Story: Regional cultural life

Page 2. Regional creative life, early 20th century

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Rotorua – a Māori cultural centre

As a major destination for early international tourism, Rotorua provided a good environment where Māori culture could become established on a commercial basis. Concert parties were set up and a Te Arawa group led by tourist guide Mākereti Papakura performed in England in 1911. Rotorua was also a site for early film-making, with Te Arawa Māori playing many roles. In the early 1930s Rotorua cousins Ana Hato and Deane Waretini, singing well-known waiata, were among the first artists recorded in New Zealand.

Politician Apirana Ngata’s desire to revive Māori carving encouraged him to recruit Ngāti Tarāwhai carvers from Lake Rotoiti, including Neke Kapua, Tene Waitere and Eramiha Kapua. The Maori School of Arts and Crafts opened in 1927 at Whakarewarewa. In 1969 a national weaving school, Te Rito, was established in Rotorua alongside the carving school.

Literary revolutions

Auckland and Christchurch were both centres for major literary developments emerging from the universities in the early 1930s. In Auckland in 1932, while the university was getting rid of a young history lecturer, J. C. Beaglehole, for his alleged radicalism, the college’s Literary Club, led by James Bertram, launched a lively but short-lived political and literary publication called Phoenix. Its contributors included R. A. K. Mason, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn, all of whom became well-known poets.

Christchurch radicalism

Similarly in Christchurch, left-wing writers and intellectuals who had met through Canterbury University began to create their own publications. Denis Glover’s Caxton Club produced the short-lived Oriflamme and its successor Sirocco in 1933. The next year Kennaway Henderson, Winston Rhodes and Frederick Sinclaire founded the weekly journal Tomorrow ‘to encourage free expression on any subject of social importance’.1

Popular paper

Although printed in low numbers, Tomorrow prided itself on its widespread readership. A 1939 editorial boasted and bemoaned, ‘Quoted in Parliament, reduced to rags in public libraries in spite of its strong format, lent and re-lent, and discussed everywhere, this paper has a coverage out of all proportion to its printer’s bill.’2

Glover went on to found the Caxton Press, a printing house which published new work by a burgeoning literary subculture, including the poets Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch and A. R. D. Fairburn. Caxton Press was the first to publish important new fiction writers such as Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, and was the printer of Brasch’s literary journal Landfall, which began in 1947. Christchurch composer Douglas Lilburn composed music to accompany Curnow’s poem ‘Landfall in unknown seas’.

In 1937 artist and illustrator Leo Bensemann became Glover’s partner in the press. Bensemann joined The Group in 1938. Established in 1927, The Group brought together Christchurch artists to hold annual exhibitions. Its 50 shows included some of New Zealand’s most progressive artists: Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, William Sutton, M. T. (Toss) Woollaston, Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page, Rata Lovell-Smith and Doris Lusk. South Island landscapes found a major place in New Zealand painting, as in the nation’s poetry.

Group carnival

Leo Bensemann wrote of the flurry of activity when Group shows were installed. ‘Four or five days and evenings of broken time were usually sufficient to unpack, sort out, arrange, hang, and catalogue the show … so it is not to be wondered at that by the time the doors were flung open a rather heady, carnival atmosphere took over.’3

Christchurch’s central role in modern nationalist culture continued until the early 1950s. An important Writers’ Conference was held there in 1951. But by the end of the decade Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Colin McCahon had all left to go north, and the city lost its cultural leadership.

  1. Tomorrow 1, no. 39 (24 July 1935), p. 7. Back
  2. Quoted in Rachel Barrowman, A popular vision: the arts and the left in New Zealand, 1930–1950. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1991, p. 27. Back
  3. Quoted in Peter Simpson, Fantastica: the world of Leo Bensemann. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011, p. 158. Back
How to cite this page:

Pip Howells, 'Regional cultural life - Regional creative life, early 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Pip Howells, published 22 Oct 2014