Despite a more than 30-year career painting his distinctive and much-loved gardenscapes, celebrated Wellington artist Karl Maughan says it‚Äôs a style he‚Äôs never felt like straying from, describing flowers as his artistic ‚Äėlanguage‚Äô.
Photography by Tobias Kraus
On a warm spring morning in his Wellington studio, Karl Maughan is working on his latest painting for an upcoming exhibition at Auckland‚Äôs Gow Langsford Gallery. The show coincides with the release of a new book, Karl Maughan, edited by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead. It‚Äôs the first dedicated to his life and long-standing career.
‚ÄúThe paintings are based on Monet‚Äôs garden at Giverny, but set in New Zealand,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúSo native New Zealand flowers, trees, gardens and hills, but working from a lot of the plant structure and form of Monet‚Äôs garden, using photographs from various trips there.‚ÄĚ
Unlike the reclusive Monet, Maughan is a social artist, happy to talk as he paints and often welcoming his friends and family to stop by the studio while he works. He goes on to describe the process of his current work, explaining how he likes to collaborate. ‚ÄúI work on the principle of getting the background done, then all the leaves in, then working the flowers in, then the leaves back over,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúRight now, I‚Äôm starting with some blue sky and darker green. A friend comes in to help me block it all, so I‚Äôm just figuring out what I want to paint next.‚ÄĚ
In a way, Maughan‚Äôs pathway into gardenscapes was laid out for him. His father painted in his spare time; his mother was a talented horticulturist and landscape designer. It was on a road trip in the 1980s that a young Maughan found the inspiration for his works, stopping by his parents‚Äô home to take photographs of his mother‚Äôs garden.
‚ÄúThe time of year was dead winter, so the garden was stripped out, things torn out, waiting for spring to arrive. I thought, ‚Äėthat‚Äôs interesting. The photos of his mother‚Äôs wintry garden represent a very different picture to the gardens Maughan, now known for his grand, visceral and blossoming gardenscapes, would go on to paint.
After studying at Auckland‚Äôs Elam School of Fine Arts under the tutelage of Dick Frizzell, he took off to London to mingle with fellow expat artists, where awards and a discovery by famous art collector Charles Saatchi propelled him into prominence. Now regarded as one of New Zealand‚Äôs best-known garden painters, Maughan says it‚Äôs a style he‚Äôs never felt like straying from, describing flowers as his artistic ‚Äėlanguage‚Äô.
With hundreds of paintings to his name, what is it about gardens that fascinate him so much? ‚ÄúWith real-life gardens, you have the ability to pull a plant out, trim it down, make it how you want. But only up to a point, because nature always fights back,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúWhen you‚Äôre painting gardens, you can do anything. Take out that giant tree, or put a pond in. I can literally do whatever I like and not be restricted by the image. That‚Äôs the fun aspect of painting.‚ÄĚ The history of gardens is another aspect of the subject matter that deepens his obsession. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a huge history that you‚Äôre tapping into when you look at the works. There‚Äôs this whole tapestry of what a garden is to people. It goes right back to the practice of fencing off the forest and making something inside that is safe and idyllic.‚ÄĚ
Straying inevitably to talk of the pandemic, Maughan says the country‚Äôs response is, in some way, a modern reflection of this desire to fence ourselves off from danger and create spaces of safety. ‚ÄúNew Zealand has literally done just that with the COVID-19 barrier. It‚Äôs amazing in its own way.‚ÄĚ
As much as he is drawn to the romance of gardens, Maughan is also fascinated by the uneasiness that finds its way into the frame ‚Äď what he describes as ‚Äėmenace‚Äô. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the feeling that the colours are a little too intense, the lighting somewhat unrealistic, that something is hidden behind the beauty. It‚Äôs a funny thing,‚ÄĚ says Maughan, describing the ‚Äėlooming-ness‚Äô of some of the paintings. ‚ÄúSometimes it just looks so beautiful, you think, ‚ÄėWhat is around that corner? What‚Äôs lurking?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
As curator Gregory O‚ÄôBrien describes it in the last chapter of the book, Maughan‚Äôs paintings illustrate the belief that ‚Äúbeauty must be tempered with oddness‚ÄĚ. It‚Äôs a notion that the artist delights in. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a great thing to have this slightly scary, stray presence that you can‚Äôt quite put your finger on.‚ÄĚ
Maughan works on several paintings at once and each one typically takes just one to two weeks to finish. As his career has evolved, his gardenscapes have intensified, evident in their brighter colours, deeper pigments, as well as the energy of his brushstrokes.
In 2002, a scare with an eye tumour that threatened his vision was one catalyst for this renewed celebration of brightness, colour and depth. ‚ÄúI felt lucky to get through [the surgery], and subsequently enjoyed diving into colour and trying to evoke every kind of emotion with paint. I love eliciting that feeling of being able to climb into the painting, to wander around in the frame and discover what‚Äôs behind something,‚ÄĚ he says.
Looking back at his more than three decades-long career, Maughan admits he is a more self-assured painter than in his early days. ‚ÄúI used to angst and worry, now I‚Äôm more confident,‚ÄĚ he says. He‚Äôs quick to add, however, that it‚Äôs the small failures along the way that keep the work interesting.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôll surprise you. Something might not work and you‚Äôll have to scrape it off and try something else. But one of the delights of painting is that it‚Äôs not foolproof.‚ÄĚ
Originally published in December 2020.¬†