Poetry Shelf review – Leonard Bell’s Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists

Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists, Leonard Bell, Auckland University Press, 2020

This stunning new book from Auckland University Press is the perfect object to guide a day of contemplation, to move you from photograph to text, from a life to an artistic process, from light to shadow, to sideways thinking upon your own relationships, your own creativity, demons and angels.

There are 250 plus photographs by Marti Friedlander of artists – including painters, sculptors, potters, printmakers, writers, musicians. So many names I didn’t recognise – but am now curious about. The text runs like railway tracks alongside the images, transporting you into facts, anecdotes, interpretation.

Before reading the finely crafted text, I am drawn into the joy of the photograph gazing: the framing, the interplay of light and dark, frozen moments in the creative process, the work spaces, facial expressions, the eyes that hold you or lead you off-frame. Marti delivers such an intensity, such an intimate intensity of human presence. It is psychological, it is tactile, it is like you become embedded in the frame. Perhaps transcendental is the word. You get uplift as you look. For me, engaging with these astonishing photographs dislodges the toxic grip of a pandemic world, of unscrupulous political game play, insomnia. The fundamental importance of music, art, literature is placed under central lights and my desire to switch off becomes a need to switch on.

I am stuck on the portrait of potter Jeff Scholes. He is looking right back at me, his hands clasping a sticky mess of clay, caught mid-movement, textured with fingermarks, and it is as though I am looking at the blank page, the fresh musical score, the empty canvas. I can almost smell the clay, the moment before something emerges. That glorious and mysterious moment when art enters the world. It is important to be reminded of this now. To feel the utmost value of creativity – that no matter how tough and challenging things are, we are still making art that is read and viewed and listened to.

Reading Leonard’s piece on Jeff opens further windows – Leonard picks up on the idea of the tactile and effectively describes what is so alluring about the image: ‘Friedlander pictures the good looking Scholes so that he might appear both open and reticent – an instance of her ability to catch what might seem contradictory qualities in the one person.’

Marti is, as Leonard suggests, drawn to relationships. Two images of Pat and Gil Hanley are particularly gripping. I often face books and artworks and imagine the ghost narratives that circulate behind the scenes of art’s making. The domestic choices and labour, the relationship dynamics, the sacrifices, the epiphanies, along with the difference gender, ethnicity or class make. The silences, the conversations, the hierarchies. Marti took a number of photographs of the Hanleys. She commented on one of her Hanley portraits: ‘The moment you start trying to analyse your work, you’re telling viewers how they should look at the photographs which impedes receptiveness’.

The books I tend to write about on Poetry Shelf are books that fascinate me; books of any genre that hold my attention on numerous levels to the point I can’t look away and I carry them with me all day. There is so much that fascinates me about this book. I keep returning to the two Hanley portraits. In fact I can’t stop thinking about them. I show them to other people. In the portrait accompanying the piece on Gil, the couple are standing together barefoot, Pat in front, one hand tucked in jeans, one arm slung over to grasp the other, one leg forward in a swagger of a pose, Gil tucked behind, arm behind back to clasp the other, bare legged. Her pose merges into the posed arms in Pat’s painting on the wall. It is 1969 and the women are starting to emerge from the shadows, from the tucked-behind-men spots. Fascinating, looking at this image within the context of the times, knowing that that is an awful lot of weight to place upon one image. Musing on the personal narratives behind the scenes. along with how things were for women artists (whatever field).

The miniature biography of Marti that Leonard presents is as fascinating as the context of the times. So many things infiltrate the creative process. Marti was born in London’s poor East End, she and her sister were abandoned by their parents (perhaps Russian-Jewish immigrants), she was placed in a Dickensian-like institution until she was reunited with her sister in 1933 and placed in a Jewish orphanage. Marti had wanted to study dressmaking and design at Bloomsbury Technical School for Girls, but the course was full so opted for photography (1942-43). She worked as a technical assistant in a photography studio for a number of years, was engaged in the photography scene, married New Zealander Gerrard Friedlander, and came to live here with him (1957). Most of her photographs to that point were personal, and were of friends, family and visited places. In New Zealand her portraits began appearing in various journals, programmes, exhibition brochures, book covers, and over time she continued to do personal photographs along with commissions.

Bringing together Marti’s photographs of New Zealand artists is a genius idea. Each image is a lure, the text insightful. The production of this sumptuous book is also exemplary. I adore this book – maybe because I am a poet living with a painter – but mostly because the photographs are such an exquisite aide to contemplation. It is the kind of feeling I get when I walk up into the mountains or along Te Henga beach, watch the sky and incoming weather, and let ideas and feelings circulate. I love this book so much. I hope it sells by the bucket loads!

Auckland University Press author page

Leonard Bell has taught art history at the University of Auckland since 1973. He has held research fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., and the Yale Center for British Art, and was the 2005 Daphne Mayo Visiting Professor in the School of Art History, Film and Media Studies at the University of Queensland. He is on the International Advisory Board of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and on the editorial advisory committees of the New Zealand visual arts periodicals Reading Room and BackStory. He is the author of several major art and art history books, including Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 18401914 (AUP, 1992), Marti Friedlander (AUP, 2009) and most recently, Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980 (AUP, 2017). All three books were finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards. He has also written catalogue essays and chapters in books on the portraiture of artists Gottfried Lindauer and C. F. Goldie and the photographer Frank Hofmann. (AUP site)

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