Norman Scott is one of many New Zealand artists whose artistic developments fell outside the radar in the early to mid-twentieth century. Happily, the latter half of the century saw Scott’s innovative landscapes and progressive technique become recognised and admired, aligning him with artists such as Toss Woollaston and William Sutton.
Born in Gisborne in 1913, Scott enjoyed a typical New Zealand childhood during the lull between the Wars. His affinity with the outdoors informed a dream to explore the land through art, which was put on hold by the Second World War. After joining the Royal Air Force, Scott was shot down over the Netherlands and captured as a prisoner of war. He spent the remainder of the war in several German POW camps.
Despite this traumatic period Scott’s artistic ambitions lingered. During his four-year incarceration, which included a three-day escape attempt, Scott relied on art supplies from the Red Cross to practise his technique, and after the war he followed the footsteps of fellow New Zealanders Peter McIntyre and Allan Barns-Graham, enrolling at the Slade School of Art in London. Scott paid his own way through his studies and graduated with a Diploma in Fine Arts. Soon after returning home, Scott quickly earned respect from the community for his foundation of the Gisborne Artists Society, where he exhibited his impressive depictions of the Poverty Bay landscape.
He showed his commitment to exploring the landscape though his numerous bicycle journeys around New Zealand. Usually lasting three to four months, he would sleep in tents and under bridges. These ventures enabled Scott not only to experience the landscape intimately but also encounter unique scenes to sketch and later paint, imbuing his work with a distinct freshness. His earlier paintings are true-to-life representations that capture the environmental effects on the landscape with windswept trees and agitated water.
An awareness of Modernist directions became ever more evident in Scott’s exploration of colour and paint application, for example, his use of water to create mirror reflections, reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s animated works. As well, Scott was clearly aware of movements such as Regionalism.
In the mid-twentieth century, the South Island Regionalists became popular for their depictions of rural life in a style closely aligned with the simplified shapes and solid tonal modelling of Cubism. Scott’s paintings likewise could be considered Regionalist, especially his later works, which were executed in a robust manner with strong directional brushstrokes and thick application of paint.
Scott not only fractured the solid land and the moored boats in his many harbour scenes, but also the intangible space between objects, transforming his canvasses into lyrical tapestries. Scott’s titles are also indicative of Regionalism in their specificity of particular locations, usually within the Gisborne region. Far from mere topographical surveys, the paintings of this area are intimate portraits of places treasured by the artist, differentiating Scott’s work from the more detached paintings of Rita Angus or Christopher Perkins. Scott and good friend Allan Barns-Graham were keen trout fishermen, and the pair would embark on extended adventures into the backblocks of the East Coast with their painting materials and handmade fishing rods to capture an uninhabited glimpse of ‘real’ New Zealand.
Scott was dedicated to painting until his death in 1978, refusing to take any job that might pull him away from his work. Understandably, Norman Scott’s paintings are especially cherished in Gisborne, where the Tairawhiti Museum holds over 14 of his works.