x) and xxx (197x) (dark one and big one?) are stylistically reminiscent of McCahon, Wooloston and Binney’s Otago landscapes, with undulating hills and melancholic colouring. In the landscapes featured in this exhibition, we can see a young artist in dialogue with these influences, feeling out the landscape in her own terms in gestural paint application.
Plein air painting is distinctive element of Bellamy’s painting – landscapes, portraits and scenes from her life and home are painted in person and consequently, Bellamy is able to present a feeling or emotion of that moment. In works done while travelling from 19750-1977, and shortly after, Bellamy shows a confidence and competence in her work across many mediums.
Bellamy’s drive and passion for painting has continued nearly consistently throughout her artistic career. Bellamy has mused that painting and motherhood “overlap all the time so obviously”[iii] Works like cats one (19xx) and John on sofa (19xx) are, like her landscape paintings, painted in person, and while retaining a technical exploration are also snapshots of the life of a mother and wife. Bellamy has ensured that her domestic life and artistic practice are not mutually exclusive. In the mid 1990s, while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, Bellamy continued to allow her life to permeate her art. The self-portrait (19xx) draws colours from the treatment drugs in brown and ochre hues. Bellamy’s face is thin and weary, and her eyes dark. In this work, Bellamy herself and Bellamy the artist are inextricably intertwined.
In the aforementioned text Mitchell quoted Linda Nochlin’s seminal piece ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artist’s?”: “women are finding alternatives to oppressive conditions” and are “exploring woman’s vision.”[iv] Bellamy has expressed of her own art practice: “A painting seems like communicating to myself in a way that’s always been there.”[v] Bellamy explores her own vision and in doing so has overcome what could have been oppressive beginnings. As this exhibition is viewed, it is important to consider the art historical climate and social pressures that Bellamy and other New Zealand woman artists operated within. The concerns that Alison Mitchell expressed are ones that are exemplified and confronted in Pauline Bellamy’s art practice. Her personal development to become and confident artist and her management of external pressures prove her to be exemplary of an artist (woman or otherwise) who confronted all obstacles in order to pursue her art.
Samantha McKegg, June 2014
[i] Alison Mitchell, “Some Thoughts on Woman’s Art” (1975)
[ii] From the artist’s notebook
[iii] From the artist’s notebook
[iv] Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artist’s?” (1971)
[v] From the artist’s notebook