The story of Rosalie Gascoigne is one of the best known of late twentieth century Australian art. Born in 1917, trained in languages, she left New Zealand in 1943 to wed her astronomer husband, setting up home in the Australian Capital Territory. Initial forays into arranging flowers and dried things were emboldened by ikebana and a growing awareness of contemporary art, and somewhere along the line her arrangements became artworks.
Gascoigne’s artistic path was stellar. In 1974 she held her first solo exhibition. In 1982 she became the first woman to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. Until her death her work was eagerly collected and critically lauded. The publication of Rosalie Gascoigne Plain Air coincided with a survey show at City Gallery Wellington. Given the relative wealth of scholarship about Gascoigne, the appearance of another book begs the question: what else is there to say?
In her introduction, City Gallery director and exhibition co-curator Paula Savage stipulates the project is not about claiming Gascoigne as a New Zealander in any simplistic, overtly nationalistic manner. Rather, it acknowledges that Gascoigne’s work was not only formed by her adopted territory, the Canberra region, but also contains echoes of, and references to, her upbringing in Auckland.
Eminent Australian art expert Daniel Thomas contributes an essay which meanders from the artist’s working methods, to his purchases of her work for state collections (and his private one), to his newspaper review of her first works in Sydney in 1975 where he noted her domestic impulse. His discussion of the “body memory” of experiencing the landscape captured by Gascoigne is wonderful.
City Gallery curator Gregory O’Brien is the exhibition co-curator and author of the main essay. He emphasises Gascoigne’s literary interests, arguing the nature-lover was a “Romantic poet-artist”, and supplying subject lists of her works titles: ornithology, atmospherics and Romantic Poetry. He eloquently links Gascoigne, Fred Williams and Colin McCahon, through their “conflation of geographical expansiveness and the pictorial strategies of modernism”.
The Australasian context is valuable, and excluding the fawning reflections of New Zealand novelist Barbara Anderson, this scholarly, readable publication offers important perspectives on the practice of a most singular artist.