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van der Velden, Petrus (Dutch/New Zealand, b.1837, d.1913)
A waterfall in the Otira Gorge
oil on canvas
1130 x 1935 mm stretcher size; 1590 x 2405 x 180 mm frame size
Collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Purchased 1893 with funds from the Otago Art Society.
It starts way up there, where light brews in the hollow of the horizon. A stream of white spills into the landscape, cuts left then right like a lightning strike, disappears into a great well of mid-ground space, and suddenly thunders into the painting’s foreground. Nothing else in 19th-century New Zealand art matches this work’s weight, its broad-shouldered force, the big battle it stages between black and white. No wonder the painting secured its maker’s place in one of New Zealand art history’s enduring myths of origin – in the beginning, there was van der Velden.
A veteran of Holland’s Hague School who emigrated here in 1890, Petrus van der Velden had to travel from the orderly flatland of Christchurch to the Otira Gorge to find a landscape as large as his ambitions. Otira was Genesis-country, and the many paintings he made of it offer front-row seats to the Creation. ‘I serve my God in studying Nature,’ he wrote, and every brushstroke in this painting is fired by the Romantic faith that nature is the canvas of God. It is a painting about being overwhelmed – by nature, by God and by art, which for him were one and the same.
You do not have to share that faith to feel the painting’s power. As painted by van der Velden, Otira is less a landscape than an event – a landslide of claggy mud and relentless water that rumbles almost audibly. The artist piles on the paint with a gusto that predicts Expressionism. And in the distance, between foreground and skyline, he shows how small we are, how far we have to climb. What emerges is a ‘spiritual’ painting, but a movingly earthbound one. Van der Velden’s world is a world of weight, not transcendence, and what he seems to celebrate here is the toil, the joyful struggle, involved in any journey towards the light.

on view in the exhibition

WORLD VIEW : Mapping the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Collection
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