Story: Light

Page 3. Light and the arts

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Because light is a distinctive part of the New Zealand experience, many visual artists and writers refer to it in their work.


Some writers have observed the play of light. The short-story writer Katherine Mansfield wrote that ‘the leaping, glittering sea was so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.’ 1 Poet Ursula Bethell referred to ‘this hallowed clarity’. 2 Writer Monte Holcroft made light central to his philosophy. His essay of 1940, The deepening stream, ends with a vision of a New Zealand intellectual tradition in which the individual merges with the environment. He describes the light at Lake Heron amid the Southern Alps: ‘I watched the colours change on the mountains across the lake, wondering at the depths which lie between the hard brilliance of noon and the tender drift of shadows in the dusk.’ 3

Photography and cinema

Photographers have often noted that images taken in New Zealand have an unusual contrast and brilliance of colour, but few have identified this as producing a distinct school of photography based on the effect of the light.

Similarly some international film-makers may well have been drawn to New Zealand by the quality of light, although the relatively cheap production costs are a more likely explanation. Only the New Zealand actor and director Sam Neill, in 1977, saw light as creating a future for local movies: ‘When New Zealand films reach a sort of maturity, there will be a special look about them that will be unlike any film in the world. It’s because of this incredible clarity of light we have here.’ 4 But it is also true that some New Zealand films, such as those by Vincent Ward, have a dark and brooding atmosphere.


Of all the visual artists, painters have been most influenced by New Zealand’s light. In 1911 a reviewer praised the artist Alfred Walsh for depicting it in works such as ‘Low tide, Kaikoura coast’. In 1929 Christopher Perkins, an English artist who had just come to New Zealand, said that ‘the future of New Zealand as a country for painters [was] guaranteed by its marvellous light’. 5 He attempted to capture this in his own paintings.

In the next few years the critic James Shelley contrasted the ‘hazy atmosphere’ of northern countries with New Zealand, where ‘the mountain fairly bounds across the sky’. 6

Brave new world

In 1934 the poet and art critic A. R. D. Fairburn compared New Zealand and British art: ‘There is no golden mist in our air, no Merlin in our woods, no soft, warm colours … Hard, clear light reveals the bones, the sheer form, of hills, trees, stones and scrub. We must draw rather than paint, even if we are using a brush, or we shall not be perfectly truthful.’ 7

Painting in the 1960s

In 1969 Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith published An introduction to New Zealand painting 1839–1967. They stated that light, along with landscape, was central to understanding New Zealand painting. There were 30 references to the subject in the index. Their study featured earlier artists (Charles Heaphy and Alfred Sharpe) and more recent painters (Rita Angus and William Sutton). Hamish Keith has since noted that in the 1960s, he and other art historians ‘put the Great New Zealand Light on the front of our bicycles.’ 8

Several painters supported the idea that light was a key factor. Colin McCahon praised the landscape painter Toss Woollaston’s work for being ‘bright with New Zealand light’. McCahon embellished several of his paintings with the words, ‘As there is a constant flow of light we are born in the pure land’. Pat Hanly produced a series of cut-out ‘Figures in light’, and Don Binney’s sharply defined bird images were seen as a response to the hard light. Binney commented that the importance of light was ‘a myth worth believing in’. 9

Painting from the 1980s onwards

In 1983 the art historian Francis Pound attacked the notion that artists were influenced by the light as ‘meteorological determinism’. He claimed that hard-edged imagery had more to do with artists’ stylistic concerns – their ‘frames’ – than with the local environment. He also pointed out that some artists such as the 19th-century Dutch immigrant Petrus van der Velden had predominantly painted darkness and shadow.

And yet, in the early 2000s New Zealand artists, from painter Wendy Leach to Ann Robinson, maker of glass bowls, still acknowledged the wonders of New Zealand light. It seems unlikely that it will quickly disappear as a defining element of New Zealand identity and culture.

  1. Katherine Mansfield, ‘At the bay.’ In The best of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. Auckland: Vintage, 1998, p. 196. › Back
  2. Mary Ursula Bethell, ‘October morning.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse, edited by Allen Curnow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, p. 124. › Back
  3. Monte Holcroft, The deepening stream: cultural influences in New Zealand. Christchurch: Caxton, 1940, p. 85. › Back
  4. Simon Carr, ‘Sam the “Sleeping Dogs” Man.’ New Zealand Listener (17 December 1977): 23. › Back
  5. Christopher Perkins, ‘Art notes: Wellington.’ Art in New Zealand 1, no. 4 (June 1929): 272. › Back
  6. Quoted in Francis Pound, ‘Harsh clarities.’ Parallax 1, no. 3 (Winter 1983): 264. › Back
  7. A. R. D. Fairburn, ‘Some aspects of New Zealand arts and letters.’ Art in New Zealand 7, no. 4 (June 1934): 215. › Back
  8. Hamish Keith, ‘Patrick Hanly – a conversation.’ Art New Zealand 14 (1979–80) (last accessed 10 November 2005). › Back
  9. Damian Skinner, Don Binney: ngā manu ngā motu – birds/islands. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003, p. 25. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Light - Light and the arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006