Mosaic: The Art of Margaret Coupe by Erica Speden
Steele Roberts, $40. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN
For nearly thirty years Margaret Coupe (1922-2006) created mosaics in her workshop in Kaikohe. She worked largely in isolation, and was little known to New Zealanders outside the Northland region. Over the years she had a few commissions, but her pieces were seldom displayed in galleries. This delightful book is a posthumous record of her mosaic art, arranged in chronological order from 1967-94. It is amazing that such an interesting and unusual New Zealand artist has been overlooked for so long.
The 40 images in the book are a mixture of scenes from nature and of human behaviour. She was obviously a perceptive observer of people, with a soft spot for English painter Beryl Cook who was able to capture individual quirkiness so well. The mosaics featuring people show one of Margaret Coupe’s most distinctive features – the use of hand-made, bas relief tiles for key features such as human faces. It was an inspired way to show detail in both colour and shape, while the background was filled in with conventional mosaic pottery chips (tesserae).
The image used on the front cover (The Tourists) is one of my favourites. The setting is the garden of a basilica in Italy. The peaceful scene is dominated by brightly clad tourists, with proud parents photographing their ugly daughter in front of a peacock. The central statue of a Madonna and child is ignored, while ghosts of the past look on the from the cloisters. Like many of the mosaics, it is multi-layered. There is an obvious story, then another layer of detail in the background.
“Team Spirit” shows scenes from a rugby game in 1975, during the ear of anti-apartheid protests. It was prepared at a time when feelings ran high, and the level of violence reflects divisions within the community. But this is not really typical of Margaret Coupe’s work as most of her social mosaics are a gentle commentary on the quirks of people – at a wedding, in a school staff room, and at the beach.
One of her few public mosaics hangs in the Kaikohe library. Some of the characters are based on real people, and even the library cat is there. One of the librarians commented: “When Margaret first showed us the design she had a clear, uncluttered desktop, but when we pointed out how unusual this was with our slow card system she obliged by cluttering the desk with piles of books”.
Margaret Coupe’s most prominent public mosaic in New Zealand stands above the historic town of Russell. In 1988 the Northland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors commissioned her to make a 3-metre sundial beneath the beacon on Maiki Hill. This was an enormous job, with the mosaic showing features of the surrounding area, all correctly oriented, completed with help from her husband, Peter.
Although Margaret Coupe was little known in New Zealand, she was recognised internationally in the world of contemporary mosaics, and she travelled overseas several times. A sign of her standing is that she was one of seven mosaic artists invited to contribute to the Ravenna Peace Park in Italy as part of a UNESCO-sponsored project. With Peter’s aid she created a ten metre long mosaic illustrating the struggle for a nuclear-free Pacific, with whales, a peace protest, and islands damaged and destroyed by nuclear testing. While it is a pity that her largest and most ambitious mosaic is not easily accessible, there is a tiny corner of Italy that records a distinctive New Zealand contribution to peace activism.
This book is a unusual surprise. A number of New Zealand artists are now creating modern mosaics, but it is inspiring to be able to look at the life’s work of one of the pioneers in this field. Steele Roberts have done a great job producing this book – both design and colour printing are excellent, and it’s an impressive start to New Zealand publishing in 2009.
SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. As Science Editor for Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from 2003-07, he has become interested in writing for the web. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.