Story: Painting

Page 5. Problems of isolation, 1900 to 1940

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In the 20 years after 1900 some young artists, inspired by the European professional teachers of the 1890s, frustrated by the provincialism of New Zealand society, and backed by family wealth, left for a more creative painting environment in Europe.

Not very pleasurable

The contrast between an expatriate who remained overseas and one who returned is illustrated by the controversy over the anonymous gift of Frances Hodgkins’s painting ‘The pleasure garden’ to Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1949. The returned expatriate, Archibald Nicoll, was the leading opponent of the work, arguing that it was neither worthy of the artist or the gallery, and led the decision to have the gift rejected. However, two years later this decision was overturned.

Frances Hodgkins

The most famous expatriate was Frances Hodgkins, daughter of Dunedin lawyer and painter William Mathew Hodgkins. Her early work, almost wholly watercolour, focused on figures, especially Māori people. She was influenced by her teacher Girolamo Nerli in Dunedin, but in 1901 left for Europe and, although she returned for brief stays in 1903–6 and 1912–13, she spent the rest of her life in England and Europe. There she was influenced by post-impressionist painting and produced works including landscapes and still-life paintings that reflected an interest in abstract form. The Cornwall impressionists were a major influence. She increasingly painted in gouache, which highlighted her clever use of colour. During her lifetime Hodgkins had little impact in New Zealand, although she was subsequently recognised and claimed.

Other expatriates

Other expatriate painters in the early 20th century included:

  • Grace Joel, another Nerli pupil, who painted oils of ordinary people in Paris and London
  • Sydney Thompson, a pupil of Petrus van der Velden who, on going to Europe in 1900, became a follower of French impressionism
  • Raymond McIntyre, also taught by van der Velden, who left for England in 1909 and became known for portraits of women in a style influenced by French post-impressionist Henri Matisse.

Other painters returned home. Some such as Edith Collier painted less and less as they became dispirited by poor community responses. Similarly, Mina Arndt, who had studied in Germany, came back to be largely ignored. Others, including Hodgkins’s close friend D. K. Richmond, or the highly productive Christchurch painter and director of the Christchurch College School of Art, Archibald Nicoll, became strong opponents of modern influences such as cubism and post-impressionism. Another returned expatriate, Margaret Stoddart, was a leading figure in Christchurch art in the interwar years and retained a dynamism in her landscape watercolours.

Harsh, clear light

Christopher Perkins’s suggestion about the value of New Zealand’s harsh, clear light for its painters was picked up by poet and art critic A. R. D. Fairburn, who wrote in 1934: ‘There is no golden mist in the air, no Merlin in our woods, no soft warm colour to breed a school of painters … Hard, clear light reveals the bones, the sheer form of hills, trees, stones and scrub.’1 This idea became a staple of nationalist art critics in the 1960s and 1970s.

La Trobe scheme

Another challenge to provincialism was a scheme to import modernist art educators developed by William La Trobe, superintendent of technical education in the Department of Education. Several of these immigrants made a substantial impact.

  • Robert Field arrived in New Zealand in 1925 to teach at the Dunedin Technical College. His painting featured strong colours and full brushstrokes; and provided an important example for younger artists. For Toss Woollaston they provided ‘wild excitement’ after the ‘long drought of earnest mediocrity’.2 For Colin McCahon, Field offered an example of the painter’s life.
  • Christopher Perkins came to teach at the Wellington Technical School of Art in 1929 and only stayed four years. Expecting Gauguin’s exotic South Pacific, Perkins found a ‘strip of Victorian England’.3 He argued strongly for local subject matter and style, and suggested that the clear harsh light of New Zealand offered an approach for local painters. Drawing on the example of post-impressionists, he exemplified his pleas with strong lines, geometric shapes and landscapes that placed commercial and industrial buildings in the foreground. His ‘Taranaki’ became, after Heaphy’s ‘Mt Egmont’, the second highly influential painting of that mountain.
  • Roland Hipkins was another La Trobe immigrant who advocated ‘New Zealandism’ in painting.

New institutions

The interwar years were also important in some new institutional developments. A journal, Art in New Zealand, began in 1928 and provided a forum for criticism. Dunedin Public Art Gallery moved to a new building in Logan Park in 1927, and new galleries were established – the Robert McDougall in Christchurch (1932) and a new National Art Gallery in Wellington (1936).

  1. A. R. D. Fairburn. ‘Some aspects of New Zealand art and letters.’ Art in New Zealand 6, no. 4 (June 1934), p. 215. Back
  2. M. T. Woollaston, The far-away hills: a meditation on New Zealand landscape. Auckland: Auckland Gallery Associates, 1962, p. 31. Back
  3. Quoted in Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith, An introduction to New Zealand painting, 1839–1980. Auckland: David Bateman, 1982, p. 119. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Painting - Problems of isolation, 1900 to 1940', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 August 2022)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014