New Zealand and the Arts of the South Pacific

Landscape by New Zealand painter Colin McCahon

Landscape by New Zealand painter Colin McCahon

For a long time, a spectre of isolation has imposed itself upon the creative Vision of New Zealand artists and poets. Among the earliest of artists to visit here, William Hodges, in 1775, painted the landscape as foreboding and eerie, inimical even to the Maoris whom he envisioned as noble savages in the true classical manner with Grecian noses and draped in chitons. Also the topographical draughtsmen such as Charles Heaphy or William Fox, in the service of the New Zealand Company, saw it as a strange and isolated country, pierced through by a constant although intangible underlying threat to the very presences of human beings. The appearance of figures in their early watercolours is rare, and if, according to Mr. Hamish Keith, they seem "a little uneasy in this gloomy prospect, it is not surprising: in the painted landscape of New Zealand they seldom appear again."

The psychological impact of New Zealand's solitude and "the vastness of nature unrelieved by humanity," was no doubt rendered all the more acute because such anxiety could not be explained readily by obvious or rationally comprehensible factors. There were no large or vicious animals, no deadly reptiles, and the native population had already achieved their own high degree of culture. The land was green and apparently fertile; there was water and sun, and no one was to know, at that time, about such natural violence as the Napier earthquake or the eruption of Mt. Tarawera.

But a cloud of subtle dread paled the first Antipodean vision, and it has hung over New Zealand ever since. No mistake that Maoris call it "Aotearoa" the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Literary critics and reviewers are beginning to recognize this theme of isolation as an element of New Zealand style. It is not only separation in a physical sense from the centres of European civilisation; we tend to think of ourselves (if only subconsciously) as being in the spiritual antipodes as well. No wonder the New Zealander refers to it as "God's own country," knowing in his heart that it does not belong to man. For so many people "home" is still somewhere in the British Isles. But the phenomenon of isolation here is quite distinct from the now almost mythological English Angry Young Man. Social disaffection does of course exist, because very little real and traditional social cohesion has had time to develop. But perhaps more fundamental is an antipathy between man and the very land on which he stands.

A good example of this in New Zealand writing is the novel by John Mulgan, Man Alone, which makes the case an clear as the King Country air. Colin McCahon's beautiful, vast and terrifying landscapes are also pervaded by an insistent emptiness and evil, where human beings leave only transient and superficial signs of their presence before a final and fatuous "Haere mai ki konei."

Just within the realm of the visual arts, however, certain recent events and developments suggest that New Zealand may be well on the way toward discovering or formulating some positive sense of identity. There are several important young painters active now, creating bril­liant and exciting work: Coley, Kenny and Macfarlane in Christchurch, Macklin, Peebles and Ritchie in Wellington; and in Auckland, Ellis, Hanly, Illingworth, Mrkusich. Perry and Thornley, in addition to the work of Colin McCahon, are representatives of a varied and vigorous upsurge of creative activity. Against the odds of an insensitive officialdom, a disturbingly often vulgar public response, and a general apathy among architects (who could be of great potential and practical assistance with commissions), even sculpture in New Zealand is achiev­ing a new self-awareness. Not that a "national style" is developing, or that it would be a good thing if it were, but the products of this activity do show that there is a new growing, healthy, and confident attitude that has left off pretending to be England and apologizing for its failures to assume its self-aware and self-respecting position in the context of the world.

This whole process is made much easier today than it ever has been. Modern facilities for publishing and communication have accelerated, in particular, the study of and appreciation of the fine arts. The effect of the printed book with numerous and high-quality photographic repro­ductions of works of art has been truly extraordinary. For instance, it is now possible in New Zeeland to establish a university program in the history of art, without requiring as a prerequisite a "grand tour" of the great European collections as was done by gentlemen in the eighteenth century.

In the rest of this talk, I would like to discuss specifically a most important book, its relation to New Zealand, and some problems it raises for New Zealanders; in fact, the book provides a focal point for the general problems of New Zealand isolation as well.

The author is Jean Guiart, a French scholar living in New Caledonia, who is chief of the French Institute of Oceania laboratory in Noumea. He is an authority of South Pacific languages, and has conducted ethnological field work and research on many of the South Pacific islands, more especially in the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. The title of his book is The Arts of the South Pacific. It is published by the excellent London firm, Thames and Hudson, as one volume in their current series, "The Arts of Mankind," edited by Andre Malraux and Georges Salles.

The arts Guiart writes about are those indigenous to South Pacific cultures, and do not, obviously, include the important contemporary work being done in Australia and New Zealand. But Guiart's subject, this context, is both geographically and historically close to our lives today, particularly here in New Zealand. The appearance of such a book, with a valuable text, very well illustrated, and with some sumptuous colour plates, is an event of great significance.

That the book will seem a trifle dear to many is unfortunate. Not only for students and artists, or art historians, but for everyone who is interested in the fine arts or concerned about New Zealand's position in the geographical, historical, and cultural context of civilisation, an investment in purchase of this book will surely pay dividends at a rate to make the materialist share-broker's mouth water. This suggests a rapid calculation in terms of perhaps a more meaningful scale of values; I figure the equivalent to be around half a dozen cartons of beer; the book will also last rather longer, while producing a perhaps more valuable end product as well.

Guiart's book is understandable and coherent, avoiding the jargon and ethereal language unhappily associated with the writing of some art historians. But it also deserves very serious attention from students and scholars as being among the first of major publications to deal fully with the arts of the south Pacific.

Two other books, however, suggest comparison with this new volume. Oceania and Australia, the Art of the South Seas, by Alfred Bühler, Terry Barrow (of the Dominion Museum in Wellington), and Charles P. Mountford, was published by Methuen, London, for its "Art of the World" series in 1962. Guiart himself praises this volume in his critical bibliography, as "the best book to date on Oceanian art." And there is also the recent publication by the Oxford University Press of Primitive Art by Professor Paul Wingert, who was in Auckland a few years ago while on leave from Columbia University.

Guiart's illustrations are generally superior in quality and selection, and are much more numerous than those in the other two books. The long introductory essay is also very thorough, and fascinating for the general reader. In the second part of the book, Guiart presents a "Gazetteer of Styles," where the tremendous variety of artistic modes of expression from the different peoples and island groups are intelligently illustrated and characterized.

This maker the book not only superior as a classroom or research guide (and thus an essential addition to all school libraries), but also as source of background information for the visitor to any one of New Zealand's several excellent public collections of South Pacific art. A "Glossarial Index" provides additional, thoughtful and useful assistance for the general reader. The Bibliography is generally excellent, supplying a good guide for reading on more specific areas; and it is clearly an essential research tool for the scholar.

The book by Bühler, Barrow, and Mountford also has its virtues. The substantial first section on Oceania written by Bühler and covering almost two hundred pages of the text, is a superb outline for the art history and anthropology student. Dr. Barrow's chapter on Maori art demonstrates a highly developed aesthetic sensibility, unfortunately altogether too rare among ethnologists. The chapter is concise and informative, clearly establishing Barrow as an authority in his field. A final chapter on the Aboriginal art of Australia written by Mountford is again the work of an expert.

From the New Zealand reader's point of view, however, Guiart's own reaction to this book is interesting, for he criticizes the emphasis upon Maori art as being "to some extent at the expense of other parts of Polynesia." Illustrations are by the rather expensive method of separately printed colour plates which are then tipped-in by hand. These inevitably become creased and dog-eared if the book is used much, as it nevertheless deserves to be.

Professor Wingert's book has dreadful illustrations, and the cranky typography or old-fashioned layout specialized in by the O.U.P. cannot possibly add to its attractiveness. To some extent, perhaps, any volume on the fine arts should be beautiful, if not a work of art in itself. This failure is most unfortunate, because Wingert's text contains brilliant stylistic analyses and inspired passages of interpretation. He deals with three large areas of primitive art: Africa and America in addition to the South Pacific, a task for which he is one of the rare fully qualified scholars in the world today. Wingert, then, takes Guiart's stylistic commentaries logically to their next level of presentation, beautifully balanced by the brilliance and discipline of a first-rate scholarly mind; but Wingert's Primitive Art really requires the Guiart volume as a complement, at least for the illustrations of South Pacific art. And Bühler, in this trio, provided the ground base, the structure and understanding which unifies perceptions of the other men.

If this were a thoroughgoing and uncompromising academic review, we should now be obliged, with the formalities over, to be in a detailed examination of Jean Guiart's text. Of course there are some few specific points with which I disagree, and even-some illustrations which are perhaps ill-chosen or badly presented. But no man ever writes a book quite the same way we would.

There is one point raised by Guiart's book, however, that is far too important to be ignored. The problem is this: his discussion of Maori art is competent, if brief, and is generally sympathetic; there are some beautiful photographs, such as the full-page colour plate of the wall panel now in the Hamburg Museum für Volkerkande and Vorgeschichte (figure 92); some of the other illustrations show important and imposing pieces of Maori art, but not one of them is in New Zealand. Not one single piece of Maori art illustrated is now in a New Zealand collection! (except figure 367 in New Zealand's Embassy in Washinton D.C.).

The author is well-traveled and well-read; he cannot be ignorant of the wealth of Maori art treasured by New Zealand families and public collections. What other explanation can there be, then, for the failure of these pieces to appear in his book? Is this the natural and inevitable result of, or reaction to, a lingering New Zealand isolationism and xenophobia? It is absolutely essential for the student and scholar to have first-hand access to the pieces he studies, without which he can neither properly form his conclusions nor publish them with confidence. It is quite possible that Guiart's omissions may point directly to certain situations in New Zealand that threaten to curtail or deny this access.

First of all, we should understand who is not involved in this. The Dominion Museum in Wellington has a fine record of providing access and assistance to the serious individual who wishes to examine pieces in its collection. In Christchurch, and in other smaller cities, like Wanganui, I have also met friendly and helpful museum personnel. But in Auckland and Dunedin the position is less than clear, although the museums in these two cities contain possibly the richest general collections of South Pacific art.

There is one illustration in Guiart from the Auckland collection, figure 355 on page 346, a standing wooden piece, beautifully decorated, from Raivavae, that was once a part of the Oldman Collection purchased by the New Zealand government. But figure 408 on page 395 shows a piece from the island of Nukuoro in the Caroline group, now in the Honolulu Academy of Arts; the piece measures 15 3/8 inches, but Auckland possesses a magnificent figure of the same type almost eight feet tall! Not that size is everything, but the Auckland piece is also a superb example of Micronesian craftsmanship, and in this case the question of size is a qualitative factor as well. The particular history of this figure promises to be interesting, if perhaps embarassing for certain officials, and could perhaps explain why it is not mentioned in Guiart's book. One can only wonder how many other such examples might exist, for Professor Wingert, when he was in Auckland, specifically praised that collection as being of very high aesthetic and art historical importance.

Part of the problem seems to be the persistence in some corners of a rather quaint attitude which tends to minimize or even deny the intrinsic aesthetic merit of the works of art in preference to regarding them primarily as ethnological documents. Clearly a much closer co-operation between artists, art historians and ethnologists is to be hoped for, perhaps by finally appointing an academically qualified art historian to the museum staff. In any case, when the new director of the Auckland Museum takes office, he will face the crucial challenge of bringing its excellent collection to the full notice of the world.

In Dunedin, which city I have yet to visit personally, it appears to be almost too late to insure that access to that an fine collection will be preserved. There are plans, already underway, for enclosing the pieces behind permanent glass panels that will not (and cannot, without the assistance of several other men) be moved. To be sure, this measure affords protection from the mischief of schoolboys. But it also creates, out of what should be a living institution, performing educational functions and providing stimuli to both learning and aesthetic appreciation, a mere house of death. If the Museum of Dunedin proceeds with this shockingly retrograde manoeuvre, the whole standing of New Zealand, in the eyes of world scholars and art lovers, will sink abysmally, and her own children will be cheated out of a real contact with their heritage.

Beyond these specific problems, however, there are other positive measures that should be carefully considered by the Government, by the Queen Elizabeth II Fine Arts Trust, and by other institutions or individuals. On the practical level, these can be set out as follows:

1.   Establishment of a photographic file in which all pieces of Maori and South Pacific art, or at least all of those in New Zealand, would be recorded on standard 35 mm. and/or 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 colour transparencies. Duplicates of these slides could be produced for resale to overseas scholars or institutions, to tourists, and for use as important teach­ing aids in New Zealand schools. Many museums and art galleries in America, England, and on the continent already provide such services.

2.   A Government-sponsored program, directed by an academically or professionally qualified person, which would co-ordinate information from various sources throughout New Zealand and from overseas, on Maori and South Pacific art.

3.   A photographic archive of black and white prints, such as the excellent ones offered by the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, representing pieces of Maori and South Pacific art, especially in overseas collections. Many institutions now supply such prints, but government assistance would be necessary to help offset costs and to avoid Customs difficulties. With the above two measures, this would provide a basic system invaluable for study and research. It would establish New Zealand as a true centre of international study in an area which, by virtue of her position and her possessions, would seem to be her especial promise.

4.   Support for study tours, research and collecting expeditions in the South Pacific area, and for archaeological work here in New Zealand. The last flourishing remains of Oceanic civilisation must be recorded now or never. Up until a few years ago there was still a village on one of the islands in Fiji that fired magnificent pottery bowls; some places in Polynesia have still preserved the traditional methods and techniques of making tapa cloth. But these vestiges of the visual arts, and of music and poetry as well, are dying fast. Soon it may be practically impossible to get into parts of New Guinea. Other countries and institutions have sent numerous and quite succes­sful expeditions into these areas, while New Zealand has all but totally neglected these rich cultures in its own backyard. There will be no second chances, and literally every day counts.

5.   A special library program to build up reference material on the whole South Pacific area. This should acquire all the publi­cations available, particularly where they are rare or too expensive for individual libraries. Such a program could coordinate books on economics, languages, anthropology, ethnology, history, geography and geology along with those on the fine arts.

6.  Definite efforts should be made, perhaps through Maori leaders themselves, to secure the cooperation of individual families having works of Maori art. These could be photographed and recorded, while still remaining in private hands. Immense value could be gained for our understanding of the history of Maori art from this rather simple measure.

7. Access to pieces in public collections by qualified people and by serious students must be insured, if necessary, by Governmental action. Detailed examination, measurement, and photographing, let alone Carbon 14 dating or X-ray analysis, or even proper observation for stylistic description, are rendered impossible if the piece cannot be handled directly. Problems of security and supervision should not be ignored, of course, but it would seem that they are decidedly secondary in these considerations.

It will be realized, I think, that the key to all of these mea­sures is, in philosophical terms, a growing sense of national self-awareness, such as we discussed earlier. There is some hope that mature and responsible action on these measures will be forthcoming; but we cannot just sit back and wait for things to happen, or the results we are stuck with may well be tragedies. In some cases, it will take immediate and dedicated action to avert tragedy already.

A mature self-awareness has been very often achieved historically, or been seen, anyway, in the fine arts. Maori art belongs to New Zealand, and New Zealand belongs to the South Pacific. The almost incredibly rich art of this whole area is becoming increasingly recognized as an integral part of our geographical context and cultural heritage. Any book, such as The Arts of the South Pacific by Jean Guiant, which supports this realization is vitally important to all New Zealanders, and potentially (like art itself) a powerful agency for peace and understanding among all men.

Kurt von Meier
Circa 1963-1964