The Art Of Peter Siddell

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts

The Art Of Peter Siddell (Godwit, NZ$75) is my favourite kind of art book—lots of pictures, not so many words. Sir Peter Siddell also happens to be one of my favourite local painters. Perhaps because, as Michael Dunn states in his essay, “there is an accessibility about Siddell’s works … everything is presented clearly without pretence or trickery.”

That isn’t entirely true, but on the surface of it, it is perfectly believable. As with many painters, there is trickery in that the scene painted often doesn’t exist, at least not as literally as the painting suggests, and Siddell’s paintings are far from real.

Sir Peter writes a brief autobiography come raison d’art, titled somewhat obviously ‘In My Own Words’, in which he states: “I feel that along with a process of observation and analysis, the assembling and ordering of the material is the critical element in realist paintings. Any value realism has as art lies in its disclosures about our familiar world, its realisation of our apparent reality. I suppose that what I’m trying to do in my work is to create a world from my imagination which will be immediately accepted by others as real.”

He certainly achieves that. ‘In My Own Words’ is an interesting read, not as revelatory as the recent Dick Frizzell book, but does offer some insight into Siddell’s artistic (and personal) world. It ends on an odd note, one that doesn’t entirely sit comfortably with the rest of the text—not exactly negative, but not uplifting either—suggesting that the publication of this book is rather timely.

It might seem like faint praise to suggest that Siddell is the Grahame Sydney of Auckland’s suburbia. There are those who find Sydney’s Central Otago landscapes over-appreciated and underwhelming, but there is a similarity in the accessibility and photo-realist style with Siddell’s urbanscapes. Siddell himself says, “I suppose I could be classified as an imaginary realist”, a label which could also describe Sydney’s works, as both deal in a mediated realism.

Siddell is best known for his Victorian villa-scapes, but this volume shows that his vision is much broader, encompassing not only other architectural styles, but also rural and coastal landscapes, the odd portrait (not his forte), and even a couple of self-portraits. While I love his villas, the evocative detail and light, and their deserted filmset-esque lack of noise and movement, some of my favourite works are his central North Island ‘mashups’ which were shown at Palmerston North’s Te Manawa Art Gallery a few years ago. This collection, presumably only a fraction of his output, also includes a number of works inspired by trips to Europe.

There is an obvious relationship between realist painting and photography—the phrase photo-realist is used for a reason. But the relationship that interests me is the thing that many photographers, especially, seem to grapple with. I think that people approach painting and photography differently; that there is still a general notion of ‘truth’ in photography that isn’t a necessary expectation in painting. But for both the realists and photographers, there is a struggle with how to make the work more than the surface image, how to imbue some depth in a representation of the ‘real’.

Michael Dunn, in his essay Peter Siddell: Space, Time & Memory, offers some clues in relation to Siddell’s work, stating that Siddell paints light, space and atmosphere. He mentions McCahon, Rembrandt and Goya as antecedents—not names that leap to mind when looking at Siddell’s work, but then all good artists will reinterpret rather than ape those who inspire them. Dunn also suggests that local realist painters Don Binney and Robin White strongly influenced Siddell’s approach. Certainly, there is a Binney-esque reductionism in the early works here, though the White connection is less obvious.

Dunn goes on to discuss the more material/physical aspects of Siddell’s Auckland works—architecture, volcanic cones, clouds—and their (inter)relationship. It’s an easy, informative read covering much ground, but I was a little frustrated that there were no page references to the Siddell paintings discussed, nor copies of the works by other artists mentioned.

Throughout the section ‘The Paintings’, Siddell adds accompanying notes to about a third of the images—memories, thoughts, and anecdotes. With around 120 works reproduced, there have been new surprises each time I flicked through it. It’s a minor quibble, but for some reason the scale of reproduction varies considerably, and without relation to the size of the original painting. Because Siddell paints the details it would have been nice if some of the images weren’t so small.

I am a great fan of the book as object. I really appreciate terrific design, especially when it pushes boundaries. On this level The Art Of Peter Siddell is rather conservative: the sequence is entirely chronological (1969-2010), the essays are followed by the illustrations, generally one image and caption per page spread, and there is lots of white. While it is a well-deserved celebration of the art and the artist, the book object appreciator in me would have liked to have seen a more interesting, contemporary design. But realistically, the book is about one man and his art, and, like his art, it’s not about dramatic bold statements. The Art Of Peter Siddell is a laudable book about an undoubtedly significant New Zealand artist.