Marianne Muggeridge: Close and personal

THE MUSICIANS: Janet, Cindy, Alan and Steve Muggeridge. The Avenue and Harrow on the Hill, 1977-78.
THE MUSICIANS: Janet, Cindy, Alan and Steve Muggeridge. The Avenue and Harrow on the Hill, 1977-78.

Marianne Muggeridge has made her name as one of New Zealand's best known portrait artists. She talks to Tom Cardy about a new exhibition that looks back over 40 years of paintings and people.

When plans were put in place for artist Marianne Muggeridge's 40-year retrospective at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington, it was clear that it would be a large number of paintings.

Other than the nudes, most of the 50 portraits and a few landscapes now belonged to people dotted around the country. So, in typical Kiwi fashion, Muggeridge and her partner, artist Roger Morris, drove their old van from their home at the foot of Mt Taranaki around the North Island, to directly borrow some of her paintings from their owners for her show.

THE DANCER: Wendy, 1984-85.
THE DANCER: Wendy, 1984-85.

"It was a huge effort. I hadn't been around the country for 25 years and I really wanted to [travel] and this was a good chance. We went up [as far as] Kerikeri and we were going to go to Queenstown but the owner volunteered to send their painting up," says Muggeridge.

"Some of the people that we picked up paintings from had swimming pools so we were able to just go straight in, dive into the swimming pool to cool off and then pick up the painting.

"Most people wanted to see the paintings safely loaded into the van and bubble wrapped. Couriers are good but I just didn't want to trust the paintings to anything other than a designated art courier and there are not many in the country. It was also logistically beyond us to employ someone to do it, so we just did it ourselves."

THE FAMILY: Grant and Gaynor Scott with Kimberley, Jordan, Kate and Amanda, 1987-90.
THE FAMILY: Grant and Gaynor Scott with Kimberley, Jordan, Kate and Amanda, 1987-90.

To also help her locate some works, Muggeridge made an appeal on Radio New Zealand, which netted four paintings.

The result is one of the largest exhibitions of Muggeridge's work. Curated by Stuart Shepherd, the paintings are displayed in chronological order. It begins in the early 70s when she lived and travelled overseas, back in Taranaki where she grew up and where she learned screen printing from artist Michael Smither, to her period in Wellington from 2000 until the end of 2011, when she returned to her Taranaki home and studio.

Muggeridge, who won the NZ Portrait Gallery's inaugural national portrait competition in 2000, says having so much of her work in one place - including works she hadn't seen in 30 years - has made her appreciate the time she has left. "This is a bit of a strange time almost, with the work all up and looking back on 40 years. Where I go to from here I'm really not sure. I am painting at the moment but I'm working on finishing things that I started maybe in the last two years.

"For me it's really important, as for any artist, at this stage. I'm 60 now and I hope I've got another 20 years up my sleeve."

People who thought they were already very familiar with her work have also been surprised by the exhibition, she says.

"I've been getting emails from people [saying] 'we had a look and we had no idea'. And I'm thinking: 'well, you've known me for 25 years, how could you have no idea?' I think it is something about the impact of all the works."

A large number of Muggeridge's portraits are life size. But while some feature one person, a Muggeridge trademark is the numerous portraits of groups. One, painted over a number of sittings in 1987 and 1990, features a family of six, including a baby. Muggeridge says most of her paintings are done over several sittings and can take up to four years to complete. The only painting on show that took one sitting features her brother Steve - a sitting from 10pm until 7am done in London.

Muggeridge says she's learned over the years that being primarily a portrait artist means interacting with the subject.

"Some artists have said, 'don't paint children or animals', but it's not been true. I like painting children because they are so unguarded and so direct. When they are sick of it they'll tell you.

"Adults are fantastic. Once people see that they are getting something they really give you their time. They are really generous. Although, when people have been sitting a couple of hours and you say, 'shall we stop now and come back tomorrow?' they always say, 'Oh yes, let's do that'.

"I really do like people. I'm really interested in people. Quite a relationship evolves with every sitter. For the time I'm painting them they are my best friend. They are the closest person to me. They know more about me and I know more about them - and then it all comes to an end. But you have a relationship which is there forever.

"I don't think anybody I've painted, at the end we've been unable to speak to each other. It's an ongoing relationship. I want them to sit and they want the damn thing finished. There's not time for anything else."



Taken Personally - Marianne Muggeridge, NZ Portrait Gallery, Wellington, until June 16. Marianne Muggeridge will talk about her art at the gallery on April 8 at 1pm.

The Dominion Post