Story: Painting

Page 8. Expressionism and postmodernism

All images & media in this story

The public acceptance of modernist art and the increase in arts patrons in the last third of the 20th century encouraged the emergence of other styles of painting.

Bullfighter artist

Philip Clairmont once stated: ‘I wanted to be a painter or a bullfighter or nothing else.’ He would cut out photos and pictures of bullfighters and then compare them with painted bullfighters by Spanish painter Francisco Goya. It did not seem to bother him that he was not living in Spain.


Expressionism meant painting that explored and sought to evoke inner desires and feelings. Usually this meant bold surreal colours and strong shapes. In New Zealand the pioneer was Rudolf Gopas, a refugee from Lithuania who arrived in New Zealand in 1949 and who taught at the Canterbury School of Arts (1953–77). His dark, moody paintings made a splash, but his importance was as much in the students he inspired.

  • Philip Clairmont expressed his angst in powerful images of his domestic surroundings, such as fireplaces or sofas. Primary colours and black evoked unease and fear. He also painted revealing self-portraits. Clairmont committed suicide at the age of 34.
  • Tony Fomison was, like Clairmont, an artist-outsider. He painted dark oils, often of moody faces or close-ups of hands, and was influenced by Māori perspectives and by the black-and-brown colour palette of Colin McCahon.
  • Philip Trusttum used thick, brightly coloured paint on hardboard to produce positive, energetic works.

Other expressionist painters who emerged included Pat Hanly, who returned from overseas in 1962 and made a series of hard-edged works in enamel paints using bright Pacific colours (especially ‘Pacific icons’ and ‘Figures in the light’), and Jeffrey Harris, who saw his painting as a form of emotional biography and explored domestic scenes and relationships.

Nigel Brown’s black outlines and strong shapes also have expressionist elements. His colours and use of words clearly bear the influence of Colin McCahon, but the obvious social element in his work goes beyond the subjectivity of expressionism.


Postmodernism emerged in New Zealand painting in part as a reaction against the earnest nationalist landscape tradition and against the cold formalism of abstraction. Postmodernism emphasised self-reflection, and multiple perspectives and forms.

A good example of ‘busting’ the traditional form was Richard Killeen’s ‘cut out’ paintings, a collection of shapes that owners could hang in any order or position they desired. Killeen also at times ‘quoted’ icons of traditional New Zealand art such as the dead tree.

In a similar playful commentary on nationalist art Ian Scott drew on Colin McCahon’s images in his ‘New Zealand painting’ of 1987, while Ruth Watson used jigsaw pieces and children’s games to reflect on New Zealand iconography. John Reynolds continued the McCahon word tradition with huge paintings of New Zealand words drawn from Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English.

Postmodern art often included figurative elements and broke the boundaries of high and popular art. Dick Frizzell, for example, drew on images from commercial branding, which he inserted into formal compositions. In his famous image ‘Mickey to tiki tu meke’ he risked offence by transforming a Hollywood symbol – Mickey Mouse – into a Māori one.

Surrealist paintings

In the 2000s a strong theme was the use of figurative elements to create surreal effects. Bill Hammond developed a distinctive motif of part-bird, part-human figures often set in a comic-book Canterbury landscape. Jenny Dolezel used slightly bizarre puppet-like figures to suggest a world of disturbing dreams. Similarly, Séraphine Pick painted surreal figures against an eerie landscape which evoked the fantasies of the subconscious. Tony de Latour created imaginative works which ranged from bizarre two-dimensional heads to commercial symbols built from alpine shapes. Andrew McLeod painted exquisite objects floating as if in a dream.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Painting - Expressionism and postmodernism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 July 2022)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014