Page 1: Biography
Kennedy, Rodney Eric
Artist, art critic, pacifist, drama tutor
This biography, written by Peter Entwisle, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Rodney Eric Kennedy was a friend of artists and a passionate advocate of what has become the modern canon of New Zealand art. He was also a leader in experimental theatre, a witty, acerbic host, and an accomplished cook and gardener, who liked white flowers.
Born on 20 August 1909 in Dunedin, he was one of two surviving children of Alexander Kennedy, a labourer, and his wife, Lillian Ellice Brown. They were not well off. He and his parents lived in central Dunedin and from 1915 to 1917 he suffered from poliomyelitis. Kennedy later said that he was spoilt by his nurses. He went to High Street School and, after the family moved, to Andersons Bay School. His formative years were spent as an only child – his brother was not born until 1917. Both were very short and they were bullied in the schoolyard. In 1924 Rodney started at Otago Boys’ High School, a painful experience. At some time in these years he was introduced to sex by a male relation and began to discover he was homosexual.
He also formed a special attachment to the landscape of the Otago Peninsula where an uncle had a farm. When he left school he worked there, but in 1926 he enrolled as a student at the Dunedin School of Art. He attended full time from 1928 to 1929 and part time in 1930. The school was influenced by W. H. Allen and Bob Field, who were struggling to introduce New Zealand to post-impressionism. Kennedy admired them, became a foundation member of their Six and Four Club and met Toss Woollaston in 1932. They soon became lovers.
When Woollaston went to live in Nelson, Kennedy established a routine of spending his summers there, fruit picking and painting. In 1936 he staged Woollaston’s first solo exhibition. Some time later Kennedy met Colin McCahon, whom he introduced to Woollaston. Kennedy became a supporter of McCahon’s work and that of Anne Hamblett and Doris Lusk. While working as an illustrator at the University of Otago Medical School he became increasingly interested in theatre through the WEA and the Left Book Club. In 1938 he designed the sets for John Findlay’s production of Karel Čapek’s Insect play. That year he and Woollaston joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) – an expression of their pacifism.
By 1939 Kennedy was the central figure among the young avant-garde. They withdrew their work from the Otago Art Society’s annual exhibition that year in protest at the rejection of a work by McCahon. Summers were spent in Nelson with Toss Woollaston and his wife, Edith, painting and talking about art.
In 1941 Kennedy refused military service and was sentenced to imprisonment and detention. At Strathmore and Shannon he had to do agricultural work and give up painting, but while in camp he managed to produce plays such as T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the cathedral. He returned to Dunedin in 1946. For a while he lived in a flat in Bath Street, where James K. Baxter and Colin McCahon also stayed. The famous actors Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, were guests in 1948.
Kennedy now befriended the writer and editor Charles Brasch, eventually moving in with him. In 1948 he was appointed drama tutor at the University of Otago. He published a seminal review in Landfall identifying the topographers, rather than the Romantics, as the precursors of a native school of art. When Eric Westbrook, the new director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, saw the paintings that Kennedy and Brasch had accumulated, he pronounced that this was the art that New Zealand should be collecting. Their gifts to the Hocken Library transformed the holdings and set a new standard.
In 1955 Kennedy toured Europe; he was a delegate at an international theatre conference and visited numerous exhibitions. Back in New Zealand he moved into an inherited house, where he entertained regularly in a room dominated by McCahon’s landscape, ‘Otago Peninsula’. Kennedy was regarded as a ‘guru’ by art critic Hamish Keith and as a ‘mentor’ of Colin McCahon by Gordon Brown. His thought and preferred artists are present in their Introduction to New Zealand painting, 1839–1967, published in 1969.
Kennedy took modern drama to the Otago hinterland, becoming known as the ‘headless driver’ because of his invisibility behind the wheel. He fostered theatre in the Otago University Dramatic Society, and after his retirement from the University in 1971, followed Patric Carey as director at Dunedin’s Globe Theatre. He died in Dunedin on 14 October 1989.
Recognised as a man of the theatre and a striking personality, his role in shaping thought about art was less obvious. He exercised influence by imperious commands, withering comment and a shrewd and passionate advocacy, seeing merit where others doubted it. The rest of New Zealand has since caught up with him.