Except for a few relatively minor commissions, John F. Kavanagh's standing as a sculptor has received little blessing from New Zealand society. To some extent, however, the retrospective exhibitions of his sculpture at the Auckland City Art Gallery in October 1979 and of his paintings and drawings at the Auckland Society of Arts in September 1980 may be seen as belated gestures of respect.

Stone, 2108 mm. high
(Collection of the artist)

Kavanagh was born at Birr, King's County, Ireland in 1903; and the world in which he served his apprenticeship as a sculptor has virtually disappeared. The sculptors under whom he trained and served are hardly known to us in New Zealand: A. Ernest Cole, Gilbert Ledward and Charles Sargeant lagger. From Gilbert Ledward's teaching and William Rothenstein's ideas on mural painting, Kavanagh developed a philosophy that saw sculpture as an extension of architecture. This belief is well realized in his relief panels for the Walthamstow Town Hall of 1940, and in the exaggerated height of the almost Mannerist Madonna and Child for the Catholic Hospital, Lambeth Road, London. In this sculpture the Mannerist distortion provides a visual compensation for the fact that, because of its position on the building, the sculpture is to be looked up at from below.

The years during the early 1930s, which Kavanagh spent in Rome, further strengthened his commitment to the tradition of sculpture epitomized in the Classical and Renaissance works that he saw in Italy. This tradition fostered a concern with the human figure, in which the reality of the female nude represented a high challenge, as well as an interest in the portrait bust as another expression of the human personality. In this pursuit his aims were akin to those of Jacob Epstein, or to the approach of the New English Art Club painters.

It is a tradition at present out of favour. Contemporary interest resides in a fascination with the innate behaviour of materials, rather than in searching out the essence of natural appearance or of human psychology seen in terms of human physiology. This difference of emphasis rnakes Kavanagh's work appear at odds with the spirit of our times. Yet it is not entirely 'traditional' in the narrow sense that people use the term either to praise or to condemn a style bound by the naturalistic dictates of the nineteenth century, conditioned though this be by the ideals of classicism. There is much of the fin de siecle and of the vitality derived from early twentieth century attitudes in Kavanagh's work - coupled with his own craftsman-like development of these stylistic factors - to allow his sculptures, as well as his drawings and paintings, to escape a 'traditional' label with all its narrow restrictions.

JOHN F. KAVANAGH Head of Tanith

Though it is true that we must look back to the criteria that have conditioned the forms of Kavanagh's sculpture, within this vision there is a variation and appropriateness of style in treatment afforded each individual subject. Kavanagh has remained an artist who, in a true sense, has made valid use of the tradition in which he believes.

The work for which John Kavanagh is most familiar to the public is his portraits. In these works he is well within the European tradition of portraiture that takes account of physical likeness combined with psychological insight. Even in his most realistic portraits, such as Portrait of C. St Clair R. Oakes, 1932, or Head of Kruschev 1961, the character of the sitter determines the plastic subtleties of the modelling and the degree of stylization. Such factors are employed with greater vigour in the finely styled Miss Georgia Leprohon, aged four 1977, where the impression of softness is achieved as much by the skill of the carving as from the luminous quality of the marble.

A more sensuous expressiveness is found in the large bronze figure Tanith, 1933, derived as much from the modelling of the head as from the flaunting pose given to the female nude - all of this accentuated by the realistic modelling of torso and limbs. In a restricted sense, the movement away from any naturalistic treatment of the human form is established in this work. Still further removed, in one direction, are the functional exaggerations and stylization of the preliminary version of the Madonna and Child 1940, and in another direction, the suave, caricatured wit of Lady Jane c1940. With Lady Jane not only are the forms highly stylized: they are also greatly simplified, with emphasis given to the generalized voluminous shapes of the clothing and underlying forms.

One dominant feature of Lady Jane is its strong self-contained rhythm. This is also seen in the early stone Torso and Tanith. These works inherit the romanticism of the European tradition: a fusion that holds in balance the classical sculptural ideals and the emotive disposition of romanticism. This rhythmical emotive element is particularly strong on The Satyr and Nymph c l930, which also reflects the passionate fascination Kavanagh has for the Classical World and all that is associated with it - a fact observable in his medal designs.

JOHN F. KAVANAGH Roses in Glass undated
Brush drawing, 258 x 205 mm.
(Private collection, Auckland)

A different, more modern and abrasive rhythm and chunky pictorial structure is found in monumental designs like Relief Panel: Navvy and the impressive Work - both working models for his Walthamstow Town Hall decorations.

John Kavanagh's paintings are best considered as the private activity of an artist who never intended them for public display. All are relatively recent, most having been painted since his retirement from teaching late in the 1960s. They result from his desire to keep hand and eye in trim in the absence of available sculptural work. His habit of copying the masters accounts for the majority of them. Portraits after Velasquez and Franz Hals predominate: but there are also other subjects, such as a full scale rendition of Paul Gauguin's Flowerpiece of 1896. The purpose is to understand and learn from what is revealed of the master's technique during the process of copying: a method as ancient as the history of art.

John Kavanagh's drawings date from the 1 930s - during his time in Rome or his trips to Switzerland and Norway. In the conventional sense many look unfinished: but they are complete as a visual statement as far as the artist has taken them. included are working drawings or jottings concerned with the appearance of some object; while others are preoccupied with discovering and defining in graphic terms some aspect of the natural world and the way it functions. In this respect they follow a tradition of natural observation to which artists like Leonardo da Vinci and John Constable belong. This can be observed in Kavanagh's studies of cloud forms and his attempts to capture the flowing rhythm of water or of waves arching and breaking into foam. The more closely his drawings are studied, the better is the observer able to appreciate the catholicity of Kavanagh's artistic interests and the range of subjects from which he draws.

JOHN F. KAVANAGH Cora Ann: The Spirit of Youth c.1935
Bronze, 750 mm. high
(Collection of the artist)

Among the figure and portrait drawings are those derived from works by Albrecht Dorer, Vincent van Gogh, Sir William Orpen, Augustus John and others - with a few landscapes based on Paul Cezanne's paintings. Most reveal Kavanagh's incessant search to uncover the secrets of the masters. A similar purpose lies behind his copies of Chinese and Japanese paintings and calligraphy; these being directed to an appreciation of the brush for its subtlety and directness of drawing. it is the controlled manipulation of the brush that links Kavanagh's interest in Chinese calligraphy to his fascination with the manner in which the brush is used by such European masters as Franz Hals and Velasquez. The expressive use of the brush as an instrument of precision and suggestiveness becomes self evident.

It is in John Kavanagh's drawings of flowers that his skills reach their peak. These are produced with a thorough appreciation of the complexity of a flower's structure. Daffodils, violets, carnations, fuchsia, honeysuckle and roses are drawn with great delicacy. Kavanagh is quick to admit that he has never succeeded in fully realizing to h is satisfaction the multiple complexity of the daffodil or the honeysuckle: but he has not yet given up trying.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 18 Summer 1981