Memorials commemorating the South African War and the First World War provided new opportunities for New Zealand sculptors.
Italian immigrant Carlo Bergamini designed some accomplished South African War memorials in the South Island, at Palmerston, Waimate, Riverton, Ōamaru and Dunedin. In the spirit of the times, these incorporated both imperial iconography – lions and crowns – and New Zealand images, notably the female figure, Zealandia, who was a personification of the country.
Richard Gross’s bronze ‘Athlete’ (1936) by the gates of Auckland Domain created a public outcry. Although Gross aimed to convey classical beauty, the figure’s nudity was attacked by Christian evangelical groups, who unsuccessfully petitioned for the addition of a fig leaf or breeches.
Richard Gross’s works include the moving Cambridge War Memorial (1923). Its central male figure, inspired by works of European sculptors Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin, was convincingly updated as an Anzac soldier in the searing Gallipoli heat. Among Gross’s other works is the prominently located equestrian Wellington Citizens’ War Memorial (1932), also known as the Wellington Cenotaph.
W. T. Trethewey
William Thomas Trethewey was the first sculptor born and trained in New Zealand to gain national prominence. His bronze Christchurch Citizens’ War Memorial (1933–37), a multi-figure art deco ensemble, proclaims a Christian pacifist message. Trethewey was later the leading sculptor involved with the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. His plaster ‘Kupe group’, made that year, was cast in bronze 60 years later. A spirited and dramatic landmark on Taranaki Wharf, Wellington, it illustrates the importance of Māori subject matter in New Zealand sculpture.
In the 1920s and 1930s some of New Zealand’s most significant sculpture originated in the art schools, where British immigrant sculptors were recruited to teach. In Christchurch, Francis Shurrock demanded sound technical foundations, declaring ‘Art is skill’.1 He tried to change the belief that painting was the only important art form and that sculpture, a poor relation, was a mere craft. Though teaching took much of his time, he was noted for his vigorously modelled portrait busts, including one of the painter Christopher Perkins (1932–34).
R. N. Field
In Dunedin, Shurrock’s friend, compatriot and fellow teacher R. N. Field was a more radical artist. His ‘Wahine’ (1934) combined the massive limbs and simplified features of British sculptor Henry Moore’s figures, with references to indigenous greenstone hei-tiki carvings.
A national possession?
Margaret Butler’s ‘Maori Madonna’ came about following a friendly challenge from Butler’s fellow Catholic, poet Eileen Duggan, who believed that ‘such a Madonna would be a national possession’.2
Margaret Butler was a distinguished New Zealand-born sculptor active at this time. During her 10-year stint in Europe she studied with the leading Parisian sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and received the highest praise from critics. Returning home in 1934, Butler sculpted two busts of Māori. ‘La Nouvelle Zélande’ (‘New Zealand’) (1938) was modelled on Miriama Heketa, a performer with the Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club. Heketa may also have sat for ‘Maori Madonna’ (around 1938). Typically, both sculptures are skilfully crafted and thoughtful in mood.