For background on the artist and works, see below.
About the ArtistMelvin (Pat) Day is a New Zealand art icon. He is one of our most distinguished painters, and began his formal study at Elam (Auckland University School of Fine Arts) aged only 11, in 1934. Over eight decades, he has painted, exhibited and studied internationally, his studies ranging from art to history and philosophy, all of which inform his painting. After becoming the first New Zealander accepted to study art history at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute, Melvin Day also made a huge contribution as Director of the NZ National Art Gallery in the 1960s and 70s, and later as Government Art Historian. Still painting, Day brings the experience of a lifetime of painting and scholarship to his highly collectible work, which allows no concession to age, in intensity or quality. Painter and peer Ray Thorburn noted in late 2005 that Day had ‘single-mindedly embarked on the most productive period of his career’. Art writers comment that Day is ‘immune to fashion’ and ‘untouched by hype’, his subject matter or handling of it entirely driven by his own quest for answers. He is one of few contemporary painters to explore still life, or imbue it with such presence and individuality. His suite Stabat Mater returned to powerful abstraction, in luminous paintings each inspired by the eight movements of Vivaldi’s musical composition of the ancient Stabat Mater hymn, and complemented by texts and a catalogue by noted Franco-Mexican writer Frédéric-Yves Jeannet.
Day’s early career exploration of cubism, abstraction and modernism carries through to striking landscapes and contemplative still life works, as well as the abstracts which some regard as his most powerful painting.
His still life paintings of the mid 2000s, in egg tempera and oil on paper, capture the restrained beauty of 17th Century Spanish painters but with a modernist edge. Later in that decade, the Stabat Mater suite began with philosophical discussions about Vivaldi’s composition, between Day and Frédéric-Yves Jeannet, who came to New Zealand as husband of the Mexican Ambassador. Thus they were best viewed while listening to the Vivaldi movements. The original hymn is about Mary standing before her son Jesus Christ at the Crucifixion, and Vivaldi’s interpretation captures the mother-son relationship, the stages of her sorrow, as she comes to terms with the events.
“From the outset I was inspired to paint forms and colours which would evoke the responses I felt when I listened to the music,” says Melvin Day “…The text of Stabat Mater deals with perennial problems and stresses. To this end, the sorrows expressed in Vivaldi’s music are constant and propose that each generation faces difficult choices. Vivaldi’s music offers us a path forward but the way is difficult and often distressing. But there is a glimmering of optimism.”
In 2010, in his late eighties, he travelled to Fiordland with Gerda Leenards, Nigel Brown and John Walsh at the invitation of filmmaker Peta Carey, who wanted to document their artistic responses to the landscapes which inspired William Hodges, the painter travelling with explorer Captain James Cook in the late 18th Century. He expresses the character of Dusky and Doubtful Sounds, and the dramatic Cascade painted by Hodges, with an element of cubism that implies the plummeting depths beneath the surface. A number of these paintings and studies were exhibited at The Diversion in 2013, please enquire for images and availability.
More About the Artist
Melvin (known as Pat) Day was born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1923. He began part-time study at the leading Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland in 1934 aged only 11, then studied fulltime from 1939 until being called up to the RNZAF in World War II.
In his early career he explored cubism, fascinated by the work of Picasso and Braque. Travels in Western Europe initiated his interest in Spanish painters, and his work tended increasingly towards abstraction particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. He was part of a group of NZ artists at that time exploring new ideas, his peers including the likes of Don Peebles, John Drawbridge and Ralph Hotere, although Day’s work attracted particular attention from the critics.
He married Oroya McAuley in 1952 and lived and worked for a time in Rotorua. He was the first New Zealander accepted to study at the Courtauld Institute in London – regarded as the most prestigious centre of art history studies in the world. After a period of studying, lecturing and exhibiting in London, the Days returned to Wellington, New Zealand when he accepted the post of Director of the National Art Gallery in 1968. His contribution to New Zealand art continued as Government Art Historian from 1978 to 1984. In 2003, Day was awarded the CNZM for his services to the arts.
Even while exploring various other forms of modernism, Day has continued to paint modernist landscapes particularly of Wellington (where he has lived most of his life) along with periodic exploration of still life, and luminous yet textural abstracts.
Day has participated by invitation in many major exhibitions in the leading public art galleries around New Zealand, including three substantial solo survey and retrospective exhibitions.