An Artistic Wasteland? Visual Images of the 1920s in New Zealand
Commentary in art history and criticism about the art of the 1920s in New Zealand is limited, with contemporary discussion focusing on art education and La Trobe scheme teachers, local admiration for British Victorian art and the rejection of modernist painting, as well as the work of some of New Zealand’s most talented artists as expatriates in Europe. The most egregious verdict about art in the 1920s was that of Auckland Art Gallery Director Peter Tomory in the 1950s, subsequently endorsed by some influential art historians, that fine arts in New Zealand was a “wasteland” in the 1920s. This view provided the motivation for this thesis.
The thesis uses a visual culture approach, supplemented by Foucauldian discourse analysis, to investigate the broader arts environment of the 1920s. This provides a much broader and more diverse position and data set than if the analysis was limited to fine art alone. Visual material created by cartoon artists, commercial artists and photographers, as well as fine artists, enhances an understanding of the discourses covering an important period in New Zealand’s art history.
The 1920s were a period of significant societal change. Having emerged from a period of war and pandemic, New Zealand embarked on a sweeping process of social, economic and political development. In chapters on Society, the Economy, Politics and Art and Culture, a number of common themes are evident such as immigration, economic change including land ownership, recession, meeting infrastructural needs, and uncertainties in New Zealand’s relations with Great Britain.
Political discourses explored in the thesis include politicians grappling with recession and working class demands, quality and effectiveness of political leadership, the rise of the Labour Party and debate over “Bolshevist” allegiances. All these issues appear to have stimulated socially-conscious artists to develop a range of imagery that tells a compelling story of the time.
Examples of the art being created by New Zealand artists here and overseas are reviewed with visual evidence supporting the rejection of the criticism that the 1920s were a wasteland for art. With new art galleries opening, modernism becoming more widely accepted, and the large number of amateur artists unwilling to accept the critics’ judgement that their art did not fit in the pursuit of a national cultural identity, a firm foundation for the future of New Zealand’s art was laid in the 1920s.