Story: Arts and the nation

Page 4. Major themes of cultural nationalism, 1930 to 1970

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The heart of the 1930s generation’s cultural nationalism was, in Allen Curnow’s words, ‘an uncompromising fidelity to experience’.1 He insisted that the reality expressed in culture had to be local and particular, and he criticised the ‘lack of any vital relationship to experience’ in the rival Kowhai gold anthology of New Zealand poetry.

For some, especially A. R. D. Fairburn, this meant an explicit rejection of England: ‘The umbilical cord of butter-fat has held us in strict dependence on the motherland, culturally no less than economically.’2 Like Frank Sargeson, he suggested the models should be American, not English.

In art, the realist impulse led to an emphasis on the hard, clear light of New Zealand and a view that New Zealand paintings should have sharp outlines revealing the form of hills and burnt-out trees.

Men only

The 1930s generation’s values led them towards a male chauvinism which dismissed women writers. They saw poets such as Jessie Mackay and Eileen Duggan as engaged in effeminate sentimental posturing. Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn regularly attacked the ‘menstrual’ or the ‘feminine-mimsy’ school of poets; and after receiving a letter from Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) Glover wrote: ‘Our women writers – a bunch of bores in stuffy drawers!’3


A rigorous realism did not imply what nationalists saw as the ‘pseudo-nationalism’ of the Maoriland generation, which was regarded as simply scattering in Māori words like kōwhai, tūī or rātā. There should be no ‘little New-Zealandism’ or dishonest romanticism about the country. Curnow had no time for the Maoriland school or any poetry that did not face ‘hard’ reality.


As writers who believed they were starting something new, the cultural nationalists were fascinated by origins and beginnings. They were interested in moments of European discovery of New Zealand – ‘landfall in unknown seas’, to quote the title of Curnow’s well-known poem about Abel Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand. Their two literary journals were Landfall and Islands; and an island people surrounded by encircling seas was a favourite metaphor.

The land, not society

The 1930s generation found solace in the land. They challenged the gospel of material progress that saw bush turned into ‘English’ farms. They pointed to an estrangement between people and the land. New Zealand was, in the words of painter Colin McCahon, ‘a landscape with too few lovers’, or, as Curnow said, ‘a land of settlers with never a soul at home’.4 Some such as M. H. Holcroft and McCahon saw spiritual salvation in the hills; others wrote about the misfits, the alienated, who escaped society and discovered identity in the bush – characters such as John Mulgan’s Johnson (from Man alone), and Denis Glover’s Harry and Arawata Bill, and Frank Sargeson finding meaning on his uncle’s King Country farm. The artists anointed as the Holy Trinity of New Zealand painting, Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston, made their names through post-impressionist landscape painting, rather than abstraction.

A Philistine society

Behind these sentiments was the sense that New Zealand society rejected creative artists – that it was Philistine. If the New Zealand hills were worshipped, the New Zealand city was despised. New Zealanders were seen as narrow, materialistic and conformist. In the early 1950s, in essays by Bob Chapman and Bill Pearson published in Landfall, the condemnation was extended to the repressive puritanism of New Zealanders.

Pākehā culture

Despite such attacks on Pākehā society, few of the 1930s cultural nationalists found a solution in Māori culture. Those who did explore Māori traditions, such as artists Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters, or writer Roderick Finlayson, were not admitted to the national canon. The cultural nationalist idea of New Zealand as a ‘silent land’ ignored Māori traditions of the landscape.

A people’s culture?

Despite an aspiration for a left-wing culture in which writers and artists communicated to a mass popular audience, when R. A. K. Mason took Phoenix in a left direction it was dismissed by the popular newspaper Truth as ‘sneers, jeers, bellicose blasphemies, red rantings and sex-saturated sophistries’.5 In the 1930s books of poems or short stories sold very few copies, and mostly to fellow middle class intellectuals.

Other influences

Although cultural nationalism was important for many of the 1930s writers and artists, there were two other important drivers. The first was international modernism. This generation was influenced by contemporary styles and movements in European and American high culture. The poets looked to modernists such as W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot; the painter Colin McCahon gave thanks to Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian.

The second important international influence was the 1930s aspiration for a popular left-wing culture, which provided a model for left book clubs and co-operative bookshops. Left-wing journal Tomorrow was the purest expression of this aim, but, apart from the plays of R. A. K. Mason and to some extent John Mulgan’s novel, Man alone, Marxism had little influence. There were no proletarian novels or social realist paintings as in other countries.

  1. Allen Curnow, ‘New Zealand literature: the case for a working definition.’ In Look back harder: critical writings 19351984, by Allen Curnow. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1987, p. 200. Back
  2. A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘Some aspects of New Zealand arts and letters.’ In Art in New Zealand 6, no 4 (June 1934), p. 214. Back
  3. Quoted in Stuart Murray, Never a soul at home: New Zealand literary nationalism and the 1930s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1998, p. 165. Back
  4. Allen Curnow, ‘House and land.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 202. Back
  5. New Zealand Truth, 31 May 1933, p. 1. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Arts and the nation - Major themes of cultural nationalism, 1930 to 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014