The Puriris

Lee-Johnson, Eric
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Object Detail

The puriri is a coastal and low-land hardwood tree commonly found in the northern half of the North Island. It was historically used by Māori for many purposes including medicine, in making eel traps (one of the few woods that sink), for palisade posts and as a place to lay the bones of those recently passed. Such a close association with death rites has made puriri tapu. European settlers cleared land of puriris for farming as they grow well in highly fertile volcanic soil. The timber was used for fenceposts, railway sleepers and other uses that required a durable material. The puriri tree is also known as Ironwood. For many people, one of the attractions of the puriri is its determined stubbornness to survive. Rotten tree stumps and even milled posts have been said to have re-sprouted.

In New Zealand art, dead trees and stumps are symbols of the back-of-beyond, distant in time and place. This is where the artist Eric Lee-Johnson (1908 – 1993) preferred to find inspiration, aiming to portray larger themes he saw locked in our landscape. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Lee-Johnson embraced isolation. Long before it was fashionable, he lived in a series of remote communities far away from the fads of the art world.

His early work in advertising and newspaper illustration in the 1930’s was influenced by contemporary German typography, graphics and poster design in Europe. After studying and working in London he returned to New Zealand. Here he decided there was something manifestly our own to be found in this country’s remote hinterland and became New Zealand’s first wholly nationalist painter, one of the first to reject Europe’s models of romantic misty valleys and picturesque lakes.

Instead he showed the haunting residue of human encounters with the land, whether in the form of crumbled Māori fortresses or of derelict colonial farmhouses. Northland’s racial mix and vivid past were ideal for his purposes. In short, he was saying that the largest subject for a New Zealand painter was New Zealand itself. His hope was to make New Zealanders see their land afresh, and with love. Concurrently other artists such as Rita Angus and Colin McCahon were also discovering unique ways to paint New Zealand landscapes.

In 1956 he became the first New Zealand painter of his generation to have a monograph published on his work and that same year a short documentary film about his work was seen in public theatres throughout the country. Lee-Johnson wrote an autobiography ‘No Road to Follow’, published in 1993 shortly before his death. Lee-Johnson is represented in all major collections throughout the country.
Ink and pen wash on paper, with highlighting
Image: hxw; 375 x 495mm
Frame: hxwxd; 630 x 730 x 38mm
Breadth 24mm.
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