Shaping New Zealand's arts culture

Feature overview about the New Zealand landscape and how this influences past and contemporary New Zealand artists.

New Zealand is known around the world for its verdant landscape, sparkling seawater, omnipotent mountains and treasured and spectacular forests. The way it looks today is somewhat different to the virgin landscape present in the early 19th century when it was colonised, but the small population has meant the landscape in many parts of the country has gone almost untouched. These days, with New Zealand a world leader in conservation and preservation of natural resources, much of the harm wreaked on the landscape through colonisation has been eased by enlightened Government policies in the 20th century, on conservation, preservation and restoration. This means that today, as in the days of the early settlers, the landscape still provides inspiration to New Zealand artists and to many who visit.

New Zealand has a unique and inspiring landscape. The earliest visitors, arriving nearly two centuries ago, recorded their surroundings in quick pencil sketches or fluid watercolours and included them in diaries and letters.

Augustus Earle was one of the first professional artists to work in New Zealand and his nine-month sojourn in the summer of 1827-28 left a pictorial account of one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, the Bay of Islands, and of the remote Hokianga Harbour.

‘All was quiet, beautiful and serene,’ wrote Earle of the Bay, which he described as ‘spotted with innumerable romantic islands all covered with perpetual verdure.’

In his watercolours, Maori villages overlook the sea where European sailing ships are anchored and the shores are lined with the kauri forests that provided so much of the colony’s early economy.

While the response of many painters to the landscape was quite literal, like that of Earle, others were influenced by memories of the environment they had left behind or by purely pictorial devices. Thus the much-reproduced version of Mt Taranaki Charles Heaphy painted in 1839, in which the symmetrical mountain rises as steeply as an inverted ice cream cone.

A less stylised approach was taken by John Hoyte who painted Mt Tarawera and its adjoining pink and white terraces in 1873, 16 years before the eruption which buried the now legendary terraces, along with the Maori village that tourists from all over the world visit in large numbers today.

From the Sublime to…

The later Victorian painters were affected by European notions of the sublime and so we have the grandiose rendition of Milford Sound in Fiordland in the South Island by Eugene von Guerard, and the dramatic landscapes of John Gully and Petrus van der Velden. Impressionism and cubism were too far removed for their influences to be felt in New Zealand until much later and it was not until 30 years into the 20th-century that painters evolved a more original response to the landscape. The English painter Christopher Perkins was among the first of these. In his four years here he encouraged artists to establish their own national school based on the local subject matter and the characteristic harsh, clear lighting. His 1931 version of Mt Taranaki is a world away from Heaphy''s. Perkins’ other well known work has as its subject matter the destruction of original forest. Called Frozen Flames, it depicts the charred branches of a dead tree against a background of wild, uninviting hills over which hangs a pall of smoke. Perkins’ aim is clear in both paintings: his symbolic concerns are as important to him as the formalist ones that shape the work.

Rural Realists

Landscape painting of the 1930s and 1940s holds a significant place in New Zealand’s art history, and it centres on a group of painters who were based in the South Island city of Christchurch. They evolved a school of regional realism through their paintings of the countryside and of life in small, rural hamlets. The most important names of this time are Rata Lovell-Smith, Russell Clark, Rita Angus, Eric Lee-Johnson, and William Sutton.

Many of Rita Angus’s most loved works feature the landscape of Canterbury and Otago. She died in Wellington where a small cottage bears her name and is made available as a residency for artists by Creative New Zealand, the country’s arts funding body. As with Perkins, her work has a clearly symbolic element. Cass (1936) features the railway station of a tiny rural community in Canterbury nestled in front of bare hills and mountains, the small figure of the waiting man emphasising the isolation and remoteness of the area. Angus, too, painted the destruction of the forests in Scrub-burning, North Hawke’s Bay, 1965, a powerful work in which angry, colourful plumes of smoke fill the sky.

Good, Bad and the Ugly

The clearing of the land and its ugly effects, leaving dead trees standing like ghosts in the landscape, were a constant theme for New Zealand painters in the earlier part of the 20th century. In the hands of Eric Lee Johnson, the tree became a romantic symbol of nature struggling for survival against the greed of humankind. Johnson also depicted the struggle to live in remote areas, in his portrayal of the ramshackle houses with their corrugated iron roofs that are still to be seen in the ‘backblocks.’

In the 1960s, the New Zealand people and Government came to realise the folly of such destruction, and have since followed a ‘green’ philosophy with conservation and preservation of the country''s natural assets, now ingrained in the national psyche. The sixties saw the burgeoning conservation movement take up the paintings of Aucklander Don Binney as icons for their cause. Binney’s sharply delineated images of the West Coast, much visited for its black sand and spectacular cliffs, project a highly stylised form of realism where the composition is carefully crafted with rhythmic curves. A disproportionately large native bird fills a sky of startling blue.

Key Strokes

Sir Mountford Tosswill Woollaston is another South Island artist whose painting has helped shape the way New Zealanders and visitors see the landscape in the later 20th century. He worked in an uncompromising way using broad calligraphic brushstrokes and large areas of colour, often earthy ochre, to indicate different features. His work has an element akin to abstract expressionism, in that it often appears to be unstructured - spatially, and reflective of the artist’s mental state.

Much of the work of New Zealand''s greatest modern painter Colin McCahon, who died in 1987, is rooted in the land - the shapes of the hills, the light and the dark, the fall of water, rocks on the coast, provided him with metaphors for his profoundly pessimistic spirituality.

The hyper-realist suburban landscapes of Peter Siddell (born 1935) evoke a very different response, often of nostalgia for an elegant past in which architecture recognised the importance of proportion and detail. His colonial villas are elegant still-lifes, devoid of people and inviting reflection.

A similar nostalgia animates the work of award-winning Dunedin painter Grahame Sydney (see Feature). He paints the harsh, bare landscape of Otago using a photo-realist technique in which objects are highlighted by the unusual perspective he adopts. People are largely absent but their traces - letterboxes, lonely buildings, clothes, the line of a road - give the works their substance and the atmosphere of this antipodean land.