Dennis Knight Turner

New Zealand, 20th Century.

Born in 1924 in Whanganui, Dennis Knight Turner (d. 2010) was one of the first European artists to incorporate Maori and Oceanic motifs, for which he is recognised as one of New Zealand’s pioneering modernists. He was dismayed that local art in the 1940s and 1950s seemed very old-fashioned in its imitation of English regionalism. Along with his fellow artists Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters (famous for his Koru series), Turner was fascinated by the power and simple lines of Maori rock art and Oceanic art forms, and used these as a starting point for a new kind of distinctively Pacific modernism. He also liked the way these art forms could represent a human feature or form with a single line or block of colour. Turner was described by the NZ Herald in 1951 as ‘providing the link between past and future that New Zealand has been needing’. He left New Zealand in 1964 to live in England, despondent at how hard it was to work here as a full-time career artist. He was persuaded to return to his home town of Whanganui for The Sarjeant public gallery Tylee Cottage residency in 1992, and completed a significant number of watercolour paintings, often using restrained colours mimicking natural pigments. These were first exhibited at The Diversion Gallery in Marlborough; some have been selected for a retrospective exhibition toured by the Auckland University Gus Fisher Gallery in 2014. Although Dennis Knight Turner was regarded in the 1950s as one of Auckland’s most important artists, he came in and out of public favour over the years, a situation common to many artists who spent much of their career overseas, not exhibiting in New Zealand. However, recent articles and books now firmly acknowledge his significance in our art history.

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