Marian Maguire's The Labours of Herakles

Story by Sarah Byrne

Museum and Heritage Studies, 2015

The Labours of Herakles

  • <p>Marion Maguire, <em>Herakles dreams of Arcadia, </em>plate 7 from<em> The Labours of Herakles</em>, 2007, colour lithograph, Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, purchased 2010. Image courtesy of Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection. </p>
  • <p><em>Herakles struggles with the taniwha, plate 12 from The Labours of Herakles</em>, 2007, VUW.2010.13, colour lithograph, Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, purchased 2010. </p>
  • <p>Marion Maguire, <em>Herakles struggles with the taniwha, </em>plate 12 from<em> The Labours of Herakles</em>, 2007, colour lithograph, Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, purchased 2010. Image courtesy of the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection.</p>

Hidden Jewels on Campus

A treasure trove of art works hang in the corridors and stairwells of Victoria’s Kelburn Campus. Many rush past on their way to class. But pause a moment, look up and you’re in for a treat.

Greek Demigod in Aotearoa?

Take for example prints by Marion Maguire that hang at the entry to the Classics department. These combine New Zealand subject matter fused with the classical world, giving students a chance of time and space travel.

This is Herakles, as the Greeks knew him, the famed superhero of classical times. Yet here he is labouring on the land of colonial New Zealand. Why, you ask?

Marion Maguire uses Herakles as a stand-in for the hardy figure of the pioneer to tell the story of the labours of early European settlers in New Zealand.

Here Herakles, depicted as he would have been on a classical Greek vase, now inhabits the burnt-out forest floor of the nineteenth-century colony.

Despair, Greek Sea Monsters, and Taniwha

Our gaze scours the three lithographs hunting for clues to unravel the puzzle in front of us. The artist wants us to slow down our twenty-first-century gaze and to work out our questions by letting our eye track over the works.

Why is this naked man sitting beside classical ruins in despair with New Zealand hills and pā beyond?

Because, unlike the hero of classical mythology, this Herakles has doubts as he realises the daunting task of transforming the colonial frontier.

In all three lithographs, your eyes are fooled: this isn't a fight with a Greek sea monster. You realise it's a taniwha. And those whales swimming on a Greek vase are being harpooned in South Pacific seas.

Back Into the Present

Three lithographs from 2008 are part of a series of 20 works, ‘The Labours of Herakles’, which took the artist three years to produce.

They are intricate stories to marvel at, with layers of references borrowed from old photographs, historical prints and ancient vases. They provide a knowing gaze on New Zealand history.

Marian Maguire

Widely seen as one of New Zealand's leading contemporary printmakers, Marion Maguire's work is represented in public and private collections both at home and overseas.

Go See Them for Yourself!

Level 5, Old Kirk Building, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand