Critical writing about New Zealand art and literature did not begin in the late-colonial university colleges, where little attention was paid to the local effusions of Māori-themed art, poems and stories.
It began instead in the early 1890s, in Thomas Bracken’s introduction to his Musings in Maoriland (1890) and in Charles Baeyertz’s journal the Triad (1893–1926), with speculation about when the colony might develop its own distinct tradition and what characteristics that tradition might have. Other early critical thinking was found in debating societies, and perhaps in Mary Colborne-Veel’s ‘only approach to a salon in the South Island’.1 It was also found in Jessie Mackay’s reflections on the differences between Australian and New Zealand literature in her introduction to her 1907 anthology New Zealand rhymes, old and new.
The most significant early literary criticism was found in W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie’s introduction to their 1906 anthology, New Zealand verse, which considered the question of what conditions might prompt a genuinely New Zealand literature of the future. Modest about the contents of their anthology, the editors were cautious about anticipating future greatness, but wrote, ‘if the sheaf we have bound is a very little one, it surely holds ears with no poor promise of good grain to come.’2
Alfred Sharpe was a champion of a fresh approach to landscape drawing and painting in New Zealand, writing in 1884: ‘I would wish to again point out (what I have frequently urged) that to represent accurately the scenery of a totally new country we must divest ourselves of old-world and antiquated notions of art, and begin de novo [anew] at Nature’s shrine.’3
In contrast to the conventional preference for a romantic attachment to nature, well-represented in New Zealand verse, writer Katherine Mansfield advocated a highly self-conscious art, in 1908 expressing exasperation with the ‘fat … brains’ of her fellow citizens. 4 Ultimately, her solution was to leave New Zealand to pursue her literary ambitions elsewhere.
Early art criticism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries appeared chiefly in newspapers, where critical responses were voiced with an immediacy and dynamism that distinguished them from their literary counterparts. In Auckland artists Alfred Sharpe and Albin Martin produced highly opinionated articles, both signed and anonymous, debating the current and future potential of art in New Zealand. In Wellington, battles raged between conservatives and avant-gardists in the Evening Post and the Dominion.