Laurence Simmons’s Tuhituhi is a multidimensional study of English artist William Hodges and his travels on James Cook’s 1772-75 Resolution voyage as official landscape painter. It’s another of the very good art books Otago University Press has been putting out in recent years.
Tuhituhi, which means “mark making”, was the name Maori gave Hodges when they saw him drawing. The central premise of the book is how alien landscapes and cultures are filtered through received European perceptions. It’s a typically postmodern viewpoint, but finds its origins in the modernism of Bernard Smith’s observations on early European artistic depictions of Australia. Personally, I’d debate the relevance to New Zealand, because even our most dramatic physical landscapes find fairly obvious parallels in those that were the subject of earlier European art, from Salvator Rosa to Hercules Seghers.
There is more value in applying this approach to the Pacific peoples, and it is with the Europeans’ cultural perceptions of Pacific peoples and vice versa that Simmons, head of the Film, TV and Media Studies Department at the University of Auckland, is primarily concerned. This isn’t so much a work of art history as an intellectual passeggiata like Simon Schama’s excellent Landscape and Memory (1995).
Geographer Jay Appleton’s silly “prospect-refuge theory” – the idea that we look at landscape paintings with our primitive brains analysing for resources and places to hide – rears its vapid head, which makes one wonder why perspective was a mathematically contrived invention and why landscape painting came so late on the scene. Simmons does tend to wander off into thickets of quotes from famous theoretical names when he should be asserting his own authorial voice, but for the most part, chapter by chapter, the narrative is anchored in discussions of individual paintings and notes from Cook’s journals.
Of more value for the general reader is the discussion of the Romantic notion of the Sublime – the awe-inspiring transcendence of nature described and analysed by Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and others, and most dramatically demonstrated by the cover image, the rainbow-straddled waterfall in Hodges’s Dusky Bay (1775) and the waterspout in his A View of Cape Stephens in Cook’s Straits (1776), both of which are in the National Maritime Museum, London.
There is also plenty of useful discussion on the Picturesque, fascinating meditations on ethnography, slightly too many dilettantish detours in strange directions and far too many ideas jostling for space, but on the whole this is a very enjoyable read. It’s lavishly illustrated – although the format of the book is rather too small for the paintings – and we are left with a sense of what a remarkable individual Hodges was.
TUHITUHI: WILLIAM HODGES, COOK’S PAINTER IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC, by Laurence Simmons (Otago, $60).
Andrew Paul Wood is an art writer and historian.