History of New Zealand painting

Page 5 – Expressionism and abstraction

The revolutions in early 20th century European art took a long time to influence New Zealand painting. Cubism, for example, took four decades to be accepted here. Expressionism was even slower to be acknowledged. This ‘backwater’ mentality was due to New Zealand’s geographical isolation, which meant that artists had little direct contact with current overseas practice. They were reliant upon information in art magazines and books. Even these sources of information were scarce. Until the advent of colour printing, artwork was often reproduced in black and white. This, coupled with its small scale, meant that it was very difficult for New Zealand artists to fully appreciate the latest developments.

The nature of New Zealand society meant that ideas were dominated by British rather than continental European thought. The exhibitions that were brought to New Zealand tended to reinforce the landscape tradition of English painting. Even the La Trobe Scheme was rather conservative. The experience of artists such as Robert Nettleton Field was based on an understanding of Cézanne, an artist who had been dead for 20 years. It was not until the mid-1950s, with exhibitions such as Henry Moore (1956) and British abstract painting (1958), that more avant-garde art was shown in New Zealand. However, the public reaction to such exhibitions was often harsh and deeply critical.

Two streams of abstraction particularly influenced New Zealand painting: formal, constructive abstraction and spontaneous, lyrical abstraction. The former used two-dimensional geometric shapes. Colour was used to emphasise structural connections and was usually flat with no visible brushmarks. Examples include cubism, De Stijl, suprematism and constructivism. Lyrical abstraction exploited the expressive and emotive qualities of colour, shape, material and brushwork to capture the artist’s feelings. Examples include symbolism, fauvism, German expressionism and abstract expressionism (including Jackson Pollock [1912–56] and Willem De Kooning [1904–97]).

The speed with which overseas ideas were adopted increased as the century progressed. The greater ease of travel, wider availability of overseas publications and experience of international touring exhibitions all contributed to this awareness. Today New Zealand art is part of the global village. Although our art is distinctive, the ideas and practice of an exhibition in Wellington could just as easily apply in New York or London.