Story: Arts reviewing

Page 2. Struggle with modernity, 1900 to 1960s

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Early 20th century

Twentieth-century technological changes brought changes in criticism. From the 1900s critics began to review films. Some papers had regular columns on drama and film, although these often concentrated more on gossip and advertising than serious reviews.

The advent of radio in the 1920s brought a new platform for reviewers, and the wider availability of recorded music meant that music critics were no longer restricted to reviewing live music.

The tradition of reviewer anonymity gradually faded.

The show’s over

Charlie Norman was music and drama critic for the New Zealand Times in the 1910s and early 1920s. He was such a good writer that his critical pieces were usually published without sub-editing or checking. Norman got into the habit of writing reviews for shows without attending them. He was found out and fired after the Times published two reviews he wrote of shows that had not yet been performed.

Newspapers and magazines, 1910s to 1940s

The major daily newspapers and many of the provincial papers published regular reviews. Longstanding critics included:

  • Alan Mulgan, who wrote on literature in the Auckland Star
  • Hilda Keane who reviewed music in the New Zealand Herald under the pen-name ‘Critic’
  • Nan Russell, who was a drama critic for the Hawera Star and other Taranaki papers.

Some weekly newspapers and magazines also published reviews. Truth’s Deadhead’s Diary presented humorous reviews of live events. Shibli Bagarag (Pat Lawlor) wrote book reviews for Aussie magazine and the New Zealand Railways Magazine. Until the 1940s New Zealand literature was regularly reviewed on the Red Page of Sydney’s Bulletin.

Art in New Zealand magazine (1928–1946) provided art and drama reviews and criticism.

The New Zealand Listener, founded in 1939, reviewed literature, drama, film and music, but seldom reviewed radio programmes. The magazine often employed prominent writers as reviewers, including Gordon Mirams, perhaps the country’s only serious early film critic.

Critical writing in books

Introductory essays were another source of literary criticism, such as Quentin Pope’s introduction to the poetry anthology Kowhai gold (1930). Later Allan Curnow, in A book of New Zealand verse (1945) and The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1960), gave powerful reviews of New Zealand poetry from a nationalist point of view.

E. H. McCormick’s 1940 centennial survey Letters and arts in New Zealand gave a critical overview of selected writers and artists, and this was followed in 1946 by J. C. Reid’s Creative writing in New Zealand.

Modernism and literary controversy: 1930s to 1940s

In the 1930s a group of young writers, including R. A. K. Mason, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, were strongly influenced by the ideas of modernism in literature and art. They helped found literary magazines such as Phoenix (1932–33), and Landfall (1947–). The young writers questioned the role of the critic in society and argued for higher standards of literary and artistic criticism. They attacked the old ‘journalistic’ critics such as Alan Mulgan and art critic Charles Marris. Kennaway Henderson and Winston Rhodes, strongly influenced by 1930s left-wing politics, established the literary journal Tomorrow (1934–40), another source of new criticism.

The new magazines also expanded the world of artistic criticism. In 1947 Landfall featured one of the first serious articles on New Zealand photography, written by John Pascoe.

Music and art: modernists versus anti-modernists

In the Dunedin Evening Star L. D. Austin’s Thoughts about Music column (1929–67) fought a fierce rearguard action against modernist influences. Austin wrote scathing reviews of modern classical music, in particular works by composer Douglas Lilburn.

Lilburn and other modernist composers were supported by younger critics such as the Listener’s ‘Marsyas’ (Antony Alpers), Frederick Page in the Press, and Owen Jensen. Jensen edited Music Ho (1941–48), a journal publishing critical writing on classical music. The magazines Art in New Zealand and Music in New Zealand also often contained critical articles supporting modernism.

The young critics were not necessarily supportive of all new musical developments. A. R. D. Fairburn wrote an article in Music Ho dismissing swing jazz as ‘Music for Morons’.1

Debates over modernism in art and music continued into the 1950s. They came to a head with clashes between critics over the merits of the Henry Moore sculpture exhibition in Auckland in 1956–57.

L. D. vs D. L.

Reviewer L. D. Austin castigated composer Douglas Lilburn in Dunedin’s Evening Star on 12 May 1945: ‘It was my misfortune the other evening to be obliged to listen to a sonata for violin and piano written by a New Zealand composer. I have not space to enumerate the work’s defects … Wild horses will never drag me back to such an example of decomposition.’2

Radio and reviewing

Print reviews of radio programmes tended to be brief and often superficial. On the other hand radio broadcasts had a considerable number of book, film and music reviews.

In the 1930s Alan Mulgan gave literary talks. In the 1950s the YC stations had a programme called Bookshop and some stations had film reviews. Owen Jensen had a program on 1YC looking at new records. Arthur Pierce, as ‘Turntable’, gave serious jazz criticism on his programme Rhythm on record.

Reviews for the revolution

In the 1910s and 1920s the socialist weekly Maoriland Worker had regular book reviews, often written by editor Robert Samuel Ross. The reviews not only covered political works but also novels by left-wing authors such as Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, the novelist David Ballantyne wrote film reviews for the New Zealand Communist Party newspaper People’s Voice.

Footnotes:
  1. A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘Music for Morons.’ In Music Ho 4, no. 1 (June–July 1945), p. 11. Back
  2. Quoted in Philip Norman, Douglas Lilburn: his life and music. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2006, p. 157. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Arts reviewing - Struggle with modernity, 1900 to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/arts-reviewing/page-2 (accessed 16 June 2019)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 22 Oct 2014