Kōrero: Perceptions of the landscape

Whārangi 6. Landscape and identity: 1930s–1960s

Ngā whakaahua

By the beginning of the 20th century, a limited appreciation of the New Zealand landscape had developed. A few well-known beauty spots – Mitre Peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, the Drop Scene on the Whanganui River, Mt Ruapehu – had been preserved and had become iconic.

Yet there was still some suspicion of the bush and nostalgia for the English countryside. Alan Mulgan noted in his 1958 book The making of a New Zealander that the largely dark green and blue landscape of 1840 would have been monotonous. English trees and crops had added beauty, colour and seasonal variation. Cutting down the bush was still largely equated with progress.

Writers

In the 1930s and 1940s a group of young intellectuals, including Robin Hyde, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and Charles Brasch, rejected cultural dependence on Britain. They saw the starting point for a distinctive New Zealand culture in the unique qualities of the land. In 1939 Brasch called his first book of poetry The land and the people. In 1947 he started the literary journal Landfall.

Viewing the view

In her 1967 novel The rainbirds, Janet Frame highlighted a New Zealand family’s pride in their ‘view’, in contrast with the attitude of a sister newly arrived from England.

‘– See the view, Beatrice said, waving her arm in the direction of harbour and hills.

‘– Yes, see our view, Geoffrey echoed, with a pride that Lynley could not understand.’ 4

Writers expressed alienation from what they saw as the materialism and philistinism of New Zealand society. They looked to the land for refuge and a sense of belonging – especially austere, challenging landscapes, rather than those that were picturesque or settled. Men alone could be happier in the bush than among the gossip of the suburbs. The poet Denis Glover rejected inspiration from ‘quaint old England’s quaint old towns’ and mythologised Arawata Bill, a gold prospector in Fiordland’s mountains. It was a place where God ‘made mountains and fissures/Hostile, vicious and turned/Away His face’. 1 Yet there he also found gold.

In his 1939 novel Man alone, John Mulgan (Alan’s son) described a man escaping society in the Kaimanawa Mountains. Deep in the forest, amid tangled ferns and bush-lawyer, he found himself ‘surrounded and drowned in the hills and bush, safe and alone and submerged’. 2

Mulgan and Glover’s landscapes were frightening and imposing – yet they were also refuges. In his 1940 centennial prize-winning essay, The deepening stream, the journalist Monte Holcroft described the landscape more positively. In a sense of transcendental union with the hills, he found the possible beginnings of a New Zealand intellectual tradition – and relief from a nearby camper talking in a nasal drawl about business in the city.

Painting

New Zealand painters continued to look to the hills as their subject. Some, like Peter McIntyre, Austen Deans and Douglas Badcock, were popular artists who painted landscapes. The Kelliher Art Prize, established in 1956 to encourage painting ‘in a realistic and traditional way’ was dominated by oils of hills and mountains.

Art is where the heart is

Painter Leonard Mitchell, who won the first Kelliher Art Prize in 1956 with ‘Summer in the Mokauiti Valley’, described the scene as ‘that part of New Zealand where the human heart is, on the grass where we build our wealth and our substance and our life’. 3

A small group of modernist artists shared this fascination with the land, as the basis of a meaningful culture and as a place from which mainstream society could be critiqued. They drew on elements of European styles – post-impressionism in the case of Toss Woollaston, cubism for Rita Angus and Colin McCahon. They focused their eye on new landscapes, very different from romantic alpine scenes – Central Otago for Angus; Nelson for Woollaston; North Otago, Northland and the Waitākeres for McCahon. McCahon added Christian symbolism. He drew on scientific studies to emphasise the land’s structure, and pointedly omitted signs of human habitation, while Bill Sutton painted colonial buildings such as churchyards on the Canterbury Plains.

However, while some painters looked at the landscape in challenging ways, they were a minority. 1950s New Zealand continued to churn out calendars with images of iconic places like Lake Matheson, and people searched for suburban homes ‘with a view’.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Denis Glover, Enter without knocking: selected poems. Christchurch: Pegasus, 1964, p. 95. › Back
  2. John Mulgan, Man alone. Hamilton: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1960, p. 139. › Back
  3. Quoted in the Sir Henry J. Kelliher Charitable Trust, ‘The Kelliher Art Competition history’, http://kellihercharitabletrust.org.nz/competitionhistoryone.htm#1956 (last accessed 18 May 2007). › Back
  4. Janet Frame, The rainbirds. Christchurch: Pegasus, 1969, p. 74. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Perceptions of the landscape - Landscape and identity: 1930s–1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/perceptions-of-the-landscape/page-6 (accessed 17 September 2019)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007