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Robert Ellis (b 1929) 'Motorway/City' Auctioned in the November NZ & International Fine Art Auction

Robert Ellis (b 1929)

oil on board
signed and dated ‘Robert Ellis 1970’ (lower
left); inscribed ‘Robert Ellis 1970/ ‘Motorway/
City’ Well. Ex. No. 8 to reverse
90 x 90cm
$40,000 - $60,000


purchased by the current owner from Peter
McLeavey Gallery, Wellington
Private collection, Hawkes Bay

Motorway/City was produced as part of a
series of paintings heralded as one of the
most sustained creative efforts in New
Zealand art. Robert Ellis first came to New
Zealand in 1957 as a Senior Lecturer at Elam,
where he was later appointed Head of
Painting and awarded a personal chair of
Fine Arts. It was Peter Smith, art
educationalist, who commented that “in the
New Zealand climate of weekend painters”
the arrival of a painter with a manifestly
professional approach to painting
was of enormous value to New Zealand.


Ellis is recognised as one of the few artists
to represent New Zealand cities in confronting
ways. He painted cityscapes when we
had only just begun to think of ourself as an
urban country. Ellis has described painting
as “largely an intuitive subjective process,
based on personally acquired and
assimilated experiences, nurtured and
shaped by the sensual, emotional and
intellectual aspects of one’s being.” Perhaps
it was his particular experience as an English
expat, arriving in New Zealand in time to
watch it transform, as much as it could
muster, into a replica of where he had come
from, that gave him the nerve to portray the
cities in a daring rather than revering way.


It was after purchasing his first car that Ellis
became fascinated with how the roads of
New Zealand both blocked and freed
movement throughout the land.
The Motorways series grew from pen and
watercolour studies of Spanish towns
surrounded by hills with rivers winding
through them. His paintings do not
consciously depict a particular city but are a
synthesis of cityscapes focusing on the
urban landscape and interpreting it in highly
stylised and abstracted way. As Rothko and
Hotere did, Ellis grasps at colours for their
symbolic power, using black and red to
function in terms of emotion and association
rather than representation. In this case the
cracks in the burnt earth revealing red
underneath could be looked at as a
representation of a kind of hell or perhaps it
is red for warning. We can feel Ellis’
concern for preserving what remains
untouched and unreachable in the distant
hills; space for living, breathing, seeing and
being seen.


The sky sits across the top of the painting like
a feeling of ease in your forehead. A gap for
light to float in the breeze. Beneath the bar
of sky there are mountains. They lie in union
with the clouds and sky, the peace is theirs
alone. We can only see them from across the
heart attack of roads. Critics applauded Ellis'
technical handling of smearing, layering,
cutting and applying oil paint straight from
the tube all the while delivering a clarified
vision of these roads. As delicate as lines
in a frowning face they convey waves of
conflicting emotion. Intensity and speed has
become stagnant. In a search for shortcuts
this city has short circuited itself.


Having spent his compulsory military years
training in the RAF aerial survey division it is
not surprising to see that his landscapes are
viewed as if from above. Mixing accurate
observational drawing with his own
improvisational flair Motorway/City contrasts
early European art, which was largely
topographical in focus and intent on
measuring and recording land. When not
concerned with measuring, English painters
traditionally portrayed New Zealand as a
quaint wilderness, perfectly picturesque, if
not for their unpopulated hills and skies, then
for their dozy towns with thin columns of
chimney smoke and quiet roads.
They had strong overtones of isolation
showing remote landscapes which
you could vanish in or hamlets which
required constant work to remain a
viable place of survival. In either case these
depictions showed NZ as being far away
from the main centres of western civilisation.


Motorway/City instead shows a clump of
intensely populated roads and buildings,
which when seen from such a distance could
almost be empty and derelict. Ellis himself
said of his works that they could be open to
interpretation “in different ways depending
on the ‘cultural equipment’ of the viewer”.
His later works acquired words and symbols
connected to his wife’s, Elizabeth Aroha Ellis,
iwi. His continual gravitation towards and
connection to Māoritanga in his later works
add a deeper richness to the interpretations
we can make of the Motorway series. In
this painting in particular you can see the
beginnings of an undertaking exploring what
it means to be a tauiwi or Pākehā New
Zealander, standing between land and sky.



Maeve Hughes