The 1950s witnessed the slow but unmistakable rise in the status of sculpture. In 1955 the Auckland City Art Gallery held the first major exhibition exclusively devoted to sculpture sourced entirely from New Zealand practitioners.
The Henry Moore exhibition
In 1956-57 a touring exhibition of Henry Moore’s sculpture, sponsored by the British Council, proved a watershed and wake-up call. It raised national awareness not only of sculpture but of modern art. It attracted massive press coverage and during the three weeks it was in Auckland 36,738 visitors saw it. Many sceptics were converted in the process.
The Henry Moore exhibition helped give sculptors throughout the country the courage and confidence to work in a modern way, departing from strict naturalism and exploring the challenges of their material and medium.
The intense feelings sometimes provoked by modern sculpture were illustrated when Molly Macalister’s sculpture ‘Little bull’ (1967) was erected in Hamilton Gardens. An outraged member of the public attempted to blow up the statue, and it still bears the scars from this incident.
Molly Macalister’s over-life-sized bronze ‘Maori warrior’ (1964–66) is an Auckland landmark that updates Auguste Rodin’s famous portrayal of French author Honoré de Balzac, and puts it in a New Zealand context. Macalister, a Pākehā artist who had trained under Francis Shurrock, won support from local Ngāti Whātua when she undertook the commission. Although some city councillors thought the pose should have been more warlike, at the unveiling Auckland Mayor R. G. McElroy declared: ‘Surely it is only right that since our two peoples have become one as New Zealanders, that the figure should be depicted in an attitude not of war but of peace.’1
Russell Clark, a painter and illustrator as well as a sculptor, worked on a number of public and corporate sculpture projects from the late 1950s. These were strongly influenced by the work of English sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Typical of his style was ‘Anchor stones’ (1958–59) at Bledisloe Place in Auckland.
The Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland was at the forefront of sculptural experimentation from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s. Its liberal-minded head, Paul Beadle, made small-scale sculptures that eccentrically and wittily combine the influences of Halstatt culture (early iron age in central Europe), Ashanti (West African) bronzes and modern Auckland life. Beadle was also New Zealand’s foremost internationally recognised medal maker, a status inherited by his student Marian Fountain.
Beadle’s younger colleague Greer Twiss became a major force in figurative sculpture. Twiss’s bronzes of struggling athletes and anti-nuclear protesters link stylistically and psychologically with modern European sculpture but are distinctively ‘Kiwi’ in subject matter. His later sculptures employ truncated forms, found objects and abrupt scale dislocation to create disturbing, surrealistic effects.