Transforming the 'Unimaginative and Literal' into an Art for the Nation: Writing and Exhibiting New Zealand's Art History in the Twentieth Century

By Rice, Rebecca | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Transforming the 'Unimaginative and Literal' into an Art for the Nation: Writing and Exhibiting New Zealand's Art History in the Twentieth Century


Rice, Rebecca, Journal of Art Historiography


On the 1 August 1936, New Zealand's first state-supported art institution, the National Art Gallery, opened in Buckle St, Wellington, upstairs from the Dominion Museum in new, purpose-built premises. This belated and much anticipated event occurred just four years prior to New Zealand's centenary, which celebrated the country's official colonisation signalled by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on the 6 February 1840.1 One hundred years is both a long and a short time in the history of a nation, and perhaps, unsurprisingly, the place of New Zealand art in light of these new 'national' contexts and the extent to which it could be posited as a kind of narrative to inform the populace of their cultural heritage, was subject to construction and debate. Some kind of historical overview of the development of New Zealand art was necessarily part of both the opening exhibitions of the National Art Gallery and the centennial celebrations. These took the form of a retrospective survey of New Zealand art at the National Art Gallery in 1936, and two events in association with the centenary: the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art curated by Alexander Hare McLintock and Eric Hall McCormick's publication Letters and Art in New Zealand (1940).2 This article seeks to evaluate how New Zealand art to date - much of which was characterised by McLintock as 'unimaginative and literal' - was put to use in constructing a national history of New Zealand art. In the case of the two state-endorsed ventures, McLintock's exhibition and McCormick's text, the employment of works from library and museum collections was important for its recovery of more 'historical' or 'topographical' works for New Zealand's art history. But they also articulated a desire to identify a modern element within New Zealand art, or 'an art truly national'. Taken together, these exhibitions and associated publications provided the first attempts at a critical evaluation of New Zealand art and are consequently foundational documents for the writing of New Zealand's art history.

The centennial exhibition/ retrospective as genre

One of the things one comes to appreciate in studying museum history, for example, is how what we imagine to be the characteristic signature or style of the artefacts of a time, place or people is the product as much of an excavation of evidence for consistency as the culling or erasure or destruction (the "de-collection") of objects deemed as confusingly disparate.. .the result is a certain homogeneity or purity of a patrimony or legacy, which can be "demonstrated" as developing progressively over time along a particular stylistic trajectory.3

The paramount genre for establishing a trajectory such as Donald Preziosi articulates here must surely be that of the retrospective exhibition. Whether surveying an individual artist's oeuvre, or a nation's art, the retrospective is a genre that allows for the evaluation and assessment of 'progress' in art. By the 1930s the genre of the national retrospective exhibition was firmly established and both on the opening of the National Art Gallery and in association with the centennial celebrations of the founding of the colony of New Zealand in 1940, retrospective exhibitions of New Zealand art were mounted as an adjunct to the greater celebrations. While the convention of holding major international exhibitions to commemorate notable events in a country's history was established with the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, which marked the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,4 the connection of a comprehensive survey of a nation's art to such an occasion was inaugurated by the artistic capital, Paris, with their Exposition Universelle of 1889, held on the centenary of the French Revolution. On this occasion two distinct art exhibitions were mounted: a retrospective exhibition, L'Exposition Centennale de l'Art Français (French art of the previous century) and a contemporary exhibition, the Décennale (Art of the preceding decade). …

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