Page 1: Biography
Thompson, Pauline Adele
This biography, written by Emma-Jean Kelly, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2023.
Auckland artist Pauline Thompson produced a distinctive and challenging body of work over a career spanning five decades. Her paintings used allegorical imagery to explore her own family history, the lives of women and indigenous people, her spirituality, and Pacific and New Zealand history. She worked hard to balance the competing commitments of family and a full creative life.
Childhood and education
Pauline Adele Thompson was born in Auckland on 28 November 1942 and lived in the city for the rest of her life. She was the second child of builder Walter Kirkpatrick Thompson and his wife, piano teacher Marie (Molly) Gabrielle Buffett. Pauline was born with haemolytic disease of the newborn, and a full blood transfusion immediately after her birth saved her life; her middle name honoured the nurse who helped deliver her. A younger brother with the same condition died soon after he was born. Pauline had joint Pākehā and Tahitian ancestry, descended on her mother’s side from Mauatua, a tapa cloth maker and daughter of Tu, the paramount chief of Tahiti, and her husband, Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.
Pauline wanted to be a painter from a young age. From 1956 to 1960 she took a commercial course at Seddon Memorial Technical College, where she began to paint landscapes, and honed her technical skills at art classes at Auckland City Art Gallery. Her first public exhibition came in 1959, at 16, in a one-woman show at the John Court Ltd department store in Auckland, arranged by a college teacher. A group show at the Palmerston North Art Gallery followed in 1960. She attended Elam School of Fine Arts part-time in 1960, while working as an illustrator for the New Zealand Herald, then went to Elam full-time in 1963 and 1964. There she was tutored by Colin McCahon and Garth Tapper. She found the environment unsympathetic to women artists, and McCahon, she recalled, said she would never be a real artist because motherhood would distract her from her true artistic calling.
Thompson left Elam without completing her qualification, in protest, she later recalled, against McCahon’s dismissal of her artistic aspirations. She married fellow artist Ross William Ritchie in Auckland on 30 January 1965, after meeting him at an art gallery, and together they had three children, George, Hannah and Agnes. Thompson retained her birth surname for her professional career. She worked briefly as a central city hotel cleaner, did some illustration work and occasionally taught community art classes, but largely focused on motherhood and art.
Painting and parenting, 1960s–70s
A further series of solo and group shows followed from the mid-1960s, with Thompson exhibiting alongside other up-and-coming artists in prestigious Auckland galleries. In 1965 she exhibited a series of large paintings, many featuring rounded, abstract shapes, which could be experienced ‘as events and as actual objects’ and as ‘environmental art which confronts rather than, as do small paintings, invites inspection’. She wanted them to open up ‘areas of feeling’ and be ‘experienced empathetically’.1 In the mid-1960s she produced a series of pop art-inspired works, some influenced by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, before shifting focus late in the decade to a new ‘Cycle’ series, symbolic paintings centred on stylised palm trees. She was included in the Ten Years of New Zealand Painting exhibition at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1967, and was one of the few younger women artists mentioned in Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith’s influential An introduction to New Zealand painting 1839–1967 (1969).
During the 1970s, Thompson painted sexual organic forms, cells, sperm and ova, reflecting her experiences of parenthood and involvement with the Sufi religion, a mystical form of Islamic practice. Her parents and sister died between 1976 and 1979, when her three children were young, and the weight of familial responsibilities reduced her ability to produce new works. Despite such practical challenges, she enjoyed spending time with her children and sharing her ideas with them. She told them of her need to claim a space in the art world as a working woman artist, as well as a physical space to paint in a house shared ‘with litters of kittens and children’.2 Art critics later imagined her to have been solely focused on her children in the 1970s, but Thompson made about 30 paintings and hundreds of drawings. These paintings of ‘cyclic symbols and cellular forms’, however, were not embraced by art dealers.3 Her marriage to Ross Ritchie ended in the mid-1980s.
Move into narrative art
From the late 1970s, Thompson began to incorporate recognisable aspects of the urban landscape and historical events into her paintings. In the early 1980s she exhibited paintings from her new ‘Plains and Volcanoes’ series. These works moved real aspects of the Auckland cityscape, such as the police station, into abstract, dream-like environments, or had them looming over pre-colonial landscapes in which rivers flowed and harakeke and toetoe flourished.
Thompson was often inspired by literary works and historical events, and increasingly incorporated narratives into her work during the 1980s. She was particularly fascinated by Judgement, a radio play by Barry Collins which dealt with an incident during the Second World War when a group of Soviet officers locked in a basement were forced to resort to cannibalism. She stayed up for days and nights painting ‘Judgement’ (1987), the series based on the play which is now part of the Auckland Art Gallery collection. She painted a second series on the same subject, ‘Judgement II’, two years later. Death and resurrection, which Collins’ play explored, were often strong themes in Thompson’s work. Warwick Brown described these works as ‘a strange mix of lyricism and high drama, a blend of Goya and Turner.’4
In the 1980s Thompson also became interested in the nineteenth-century French nun Suzanne Aubert, founder of the Sisters of Compassion religious order in New Zealand, a charismatic and unusual woman who worked closely with Māori and the poor. Thompson thought of Aubert as ‘one who looks after those parts of ourselves which are the hidden parts, the darker parts, the part that’s not out in the open, not out in the marketplace: the role that’s often taken by or symbolised by women, or children, or the dark races, religion, anything on that side. The illogical rather than the logical, unconscious rather than the conscious’.5 Thompson frequently portrayed Aubert in her art, and sometimes presented the finished works to the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, Wellington, together with letters explaining her interest and how much she personally identified with Aubert. Her ‘Suzanne Aubert at the Mirror’ was exhibited at the National Art Gallery in Wellington and subsequently purchased by the Fletcher Trust Collection.
Thompson’s later work drew on stories about her own ancestors, the mutiny on the Bounty and the subsequent lives of the mutineers, and the Tahitians who accompanied them, on both Pitcairn and Norfolk islands. She visited Norfolk Island frequently, and her series ‘Under the Horizon’ was exhibited there for the 150th anniversary of the resettlement from Pitcairn in 2006. It included paintings of Tahitian women associated with the Bounty and Pitcairn Island. The large size of the paintings confronted the viewer, but also invited close inspection, thanks to her use of iconography and spiritual symbolism such as the pīpīwharauroa (shining cuckoo), which represents spring and life, but also death. Gregory O’Brien likened her work to the surreal illuminated texts of William Blake.
In 1997 Thompson produced the banner painting series ‘Tuki and Huru’, which recalled the kidnapping of two young Māori men in the 1790s to teach flax weaving to convicts at Norfolk Island. The project emerged from research undertaken during an arts fellowship, one of several she was awarded during the 1980s and 1990s. The series was exhibited at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui, the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson and the Whangārei Art Museum in 1997.
Thompson’s allegorical style placed her slightly outside the artistic mainstream from the 1980s, and some viewers may have found her work difficult or overwhelming. Nevertheless, art critics such as Megan Corbett and Gregory O’Brien recognised her skill and sensitivity and classed her as one of New Zealand’s foremost narrative painters, engaged with the wider Pacific, the environment, and the country in which she lived. Critics also recognised the metaphysical quality of her work, which was suffused with emotion and atmosphere. In 2000, Keith Stewart described her as ‘rare not just in her ability to paint the unseeable, to give us images steeped in passion, but in her unequivocal approach to a subject which is at odds with the nagging intellectualism which surrounds the world of fine art’.6 While she never became wealthy from her art, and never had a major retrospective during her lifetime, she is represented in most major galleries in New Zealand and Australia.
Pauline Thompson’s view of herself as a woman artist changed over the course of her career. She remarked in 1988: ‘I don’t think art has any sex. I think the spirit is sexless.’7 She recognised, however, that an artist’s experience in the world is gendered, and that critics often discussed her work in relation to her domestic commitments, which they wouldn’t do in assessments of her male peers. She was concerned that New Zealand women artists were neglected by art history, and deliberately included details of her life in exhibition catalogues and interviews to provide glimpses of her experiences as a woman artist working in Aotearoa over five decades.
Pauline Thompson died in Auckland on 27 July 2012, aged 69. Her life and work proved that a woman could both devote her life to her art and be a mother. As an artist of mixed European and Pacific heritage, she was a trailblazer, exploring her ancestry through her work. Unmoved by fashion and often underestimated, she was an outsider in the art world of her time. From disparate influences and experiences she produced an original and individualistic body of work, which was drawn together in a retrospective exhibition for the first time in 2023. She always recognised and delighted in beauty; two years before her death, she told the sisters at the Home of Compassion, ‘The world is full of never-imagined beauty, light-in-darkness, and never-ending surprise’.8