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With only one exhibition space and more than 18,000 art works in its permanent collection, there are many treasures that are rarely seen first-hand in the Hocken Pictures collection. However, as our visitors and researchers know, a trip to the racks in the Pictures storeroom offers up many surprises and this painting is one of them.
Titled Allan in the Bean Bag (Man in My Bean Bag/Still Life-Sunday Morning), this compelling work was painted by Gore-born artist and noted journalist, author, art teacher, arts administrator, television panellist, gallerist and arts and heritage advocate Shona McFarlane (1929-2001).
Bequeathed to the Hocken by the artist, it was one of her favourite paintings, as it depicts one of the people she loved most in her life, husband Allan Highet, a former minister of internal affairs and minister of the arts.
The pair met when they sat on the QEII Arts Council and were married in 1976. A single woman for most of her life and fiercely independent, McFarlane said she had no great urge to be married or have children as she was driven by her painting. When interviewed by the Otago Daily Times in 1998 she said: "I think there have been strong women in painting from Frances Hodgkins and beyond. Women have shone through the whole of New Zealand art, except as always for the time-honoured problems of marriage and children which limited women very much and still do to a great extent, whereas men had a wife to do the cooking and look after them. I always said what a woman artist needs is a wife!"
Highet said that posing for his wife was hard work.
"If I appear to look grumpy, it’s because I kept being shouted at for falling asleep. It shows Cabinet ministers get no rest — not even on Sundays."
Allan in the Bean Bag is at once a disarmingly domestic and amusing painting, but also sensitive and profound. From an art historical perspective, the full length reclining male figure with eyes closed, is reminiscent of Christ’s collapsed body in the pieta, in which Mary cradles her dead son’s body on her lap. In this scene, however, the lone sleeping male has nodded off in his wife’s bean bag. Accompanied by the accoutrements of an afternoon’s relaxation involving the simple pleasures of reading the newspaper and nibbling on summer fruit, body relaxed into the soft low-slung pebble-shaped bag.
Loving attention to detail, care and humour is exampled in the artist’s observation and depiction of her exposed and vulnerable spouse with his dark seams of upper body hair and loosely draped but respectable belted shorts. Raised bare legs terminate in feet encased in brown sandals typical of the day, toes pushed forward towards the rim of the soles.
McFarlane trained at the Dunedin Teacher’s College from 1946-49 and between 1952-57 undertook further art studies at the Hammersmith School of Art and Goldsmith’s College School of Art in London. When she returned to Dunedin in 1958, she was a prolific artist who loved painting in colour, but she also worked in pen and ink and monochrome.
After Highet died in 1992, she commented that he had been a wonderful friend and she missed him terribly.
"But you learn you have to pick yourself up and get on with it. You must not waste a day because time is so short."
Allan in the Bean Bag is reproduced in McFarlane’s last book Shona McFarlane — a memoir (1999).
Allan in the Bean Bag can be viewed in the "flesh" in the Hocken’s exhibition "Drift: new and old works from the Hocken," opening late April.
Visit otago.ac.nz/hocken or ph (03) 479-8868 for further information.
- Robyn Notman is head curator, Hocken Pictures Collection, Hocken Library.