No social realism
The economic depression of the 1930s did not spark in New Zealand social realist painting documenting poverty, as in other countries. Only Lois White’s 1937 painting ‘The war-makers’ showed real social engagement. However, the depression did inspire a nationalist belief that New Zealand culture should throw off European models and cultivate the local.
Canterbury regional painting
The home of this nationalist perspective was Christchurch, where the Canterbury School of Arts provided employment for painters and where, from 1927, The Group’s shows allowed experimental work to be exhibited. Some painters, such as Toss Woollaston, Doris Lusk and Rita Angus, exhibited in the annual show while living outside Christchurch. Others in The Group included Louise Henderson, Rata Lovell-Smith, Evelyn Page, Olivia Spencer-Bower, Russell Clark, W. A. Sutton and Colin McCahon.
This nationalist school was not influenced by modernist abstraction, either in its European or New York forms, nor was surrealism a factor. The inspiration was rather post-impressionist landscape painting, especially French artist Paul Cézanne, with an emphasis on hard-edged forms. Following Christopher Perkins’s example, there was an interest in distinctive man-made objects or buildings set against the New Zealand landscape, such as the railway station in Angus’s ‘Cass’, or a Gothic church or road sign in Sutton’s paintings. The subject was almost never urban. It was the landscape of small-town New Zealand.
Three influential painters
Despite such limitations, the Canterbury artists included some impressive painters.
Educated at the Canterbury School of Arts under Archibald Nicoll, Rita Angus first exhibited with The Group in 1932. She was influenced by Cézanne and her landscapes of Canterbury and, later, Central Otago had strong geometric forms and powerful colours. She usually painted oils in the studio based on open air sketches. Angus also painted portraits, including over 50 self-portraits, which were enriched with symbols and expressive of her own feminist and pacifist convictions.
Although Woollaston briefly attended art school at both Christchurch and Dunedin and was inspired by the 1931 Group show, he was largely self-taught. He was particularly influenced by German cubist Hans Hofmann and his idea of interacting planes. Woollaston had been introduced to his work by artist Flora Scales. Based for long periods in Nelson, Woollaston painted the local hills with flat washes of ochre and reddish-brown often on an unprimed canvas. His work portrayed a landscape of emotion through energetic brushstrokes and a sense of restless movement.
McCahon grew up in Dunedin, attended the local art school and then settled in Christchurch in 1948. From boyhood McCahon invested the hills with religious feelings – he later said he saw ‘an angel in this land’. But unlike colonial painters, who aimed to reflect God through nature, McCahon located a crucified Christ in the landscape – a symbol perhaps of his own feelings of cultural isolation. Although Cézanne was an influence, McCahon also looked to early Italian Renaissance painters whose style fashioned the strong lines of his hills. From an early fascination with sign writers and the example of some medieval paintings which include biblical text, he used words in his painting to express powerful feelings.
In 1953 McCahon moved to Auckland and the influence of cubism on his art became stronger; this was particularly evident in a series of paintings of kauri trees. In 1958 he visited the United States and saw work by abstract expressionist painters, after which his painting evolved into more abstract work.
Nationalist concerns in the 1950s and 1960s were also represented in a small body of figurative work during these years – the gold miners and fishermen of Trevor Moffit, the small-town characters of Bryan Drew, and the six o’clock swill of Garth Tapper.
Other landscape artists
In the North Island in the post-war years several artists, especially Eric Lee-Johnson and the fine wood engraver Mervyn Taylor, explored characteristic New Zealand rural scenes featuring such icons as burnt tree stumps and rustic buildings.
In addition, two painters who had first come to prominence as war artists, Peter McIntyre and Austen Deans, painted images of the New Zealand landscape that achieved a considerable popular following.
Landscape painting lives on
While landscape painting became somewhat unfashionable from the 1960s, several landscape painters subsequently emerged who were praised as inheritors of the ‘harsh light’ school. They included:
- Don Binney, with his images of birds set against the inlets and hills of northern New Zealand
- Michael Smither, who painted striking images of Taranaki alongside his powerful images of domestic scenes
- Robin White, who captured people set against clear-cut images of suburban homes or small-town New Zealand
- Brent Wong, who painted images of architectural details hovering above Wellington hills
- Peter Siddell, who brought hard-edged realism to bear on domestic villas in suburban Auckland
- Grahame Sydney, with his nostalgic images of Central Otago – a landscape and cloudscape which Marilynn Webb also explored in her prints
- Michael Hight, with his beehive boxes set against striking landscapes.