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Criticism and the arts

by Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams

It wasn’t until the 1890s that critics began to look closely at New Zealand art and literature and wonder what characteristics might make it unique.

Colonial criticism


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.

Literary criticism

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

Beginning anew

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.

Art criticism

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.

    • Jessie Mackay, letter to A. G. Stephens, 1 June 1903, MS-Papers-0778/1, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Back
    • W. F. Alexander and A. E. Currie, eds., New Zealand verse. London: Walter Scott, 1906, p. xv. Back
    • Quoted in Roger Blackley, The art of Alfred Sharpe. Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery/David Bateman, 1992, p. 82. Back
    • Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, eds, The collected letters of Katherine Mansfield, volume one, 1903–1917. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 44. Back

The nationalism debate, 1930s onwards

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.

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

Critical approaches, 1930s to 1980s

Political criticism

The 1930s gave rise to a body of left-wing criticism led by R. A. K. Mason in the journal Phoenix (1932–33), followed by Tomorrow (1934–40). Mason and Winston Rhodes, editor of Tomorrow and an English lecturer at Canterbury University, were both Marxists, at the radical end of a left-wing grouping that persisted from the 1930s to the 1960s. After that it fragmented into different causes and languages: anti-war, feminism, the Māori renaissance and ecology. Criticism from a Marxist position remained an underdeveloped discourse apart from the marginal appearance of new-left theory with the magazine Dispute (1964–68). It has been argued that its ‘internationalist localism’ was a precursor to The Word Is Freed (1969–72) and AND (1983–85).1


Politically informed critical writing continued in Charles Brasch’s Landfall (1947–). This journal sought to foster the development of serious criticism attuned to local writing and its social contexts. It also contained criticism on art. Landfall has been described as ‘the most powerful site of New Zealand art criticism’ for its first two decades.2 Its criticism was, however, voiced in a tone of high seriousness and in the judgemental fashion that was characteristic of cultural nationalism.

Richness in literature

The tradition of fierce literary judgement, which ruthlessly sorted out the dire from the promising, was countered in the critical writing of Allen Curnow’s son, Wystan, who began publishing art and literary criticism from the early 1960s in Landfall. Wystan Curnow avoided simply being evaluative, focusing instead on works that appealed to him. Yet his assumptions about cultural practice were elitist and he preferred difficult work. In a 1973 essay, ‘High culture in a small province’, he argued against the dominance and ubiquity of the middle-brow in New Zealand literature. For him, the highest level of culture was marked by ‘extreme richness’, a phrase that recalled Katherine Mansfield’s views.3 But for Curnow leaving the country was not required; rather, he wanted local art and literature to be brought into alignment with contemporary international – notably American – theory and practice.

Comic criticism

Wystan Curnow’s serious approach to art criticism was echoed three decades later by Dylan Horrocks. He directed the same kind of specialised attention at a critically neglected branch of the creative arts in New Zealand – comics and the graphic novel – in a 2004 essay, ‘The perfect planet: comics, games and world-building’.

Seriousness in art criticism

Wystan Curnow was also important for bringing seriousness to art criticism at a time when there was little opportunity for what he described in a 1975 article as ‘informed, subtle, careful, and sustained’ writing.4 He suggested that art critics should be able to write solely on the visual arts instead of also covering literature, music and other creative pursuits. Art critics who were also creative writers were similarly castigated by Peter Tomory, who damned the tendency of the writer and the poet to look for illustrations to their work, meanwhile remaining ‘singularly insensitive to painting’.5

    • Dougal McNeill, ‘Notes on Dispute as a journal of poetics.’ Ka Mate Ka Ora: a New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics 12 (March 2013), (last accessed 13 November 2013). Back
    • Francis Pound, ‘The words and the art: New Zealand Art Criticism c.1950–c.1990.’ In Headlands: thinking through New Zealand art, edited by Mary Barr. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, p. 187. Back
    • Wystan Curnow, ‘High culture in a small province.’ In Essays in New Zealand literature, edited by Wystan Curnow. Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973, p. 155. Back
    • Wystan Curnow, ‘Doing art criticism in New Zealand.’ Bulletin of New Zealand Art History 3 (1975), p. 11. Back
    • Peter Tomory, ‘Looking at art in New Zealand.’ Landfall 46, vol. 12, no. 2 (June 1958), p. 165. Back

Issues of identity, 1960s onwards

Questioning the old order

The most extravagant contrast to the cultural nationalists’ seriousness of purpose and rigorous ranking in criticism arrived noisily at the close of the 1960s with the surrealist and dada excesses of Alan Brunton and Freed.

In the 1980s Leigh Davis appeared in the little magazine AND in the guise of the Parisian dandy loose in contemporary Auckland, with disruptive essays on Allen Curnow, whom he irreverently described in a 1985 Landfall interview as ‘a 1957 Chrysler’ in good condition.1 Yet there was also seriousness to his work, especially in its reflections on identity, both personal and national.

Hamish Keith and Gordon Brown were the art critics who interpreted the shocking modernism of painter Colin McCahon to a generation of middle-class New Zealanders who, by the late 1960s, were receptive to a more daring nationalism. Their popularity as explainers, and the nationalism their criticism rested on, provoked a reaction in Francis Pound’s counter-criticism of the 1980s. Pound’s key critical text, The invention of New Zealand: art and national identity, 1930–1970 (2009), updated and extended his 1980s critique, but in more measured terms, revisiting as well as repudiating cultural nationalism.

Feminist perspectives

In the 1970s the women’s art movement challenged the status quo, supported by a journal, Spiral, first published in 1976. This approach was sharply attacked by Lita Barrie, who drew heavily on French feminist theory to dismiss the ‘Chicago–Lippard school of “shared imagery” art which emphasises vaginal forms and menstruation.’2 Barrie thus echoed A. R. D. Fairburn’s dismissal of women poets of the interwar period as ‘the menstrual school’.3

New Zealand literature in the world

In literature, C. K. Stead acted as mediator between high culture and a broader readership. He also saw Allen Curnow’s cultural nationalism as connected with an emerging modernism in the 1970s, repositioning the older poet at the centre of the new poetry ‘mainstream’. Stead’s 1979 essay, ‘“From Wystan to Carlos”: modern and modernism in New Zealand poetry’, provided a map of New Zealand literature, isolating what he considered the main movers and movements. In the process he relegated to redundancy those who lay too far in advance of the mainstream, or the lagging conservatives of ‘closed form’.4

Open form

Critic and writer C. K. Stead defined ‘open form’ in poetry: ‘Far from being an aesthete who wants to separate literature from life, the Modernist poet, the “open form” poet, wants literature to invade, to absorb life, almost to become indistinguishable from it.’5

Stead managed to act as a New Zealand-focused critic while also maintaining a reputation as a critic of international modernism. Other distinguished New Zealand scholars on international writing and the arts included D. F. McKenzie (bibliography and textual criticism), Brian Boyd (the life and writings of Vladimir Nabokov) and Michael Neill (Shakespeare and 16th- and 17th-century drama). 

Plurality of voices

Bill Manhire was a marginal figure in Stead’s confident roadmap – deemed insufficiently ‘modernist’. Yet Manhire’s poetry was extremely influential in the 1990s and early 2000s. His criticism, too, was highly important. In it he shifted away both from James K. Baxter’s romanticism, prophetic pronouncements and use of the personal voice, and from Allen Curnow’s serious tone and nationalist insistences. In a 1991 essay ‘Dirty silence: impure sounds in New Zealand poetry’ Manhire argued for a plurality of voices participating in a ‘conversation’. In his poetry and criticism alike he championed mixture over a single voice, irony over self-disclosure, and indirection over bullying certainty.

    • Quoted in Hugh Lauder, ‘Interview – debate with Leigh Davis.’ Landfall 155 (September 1985), p. 314. Back
    • Lita Barrie, ‘Remissions: toward a deconstruction of phallic unequivocality: deferrals.’ Antic 1 (June 1986), pp. 94–95. Back
    • The letters of A. R. D. Fairburn. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 95. Back
    • C. K. Stead, ‘“From Wystan to Carlos”: modern and modernism in New Zealand poetry’, Islands 5, no. 7 (November 1979), p. 475. Back
    • ‘From Wystan to Carlos’, p. 476. Back

Critical approaches, 1980s onwards

Contemporary art and literary criticism broadened from the high seriousness of Landfall from 1947 to 1971 or the opacity of the theoretically driven little magazines of the 1980s: AND and Antic (1986–90). Since the 1990s scholarly criticism of New Zealand art and literature has become securely established in universities. In the 2000s academics and critics, including Leonard Bell and Roger Blackley for visual arts, and Mark Williams, Jane Stafford, Alex Calder and Lydia Wevers for literature, paid new attention to the long-neglected colonial period. Beyond the universities Ian Wedde and Martin Edmond have continued to push the range of contemporary art and literary criticism.

Biographical criticism

The tradition of literary and artistic biography, exemplified by Anthony Alpers’ Life of Katherine Mansfield (1954) and E. H. McCormick’s work on painter Frances Hodgkins, led to a rich critical outpouring from the 1980s. Biographies of Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Colin McCahon, C. F. Goldie, Bill Pearson, R. A. K. Mason and Robin Hyde shaped the arguments about art and literary movements.

Historical and international comparisons

Terry Sturm’s Oxford history of New Zealand literature in English (first published in 1991, with a second edition in 1998) redressed the neglect of local literature in the universities. It allowed New Zealanders to see the full historical range and development of their literature, including the colonial period and popular writing.

Conversely, through the efforts of Petar Vuletic, Michael Dunn and Tony Green, the work of abstract New Zealand artists was, without embarrassment, examined in relation to their international influences.

At the centre

In an influential 1992 essay ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins’, Rangihiroa Panoho acknowledged past cultural ‘borrowings’ by both Māori and Pākehā, but asserted ‘In the cultural sphere – the arts – it is now essential for Maori to resume control, re-establish boundaries for appropriation and move taha Maori (things Maori) back to the centre.’1

Māori perspectives

Māori perspectives have become influential in art criticism. Rangihiroa Panoho’s critique of Pākehā artists’ use and misuse of Māori motifs, ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins’, (1992), ignited an appropriation debate that resonates still.

Art criticism in print

Notable for its longevity is the well-illustrated Art New Zealand (founded in 1976). Although rarely edgy or radical, it provides accessible insights into the art world, and it was there that critics such as William McAloon and Ed Hanfling cut their teeth.

Numerous lavishly illustrated guides to traditional and contemporary art are published, and there is a substantial market for intelligent critical and explanatory books on art, such as those by of Justin Paton, Gregory O’Brien and Damian Skinner. Exhibitions remain a key driver of publications and art criticism.

Online art criticism

At the beginning of the 2000s the internet became a significant medium for visual arts criticism, a space to voice opinions that did not otherwise find a place in ‘official’ channels. Artbash had its moment (albeit as much for venting and ranting as for considered criticism). John Hurrell's EyeContact, Natural Selection and The Lumière Reader provided forums for new and diverse writers to emerge. On The Lumière Reader in 2013 Thomasin Sleigh considered how the ‘stuttering conversation of art criticism in New Zealand’ should proceed, concluding that it might best do so by actively and critically continuing to disagree with itself.2

    • Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Maori: at the centre, on the margins.’ In Headlands: thinking through New Zealand art, edited by Mary Barr. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, p. 124. Back
    • Thomasin Sleigh, ‘The stuttering conversation: Art New Zealand in 2013.’ The Lumière Reader, (last accessed 8 November 2013). Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams, 'Criticism and the arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 September 2021)

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