Influential Kiwi artist, Melvin Day has died, age 92

Melvin Day spent more than 80 years of his life painting.
Murray Lloyd Photography

Melvin Day spent more than 80 years of his life painting.

New Zealand art icon Melvin Day has passed away at aged 92, after suffering a stroke on Sunday.

Day had been painting for most of his life, and took up formal study at Elam (Auckland University School of Fine Arts) when he was just 11.

Over some 80 years, Day not only painted but studied internationally - everything from art history to philosophy, becoming the first Kiwi to be accepted to London's prestigious Courtauld Institute.

Julia Waite, an assistant curator at Auckland Art Gallery, worked closely with Day throughout 2015 and his art is included in a an exhibition called Freedom and Structure: Cubism in New Zealand Art (1930 – 1960), which is showing until March.

She described Day as "curious" and a "risk taker".

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"I think in a sense, he was happy to work against the grain and to be his own person," Waite said.

Day, she said, was part of a group of artists in Rotorua in the 1950s who produced "some quite radical, albeit fairly rough" abstract works, and were at the forefront of abstraction and cubism in New Zealand.

He was the last surviving member of that group.

"There were other radical painters at the time, but the thing about Melvin was, he had quite an academic approach to art so he was really looking at this movement from quite a scholarly perspective - trying to understand what cubism had been about and to incorporate that into his own practice, " says Waite.

"He wasn't really nationalistic at all, he wasn't part of the hard-light school, he wasn't particularly interested in painting in a regional realist style which is a very dominant style in Canterbury - he was more interested in movements."

Supplied / Auckland Art Gallery Supplied / Auckland Art Gallery Supplied / Auckland Art Gallery Supplied / Auckland Art Gallery

Melvin Day, Maori Meeting, circa 1949, tempera on card, 630 x 520mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of the artist, 2015

Melvin Day, Cubist still life with Mandolin 1951, oil on board, 650 x 620mm. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of the artist, 2015

Melvin Day, Still Life with Protea in Red Jug 1956, oil on canvas, 600 x 830mm. On loan from a private collection, Wellington

Melvin Day, Scotch Thistle 1955, oil on board, 1290 x 1020mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of the artist, 2015

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Day was fascinated by the work of Picasso and Braque, after travelling in Western Europe he developed an interest in Spanish painters, and while his work was largely in abstraction, he also painted modernist landscapes - particularly of Wellington, where he lived most of his life. 

"The other thing that was very important to his life was his close relationship with his wife," says Waite.

Day married Oroya McAuley in 1952. She is best known for founding the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington, where a sculpture of Mansfield (by artist Anthony Stones) lies in tribute to Oroya, who died in August of 2014.

"They shared some scholarly interests, although Oroya had her own interests in preserving historic buildings in Wellington, she was also a sort of champion in Melvin's career," says Waite.

Waite describes Day as having a wicked sense of humour, very knowledgeable and bright, very generous, and a raconteur - "he was very funny and bright, he always had some good stories".

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