Knocking the Nationalists, Hugh Roberts

The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity 1930-1970
Francis Pound
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 1869404149

Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand is an uneven and often quirky work but one with which anyone interested in the history of New Zealand’s visual (and literary) culture will want  to come to terms. Pound’s brief is to provide a comprehensive account of what he calls the “Nationalist” period of New Zealand art which he sees as stretching from 1930 to 1970. While there is no innovation in finding a major strain of cultural nationalism in New Zealand art and literature of that period, what is unusual in Pound’s account is the extraordinary coherence and unity of purpose he ascribes to the total cultural field throughout the period he examines. To enter meaningfully into the cultural discourse of the middle third of the 20th century, in Pound’s view, was to take up your share of the White Kiwi’s Burden: an agonised struggle to produce a dinkum local identity.

The general features of the Nationalist identity that Pound’s artists are attempting to forge will be familiar to anyone who has read Allen Curnow’s introduction to his A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945: a sublimely isolated figure staring out at a crude, empty, history-poor and equally isolated land, seeking the “trick of standing upright here”. Colin McCahon’s The Listener presents us with a head gazing out upon a disturbingly (or invitingly) blank plain; Eric Lee-Johnson paints the tortured forms of sea-wrack, easily made metaphors of the island’s washed-ashore inhabitants, prisoners of distance; Toss Woollaston appears to turn the very New Zealand soil into painted representations of its landforms, ochreous talismans of the Nationalist task: to find some way to take root in this land. As a survey of Nationalist tropes in New Zealand art, The Invention of New Zealand is hardly breaking new ground, although it is remarkable in its comprehensiveness.

The real energy of Pound’s argument is not in proving that these Nationalist tropes existed but in a sustained polemic against them. Far more than it is a work of history, Pound’s book is a work of iconoclasm; the pugnacious American art critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism Clement Greenberg is, one suspects, something of a hero to Pound, who praises his willingness to bring “value judgements” to bear on different national schools. Pound wants to expose the Nationalist myth not simply as an “invention” but as a misguided and dangerously misleading one. There is an odd untimeliness to this fight which is only partly explained by the book’s extraordinarily long gestation. Pound’s preface tells us that the book was begun in 1983. Even then, one would have thought, a full-scale assault on the Nationalist mythos might have looked like kicking someone when they were down; in 2010 it risks reading a little like a swingeing attack on the doctrinal errors of the Muggletonians.

Nonetheless, if the Nationalist ethos was as pervasive as Pound argues for such a long period, it is reasonable to subject it not merely to dispassionate analysis but to moral, political and aesthetic evaluation, and some of Pound’s criticisms deserve serious consideration. His case against the Nationalists is broadly threefold: first, that Nationalist art is inherently aesthetically timid; second, that it is inherently politically reactionary; and third, that it is essentially meretricious, that its claims to forging an inherently “New Zealand” art are bogus. On each of these claims, Pound makes some telling points; but in each case his argument either rests on troubling premises or ignores important counter-evidence.

The argument of aesthetic timidity and conservatism is perhaps the most insistent strain in the book, which sometimes seems like a repeated scrawling of “could try harder” on every familiar painting of the period. Ironically, it’s a charge that seems to root Pound firmly within the logic of the very period he is criticising. What could be more typical of mid-20th century New Zealand than an endless agonising about whether or not we are up to the standards of Overseas Experts? Surprisingly, for all of Pound’s nods to post-modernist critical frameworks, when it comes to aesthetics he is an uncompromisingly old-school modernist: and that old school is the school of mid-century Abstract Expressionism and its critical champions. Pound sees all art arrayed on what Kirk Varnedoe ironically referred to as “the road to flatness” – the historically necessary discovery that paintings are just two-dimensional fields of colour and form. For Pound, as for Clement Greenberg, the history of art is a purely teleological one and the telos is New York in the 1940s. Almost every artist in the book, with the heroic exceptions of Milan Mrkusich and Gordon Walters, elicits a disappointed sigh from Pound as they fail, yet again, to see the historic inevitability of complete abstraction.

The question of whether this failure is willed or merely the consequence of living in an isolated backwater is one which Pound seems unable to decide. At one point he chides “Angus and a large company [of other Nationalist artists]” for “refus[ing] the contemporary modern” where Mrkusich and Walters “embrace” it. He also suggests that Fairburn’s championing of New Zealand’s peculiarly clear light as a signature of a native New Zealand art is merely a “meteorological alibi” for cleaving to a retrograde English aesthetic of “clarified naturalism”, rather than owning up to the historical necessity of abstraction. But, on the other hand, he suggests that the overtly Christian subject matter of McCahon’s art might be a “symptom of the thinness and the insularity of intellectual life in New Zealand … which knew nearly nothing of contemporary modernist painting outside New Zealand and little of modernist
thought … . New Zealand … had, one might say, no Clement Greenberg.” If only poor McCahon had had access to the Joyful News of the Greenberg Gospel, it seems, he’d have stopped whoring after the false god of Christianity and accepted the true one of Abstract Expressionism.

In a post avant-garde age like the present it’s hard to understand the force of this powerful belief in a deterministic aesthetic history. That artists in a country obsessed with questions of place and identity would, for the most part, need some referential language in their art to pursue those questions cannot, to me, be coherently read as a failure of nerve or a ducking of some pan-national call to aesthetic duty. But on this issue Pound seems quite unable to shake the colonial cringe. This comes as no surprise to any reader of his preface, mind you:

More and more over the years I had come to understand that to write about New Zealand art was like writing at the heart of a black hole – that no trace of one’s words could ever reach a world outside …. Most non-New Zealanders would agree with … Clement Greenberg, when he tells the Canterbury Society of Arts … that he has “never heard of New Zealand art”, and that … “nobody could expect New Zealand to turn out anything of worth” …. Had this book been written … on … American art nationalism … not only would there be a large American audience awaiting it, but … it would be read throughout the world.

 

Has the colonial cringe ever found a purer or more naked expression?

The argument that Nationalist art is politically reactionary is another major prong of Pound’s critique; and a closely related one (Clement Greenberg’s marxisant criticism makes the “road to flatness” a “road to freedom” – another idea that now seems a quaint relic of history). Although Pound  lands a few telling punches here (notably Lois White’s characterisation of an evil and overbearing capitalist as a stereotypically hook-nosed Jew wearing a yellow star of David, and A R D Fairburn’s private musings about starting a New Zealand fascist party), it has to be said that by and large his argument is one of guilt by association. The Nationalists talk about a revivifying contact with the native soil; so do the Nazis! The Nationalist concern with local identity is roughly related to that of the American Regionalists: and they’re politically conservative! That New Zealand Nationalism contained the possibility of a deeply reactionary politics is undeniable: no one could read Monte Holcroft’s loony ersatz-Hegelian ramblings about the destiny of the race and its bond with the soil and doubt that. But the central strain of New Zealand nationalism, that which runs through Curnow’s writings of the 1940s and 1950s, for example, and which grew out of a decidedly left-wing and internationalist political milieu, is one which does not see the turn to building a distinct New Zealand identity as a inward-turning and uncritical celebration of the local, but as a first step to joining on equal terms with the rest of the world.

Pound reads the predominance of the rural landscape over the cityscape in Nationalist art as a rejection of the dangerous (read Jewish) cosmopolitanism of the city and a celebration of the strength and purity of the soil. But this seems to me to involve a double misreading. For one thing Pound is forced to admit a few too many “exceptions that prove the rule” when it comes to Nationalist cityscapes (and there are a few notable ones he ignores, such as Toss Woollaston’s paintings of Wellington). But more importantly, the Nationalist fascination with New Zealand rural character is never a matter of simple celebration. Think of Denis Glover’s “The Magpies” or Allen Curnow’s “Wild Iron”. The rural spaces are conceptually useful to Nationalist thought because they easily lend themselves to meditations upon the hard task of “cultivating” a troublingly alien land. To read the New Zealand Nationalist landscape, as Pound explicitly does, as idyllic “pastoral” is to commit a genre confusion. Far more often, that landscape is the scene of an embattled georgic.

Finally, then, there is Pound’s claim that the artistic languages that the Nationalist painters developed to signal their “New Zealandness” were inauthentic. “Perhaps, in the end, the new artists simply grew weary of the invented New Zealand of their predecessors,” reads the final sentence of Pound’s book, offering us an account of historical stylistic change that has, at least, the virtue of being perpetually recyclable. As often in this book, one feels a little unsure of the intellectual framework in which Pound is operating. It seems strange for Pound the enthusiastic postmodernist to criticise Nationalist art for mobilising a series of symbols that aren’t sufficiently authentic. This seems to put Pound more in the position of a disappointed Nationalist, not criticising the aims of these artists but merely lamenting their lack of success.

The major badge of Nationalist identity on which Pound focuses his irony is New Zealand’s “harsh light”. For Pound, the various pictorial effects that Nationalist critics have read as being developed in response to this light are better understood as pure products of stylistic convention: whether the reportorial exactness of the topographical artists of the nineteenth century or the “clarified naturalism” of England’s too-timid modernists. Pound has fun with Don Binney’s regime when drawing at Piha, refusing to work before noon or after 3.30:

Such are the strictures the harsh clarity theory imposes. One may paint only on bright sunny days, and then only between 12 and 3:30. At the first sign of rain or storm, Binney’s art closes its eyes. And, throughout the country, all of Regional realist art does the same.

 

It’s a nice joke and it’s certainly true that New Zealand has all shades and qualities of light to offer; and equally true that many other places in the world can offer a light as clear and bright as New Zealand’s “harshest”. But if some earlier attempts to make a unified whole out of New Zealand art by using the “harsh light” frame were absurdly overblown, the notion that New Zealand artists and critics were merely deflecting attention from the fact that they didn’t have the guts to advance to abstraction hardly seems much better.

The Invention of New Zealand is written with verve and a profound engagement with its subject matter. Pound’s descriptions of the paintings are vivid and acutely observed. It does, however, raise more questions than it answers. Is Don Binney really a “regional realist”? Isn’t he more of a pop artist – an international movement that post-dates Abstract Expressionism? Was Nationalism ever as coherent or as dominant a movement as Pound suggests? Why is there no mention of the sometimes vicious anti-Nationalist polemics that roiled the New Zealand cultural scene as early as the late 1940s? That said, this is a work that will start a lot of useful and enjoyable arguments.

 

Hugh Roberts teaches in the English department at Irvine, California.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction and Review
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