Story: Arts and the nation

Page 2. Cultural nationalism, 1890 to 1910

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From 1890 prosperity and a reforming government encouraged a proud New Zealand nationalism that found expression in sport and overseas military achievement, and also in culture.

Musings in Maoriland

There were three significant expressions of these aspirations.

  • In his 1890 introduction to Thomas Bracken’s volume of poems, Musings in Maoriland, published for the country’s 50th jubilee Robert Stout argued that in the past ‘the hard realities of life’ had absorbed all energies, but he now anticipated a literature that was ‘New Zealand’s own’.1
  • In 1899 a New Zealand Literary and Historical Association was set up to promote New Zealand writing. It established the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, which promoted New Zealand literature.
  • In 1906 W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie put together the first anthology of New Zealand verse. They hoped New Zealand would be recognised ‘not only on account of its export of wool and gold, or for richness and worth in horses and footballers, but also by reason of its contributions to art and science.’2


What type of culture did these aspirants expect? In neighbouring Australia, this period saw a strident cultural nationalism that found expression particularly in the Bulletin journal. In the stories of Henry Lawson, the ballads of Banjo Paterson and the paintings of the Heidelberg school, the major themes of this outpouring were a strong anti-English bias and a focus on the crude life of the outback.

Many New Zealand writers published work in the Bulletin but, apart from David McKee Wright’s poems, there were, as Alexander and Currie noted in the introduction to their anthology, few pieces that explored rural life. Instead, they pointed to a school of landscape poetry, while Stout also saw New Zealand’s ‘distinct natural features’ such as mountains, forests and volcanoes as prime inspiration. While much of the landscape poetry from this era was soon considered dreadful, a few poets, such as Blanche Baughan, responded to the landscape in her work in ways which are still considered effective.

Bronze, not marble

In the preface to Maori Life in Ao-tea, Johannes Andersen wrote: ‘A time is looked for … when the world’s art will be enriched with scenes from Maori legend; and he who will break away from old-world fetters will find in this land a mine of wealth almost, if not quite, equal to that afforded by Greek or Scandinavian mythology. The dusky skin has been urged as an objection to artistic treatment: – but if marble be unsuitable, is there not bronze?’3


Stout saw the second inspiration as ‘the Native people’; and at the Literary and Historical Association journalist F. Rollett argued that New Zealand had a rich tradition in Māori stories about the deeds of warriors and loves of chieftains. The Polynesian Society (formed in 1892) provided materials and several textbooks on Māori traditions were published to encourage artists to create works inspired by them.

The vision of Māoriland was expressed in a wide range of artforms:

  • poetry – Thomas Bracken, Jessie Mackay and Arthur Adams all published poems about Māori leader Te Rauparaha, and there were 12 poetic versions of the legend of Hinemoa
  • fiction – short stories by Alfred Grace and Māori-themed novels by H. B. Vogel, Jessie Weston and Arthur Adams appeared
  • music – Alfred Hill composed two musicals, Hinemoa and Tapu, and many songs based on Māori waiata
  • art – Charles Goldie painted portraits of Māori
  • non-fiction – James Cowan wrote travel accounts investing the landscape with Māori history, and in the 1920s he published his history of the New Zealand wars which he saw as providing a frontier myth to compete with American westerns.

Honorary whites

In the work of Māoriland artists and writers, Māori traditions were presented as equivalent to British ones. Māori were seen as an island people, daring seafarers, fine warriors and lyrical poets – a people, wrote Cowan ‘whose love of the sea and pride in deeds of battle show strangely close affinity to some of the traits of the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic race’4.

Māori and their traditions provided artists and writers with an instant mythology for an unlettered land. The adoption of Māori culture was limited – legends were used but not the Māori language; Māori were painted, but Māori carving was not an influence. It could even be argued that Māori culture was acceptable precisely because Māori were expected to die out and were not a threat.

Ultimately, Maoriland culture was so artificial that it could not be the basis for a national culture. By 1910, apart from some individuals such as James Cowan or Rudall Hayward – who later translated the inspiration into film – the movement had petered out.

  1. Introduction to Thomas Bracken, Musings in Maoriland. Dunedin: Arthur T. Keirle, 1890, p. 18. Back
  2. W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie, eds., New Zealand verse. London: Walter Scott, 1906, p. xv. Back
  3. Johannes C. Andersen, Maori life in Ao-tea. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1907, p. x. Back
  4. James Cowan, The Maoris of New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1910, p. 8. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Arts and the nation - Cultural nationalism, 1890 to 1910', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014