Story: Criticism and the arts

Page 2. The nationalism debate, 1930s onwards

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A national voice

The most scholarly early historian and critic of New Zealand literature and art, E. H. McCormick, was no celebrator of settler history. He dismissed colonial poets as ‘poetasters’ (bad poets) who lacked ‘any vital relationship with the life about them … and rarely discard the clichés of Romantic verse’.1 On the eve of New Zealand’s centenary in 1940, McCormick concluded that a national voice in literature and art was slowly emerging, but more so in literature, which was exhibiting ‘signs, few but positive, of adult nationhood’.2

Art in New Zealand

McCormick’s Letters and art in New Zealand (1940) and A. H. McLintock’s essay in The national centennial exhibition of New Zealand art, both published in 1940, were considered to be the founding documents of New Zealand’s art history.

Also influential was the journal Art in New Zealand, which ran from 1928 to 1946 and provided a key context for discussion and criticism around the visual arts. In this publication A. R. D. Fairburn famously wrote: ‘there is no golden mist in the air, no Merlin in our woods’.3 This signalled a shift from an art criticism that judged pictures according to how accurately they recorded a view to one that demanded an honest response to place, unreliant on inherited pictorial models. Fairburn’s words inspired a nationalist doctrine of ‘truth’, which held that New Zealand’s ‘hard, clear light’4 demanded a locally driven art. Its highest expression was depictions of landscape, executed in a hard-edged style with extreme contrasts.

Recognising New Zealand

In his introduction to A book of New Zealand verse 1923–45, Allen Curnow wrote ‘The good poem is something we may in time come to recognise New Zealand by, not something in which we need expect to recognise obvious traces of the New Zealand we know’.5

An independent literature

Allen Curnow elaborated on McCormick’s criticisms of settler literature in his introductions to anthologies of New Zealand poetry from the 1940s. Curnow’s introductions, in which he argues for a poetry that asserts New Zealand’s independent place in the world, remain arguably the most authoritative and influential body of New Zealand literary criticism. The scathing judgements they contain, especially of women poets, have generated much criticism.

Many writers have disagreed with Curnow’s point of view. His nationalism came under attack as early as 1951, with poet James K. Baxter’s essay Recent trends in New Zealand poetry. Repudiation of it is also evident in Murray Edmond’s objection to the exercise of ‘nam[ing] them hills and defin[ing] a national consciousness’6 in a 1970 article, and in Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford’s post-nationalist Floating worlds: essays on contemporary New Zealand fiction (2009). The theoretical underpinnings of Curnow’s anti-theoretical stance were exposed by Roger Horrocks in a February 1984 essay in AND, entitled ‘No theory permitted on these premises’. However, the sheer scale of the hard critical thought Curnow directed at the problem of how to write in New Zealand has irrevocably shaped critical thought.

  1. E. H. McCormick, Letters and art in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940, p. 97. Back
  2. Letters and art in New Zealand, p. 170. Back
  3. A. R. D Fairburn, ‘Some aspects of New Zealand art and letters.’ Art in New Zealand 6, no. 4 (June 1934), p. 215. Back
  4. ‘Some aspects of New Zealand art and letters,’ p. 215. Back
  5. Allen Curnow, ed., A book of New Zealand verse 1923–45. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945, p. 22. Back
  6. Murray Edmond, in The Word is Freed 3 (1970), p. 1. Back
How to cite this page:

Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts - The nationalism debate, 1930s onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 February 2023)

Story by Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, published 22 Oct 2014