After the First World War, many continued to note the lack of a New Zealand national culture. This was contrasted with Australia’s more robust national expression, and critics pointed to the fact that significant writers such as Katherine Mansfield had chosen to leave New Zealand. In 1931 Alan Mulgan cited the country’s small size, isolation and focus on material prosperity, and argued that beautiful scenery did not produce great art. W. A Sewell criticised the lack of a rebellious spirit.
There were some efforts to boost New Zealand’s culture. In 1929 Quentin Pope compiled an anthology of New Zealand poems, Kowhai gold, and in the introduction he bemoaned that national culture was expressed by the advertisement, ‘New Zealand – the Empire’s Dairy Farm’. He saw his anthology as the beginnings of a national literature. Others were not convinced and the anthology came to be generally regarded with scorn.
Some characteristic quotations articulate the aims and achievements of the 1930s generation:
‘We are hungry for the words that shall show these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought.’1
‘We loved England still, but we ceased to be “for ever England”.’2
‘The thirties released – or tapped – a spring.’3
A new generation
The 1930s saw the emergence of younger writers and artists who also claimed to represent the start of a genuinely national culture.
From the 1930s to the 1960s this cultural nationalism found expression in many ways.
In literature there were lively student periodicals, Phoenix (1932–33) in Auckland and Oriflamme and Sirocco (both 1933) in Christchurch, which were associated with new printing ventures such as Denis Glover’s Caxton Press and Robert Lowry’s Unicorn Press. From 1934 to 1940 there was the left-wing Tomorrow magazine. From 1947 Charles Brasch’s Landfall journal was a serious cultural forum.
In art, The Group, an association of artists, held an annual show in Christchurch. From 1956 the Auckland Art Gallery became a promoter of a national art under director Peter Tomory.
Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Charles Brasch, A. R. D. Fairburn and R. A. K. Mason were seen as important New Zealand voices. Curnow’s two anthologies, A book of New Zealand verse 1923–45 (1945) and the Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960) represented the generation’s work.
Frank Sargeson’s short stories, particularly those collected in Speaking for ourselves (1945), and John Mulgan’s novel Man alone (1939) were the key texts. Robin Hyde’s novels, especially The godwits fly (1938), were given more significance by later critics than by contemporaries.
Curnow’s introductions to his poetry anthologies, E. H. McCormick’s survey Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) and M. H. Holcroft’s trilogy, published together as Discovered isles (1940), were primary manifestos. An important text of art criticism was Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith’s Introduction to New Zealand painting (first published in 1969).
J. C. Beaglehole’s New Zealand: a short history (1936) and his lifetime’s work on James Cook, followed in the 1950s by the work of another poet-historian Keith Sinclair, were the most important nationalist contributions.
The paintings of Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston have been regarded as the pre-eminent works of this generation. McCormick and A. H. McLintock, in his catalogue for the centennial art exhibition in 1940, also rediscovered earlier topographical artists such as John Buchanan, John Kinder and Charles Heaphy.
Douglas Lilburn, who worked with Allen Curnow in a famous work, Landfall in unknown seas, was a significant composer.