Murals are paintings and other media on walls, or panels intended for a particular wall. Their almost ubiquitous presence on buildings and walls in towns and cities is a late-20th-century phenomenon, and most are far removed from the world of fine art. The longevity of murals is rarely assured – few early examples survive, most having been painted over.
New Zealand did not have the equivalent of the US Federal Art Project, a depression-era artist support programme that produced many murals. In 1931 architect Roy Lippincott said there was ‘a dearth of mural paintings in New Zealand’1 and called for murals to be incorporated into new public and commercial buildings. That same year artist Lois White offered to paint interior murals in the new War Memorial Museum in Auckland free of charge, but this did not happen.
In 1942 artist and designer Eric Lee-Johnson wrote: ‘Public gaiety is not a New Zealand characteristic, but this agreeable quality could be stimulated by good Murals in our restaurants and public buildings.’2
The most prominent mid-20th-century mural artist was James Turkington of Auckland. His artistic reputation rested on his murals.
Turkington painted murals in restaurants, hotels, shops and public buildings, including Department of Science and Industrial Research buildings in Auckland, and the Petone Settlers Museum during the 1940 centennial. None of these survive, though the museum murals were replicated from photos for sesquicentennial celebrations in 1990. One of Turkington’s few murals remaining in the 21st century survived the Wahine inter-island ferry sinking in 1968.
Murals with an overtly socialist message started to appear around the 1930s. Unions and other labour organisations commissioned interior murals for their buildings from the likes of James Turkington, John Holmwood and Dennis Knight Turner. Only Turner’s survive. Lois White’s mural ‘Controversy’, which she donated to the Auckland branch of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), was destroyed in spectacular fashion when the building housing WEA and the Elam School of Art burned down in 1949.
Third time lucky
The artworks at the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall on the West Coast were an early precursor of the socialist murals of the 1930s. When the first hall was built in 1908 the façade was painted with socialist banners and slogans by James Begg Kent. The hall burned down in 1937 and Kent repainted its replacement. After the State Miners Union sold the hall in the 1960s, the façade was covered with concrete. This was removed in 2000 when the building was restored, and the mural was repainted a third time.
During the Second World War Judy Evans and Guy Harding painted murals for the New Zealand Communist Party’s Unity Centre hall in Wellington. These were removed when the hall was taken over by a dance studio. They were donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1975.
More government departments and corporations began to commission murals in the 1950s. Mervyn Taylor produced painted, ceramic and carved murals for libraries, halls, government and corporate buildings from 1958 until his death in 1964. Taylor, Peter McIntyre and Leonard Mitchell were commissioned to do war memorial murals in Masterton, Hastings and Lower Hutt respectively. Milan Mrkusich made tile murals for the B. J. Ball building (1958), Colonial Sugar Refinery (1960) and Foodstuffs headquarters (1964) in Auckland, and Foodstuffs Christchurch headquarters in 1971.
In the 1970s Pat Hanly was well known for his murals in public buildings. He created murals for the Auckland Medical School, Auckland airport and Christchurch town hall. John Drawbridge’s murals were displayed in the National Library and the Beehive among other places. In 1977 Ralph Hotere made the 18-metre long mural ‘The flight of the godwit’ for Auckland airport.
Sinning on a Sunday
In 1951 Dennis Knight Turner painted the mural ‘History of transport’ on the outside of a motorcycle shop in Auckland’s Karangahape Road. After being seen by a member of the public working on a Sunday, which was illegal at the time, he was successfully prosecuted by police. According to Turner, the complainant dobbed him in because he refused to cover up naked female figures.
Exterior public murals produced by professional artists and amateurs flourished from the 1980s. Councils and businesses commissioned murals, which were also produced as part of unemployment schemes.
Politics remained an important subject. In 1985 members of Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms painted a series of peace murals for Auckland’s Karangahape Road. More panels were painted in 1986 and 1993. These deteriorated over time and were replaced by new murals in 2006 and 2009. Murals were painted to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in 1993, the most prominent being the painted tile memorial in Khartoum Place, Auckland.
Progressive deregulation of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s meant that country towns and cities could no longer rely on traditional industries and suffered accordingly. Public murals were one of a host of ‘booster’ activities designed to revitalise local economies. The best example of this is Katikati, which is branded the ‘mural town’ of New Zealand. Ōpōtiki became recognised for its murals by youth, which were painted between 2007 and 2009.