Oil on canvas on board
600 x 755mm
Inscriptions: A. LOIS WHITE. [l.l.]
For much of her life, Anna Lois White was critically undervalued, both because her style was not thought particularly avant-garde (she was no lover of abstraction), and because her preferred subject-matter was not comfortingly local. However, following her rediscovery by Te Whanganui-a-Tara gallerist Peter McLeavey in the 1970s, and the staging of a major touring exhibition in the 1990s, her paintings have come to be recognised for their idiosyncratic poetry. ‘Idiosyncratic’ is really the word for White’s work, which looks and feels like that of no other artist from Aotearoa (though there are resonances with figures such as May Smith and George Woods). None of her contemporaries embraced the rhythmic compositions associated with Art Deco as passionately or thoroughly as she did. None was as dedicated to experimenting with the type of the ‘history painting’.
Sleeping is a fine example of the allegorical or symbolic works for which White is best known. The composition is beautifully calibrated to the subject-matter of sleep and (by implication) dreams. The foreground undulations, the flanking trees of a similar hue, and the voluptuous mountains in the far distance form a womb-like pictorial frame, emphasising a sense of security and calm. Human and animal subjects are elegantly integrated with one another and their surroundings. The cool moonlight is exquisitely evoked, its delicate play across the faces of the sleeping figures especially well realised. There is a marked sensuality to the image, even bordering on eroticism (consider, for instance, the up-thrusting limbs of the tree at left and the yearning branches of that at right). Yet this is not in any sense an explicit painting. It is subtly coded, welcoming complex and multiple responses.
The date of Sleeping is not known, but it is likely relatively late, since it is painted on canvas board, lacks the stippling typical of earlier works, and features figures with more robust physical features. A noticeably similar work, Sleep, is dated 1958.1 Given the greater confidence of Sleeping, it is possible that it was painted following the artist’s first and only trip to Europe in 1961. The work was previously held in the collection of Kerry and Paul Barber, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
1 Nicola Green, By the Waters of Babylon: The Art of A. Lois White (Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery/David Bateman, 1993), 109.