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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950


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'There was nothing In the larder but sour milk and a few grey potatoes. In the salon there were piles of the New Statesman and a shelf of Left Book Club books.'1 Greville Texidor was setting the scene of her novella These Dark Glasses (1949), which describes a group of left-wing intellectuals taking time out in a villa in the south of France during the Spanish Civil War. The bright orange or dull red covers of the Left Book Club volumes are one of the most familiar icons of the Popular Front period, a time when many writers, artists and intellectuals became involved in political activity or identified themselves with the left-wing cause in opposition to the rise of fascism. The Left Book Club is one of a number of left-wing cultural organisations established in New Zealand in the late 1930s and the early 1940s which form the subject of this book: the influence of the left in New Zealand literary culture in these two decades.

In the standard literary history of New Zealand the 30s and 40s have been identified as the country's moment of cultural awakening. According to this history, New Zealand found its distinctive literary voice, and attained a stage of cultural maturity, in the poetry of those who have come to be known collectively as the 'Phoenix group'—principally R.A.K. Mason, Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover; in the stories of Frank Sargeson, which were first published in the left-wing journal Tomorrow from 1935; and in John Mulgan's 1939 novel, Man Alone. In 1945 two major anthologies of New Zealand writing were published, works which identified a new kind of New Zealand literature as having emerged in the previous two decades: Allen Curnow's A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45) and Frank Sargeson's short story anthology Speaking for Ourselves. Major statements of the manifesto of cultural nationalism appeared in the 1940s. Curnow's introduction to the Book of New Zealand Verse was the most important of these, but the essential themes of the page 2 literary nationalism of this period were also expressed in the more florid and idiosyncratic style of M.H. Holcroft, in his Discovered Isles trilogy of essays (1940-6) and Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).

It was the poets who led the renaissance. Some who are identified with the literary nationalist movement, such as R.A.K. Mason and A.R.D. Fairburn, had been writing and publishing before 1930—Curnow of course took as the originating date for his anthology 1923. Nevertheless, it is a movement which is strongly identified with the 1930s, and which is seen to have been effectively launched by the publication of the Auckland University College Literary Club's Phoenix in 1932. Phoenix was one of a handful of outspoken, and short-lived, political and literary magazines which emerged from the university colleges in the depression years. At Victoria the Free Discussions Club produced Student, a journal of strongly left-wing political comment, and at Canterbury College there was Denis Glover's single issue Oriflamme, effectively banned because of an article advocating 'free love', and its equally ephemeral successor Sirocco.

Phoenix showed more stamina than its counterparts by running to four issues, the first two edited by James Bertram, the third and fourth by R.A.K. Mason. The first issue set forth a modernist and nationalist manifesto, announcing its interest in 'literature, arts and public affairs, more particularly in their latest developments in this country' and its belief in the function of poetry as 'the integration of national consciousness'.2 Its founders saw their writing as a challenge to the derivative, colonial culture represented by artefacts such as the 1930 Kowhai Gold anthology. In fact, there was nothing particularly 'New Zealand' about the content of Phoenix. Its authors, who included Curnow, Brasch, Glover, Fairburn and Mason, were keenly aware of and influenced by contemporary developments in poetry in England, to some extent by the young leftish poets, Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, but more so by the slightly older D. H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry, on whose New Adelphi the first Phoenix was modelled. R.A.K. Mason's more militantly left-wing version was also international in its orientation, and was less strictly a literary magazine than the first, with articles on censorship, 'the new economies', the Soviet Union and Russian film. But the writers who launched Phoenix went on to produce in the 1930s and 1940s a literature which was earnestly concerned with the task of discovering 'the local meanings of reality', of making New Zealand 'a home for the imagination'.3 Curnow took his anthology back to the 1920s to find in the writing of Mason and D'Arcy Cresswell the themes by which he identified his own 30s generation as 'a beginning': 'here, where we are beginning . . . the recurring themes and attitudes are there, plainly, in the writings of those we have best reason to call our poets.'4

The Phoenix movement was not as original, or originating, as it perceived itself to be, notably unaware of New Zealand literary history, and acutely page 3 conscious of its own present and the role it should play in the establishment of a new culture (an attitude widely characteristic of intellectuals in the 1930s). But it nevertheless marked the 1930s as a significant period in New Zealand literary history.

The 30s can more justifiably be described as a cultural beginning in New Zealand publishing. Phoenix was distinguished from its counterparts not only by the role it proclaimed for itself and the writers it supported, but by its quality of production. It was here, Denis Glover later wrote, that New Zealand's 'typographical renaissance' began.5 The magazine was the product of Robert Lowry's Auckland University College press. Although this proved to be only a short-lived venture Lowry subsequently established the Unicorn Press, with R.A.K. Mason and Ron Holloway, in 1934, which was followed by the Pelorus Press. Holloway in turn went on to publish under the imprint of the Griffin Press. In Christchurch, meanwhile, Glover had at Canterbury College in 1932 formed the Caxton Club Press, which the following year became the Caxton Press, and in the 30s and 40s went on to publish much of the work of the Phoenix poets, along with stories by Frank Sargeson and essays by M.H. Holcroft. The literary renaissance of these decades not only coincided with, but was to a large extent dependent upon, the emergence of these small and innovative presses, which were the first independent New Zealand publishing ventures to be informed by both a talent for design and a commitment to New Zealand literature. Although these were the most significant developments in terms of typographical art, however, they were only part of a wider renaissance in publishing in the 30s and 40s. J. C. Beaglehole, writing on the history of the book trade in New Zealand, identified among the significant developments of this period in addition to the Caxton Press: the short-lived Progressive Publishing Society of 1941-5 (which is the subject of chapter five of this book), and the University of New Zealand Press, founded in 1946, both of which he himself was involved with; and the Department of Internal Affairs, which was responsible for the government's centennial publishing programme of 1939-40. A curious omission from his list was the establishment of the imprint Paul's Book Arcade by Blackwood Paul in 1945. These developments brought to an end a prolonged 'slump', as Beaglehole put it, in book production in this country.6

The same period was also marked by the foundation of state patronage of the arts in New Zealand. The centennial publishing programme—which produced the multi-volume Historical Surveys series and the magazine-format Pictorial Surveys—was one of an impressive number of cultural initiatives undertaken by the first Labour government. During that government's first term of office the Broadcasting Act 1936 brought all areas of broadcasting under state control and the Country Library Service was established. The centennial supported a wide range of government-backed cultural activities, including literary and art page 4 competitions, a centennial orchestra, local music and drama festivals, a touring art exhibition, and the centrepiece centennial exhibition in Wellington. A number of provincial, town, school and church histories were commissioned by local historical committees. State-funded cultural institutions established in the 1940s included the National Film Unit (1941), the National Library Service (1945), the New Zealand Literary Fund (1946) and the National Orchestra (1947). The first government grants to cultural organisations and travel bursaries were awarded. These initiatives in cultural patronage owed much to the vision of J. W. Heenan, the Under-Secretary for Internal Affairs, as well as to the belief of Labour's leadership that, in Peter Fraser's words, 'art, in the profoundest sense, is Common Wealth'.7

One recipient of the Labour government's beneficence towards the arts was the literary quarterly Landfall founded by Charles Brasch in 1947 with Literary Fund assistance. Landfall provided, for the first time since the demise of the left-wing fortnightly Tomorrow in 1940, a regular medium for the publication and discussion of New Zealand literature; and unlike Tomorrow, one devoted specifically to literature and the arts. It represented in more than one sense an institutionalisation of the Phoenix movement: Landfill expressed a philosophy and programme similar to that of the first Phoenix, looking to the validating standards of European culture while at the same time announcing that New Zealand literature had 'come of age'. As Phoenix defined the function of literature as 'the creation of cultural antennae, the communication of definite standards of taste', so Landfall claimed for literature a spiritualising and prescriptive role: the maintenance of'a single scale of values'.8 The establishment of Landfall, along with the cultural initiatives of the Labour government and the development of New Zealand publishing, contributed to a significant expansion of the infrastructure of cultural and intellectual activity in New Zealand over this period. That development provides the broad context of this book.

The story of the 1930s and 1940s this book tells is different from the received cultural history, which has to a large extent been told by the actors themselves, and has been the story of the nationalist literary renaissance. This is the story of a left-wing cultural movement which was contemporaneous with, and in important ways related to, the rise of cultural nationalism. This movement drew its immediate stimulus from the international political events of the 1930s and the early 1940s, the rise of fascism and the world war; but it was also a response to local cultural conditions. And it was to play a very important part in the development of New Zealand culture in these decades.

In New Zealand the influence of the left was felt not so much in cultural production, in fiction, poetry, drama and the visual arts, as in the infrastructure of culture: in bookselling, publishing and theatre. This book is not then page 5 concerned specifically with left-wing influences in New Zealand art and literature in the 30s and 40s. There was, indeed, comparatively little material of this kind produced, even though this was a period in which a considerable international left-wing cultural movement developed. The creative artist or intellectual turned political activist was relatively rare. R.A.K. Mason is the notable example; and his work with the People's Theatre in the late 1930s is discussed here. There were no 'proletarian' or socialist realist novels published. This is not to say, however, that left-wing ideas did not influence New Zealand fiction in the 1930s. Mulgan's Man Alone carries a Marxist theme in its depiction of the impact of economic forces upon society and the individual, and the novel's final section, in which the protagonist, Johnson, enlists in the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War, can be read as an affirmation of a socialist vision of international brotherhood. But there are stronger themes in Man Alone—of the legacy of war, of individual alienation, and of the struggle of 'man' against a hostile land. John A. Lee's novels, Children of the Poor (1934) and The Hunted (1936), expressed a 1930s concern with the lives of the working class. They present a grim portrayal of the life of the urban poor, in the genre of social realism, as does Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell (1936). Hyde's successor to that novel, Nor the Years Condemn (1938), surpassed the work of both her male contemporaries as a novel of perceptive social criticism, informed by a socialist humanism and feminism, and it provides an important contrast to the nationalist mythologising that has surrounded Man Alone, Sargeson and the poetry of the Phoenix group.

Some of those poets, notably Curnow, Fairburn and Glover, produced a considerable body of topical, satirical verse in the 30s and 40s, but on the whole their 'serious' writing did not address explicit political themes. There were few 'facile tributes to the proletariat' (E. H. McCormick's phrase), or what Fairburn dismissively labelled 'pylon-poetry'.9 Tomorrow and the wartime publication New Zealand New Writing, both of which are discussed in this book, were the principal media in which social realism in prose and political poetry were published, but only a small amount of their literary content came into these categories.

The New Zealand art world also remained largely untouched by the currents of international politics in the 1930s, just as it remained on the whole uninfluenced by the modernist and surrealist movements, which, by contrast, transformed Australian art in this period. James Shelley wrote in a review of the Canterbury Society of Arts exhibition in 1934: 'There is very little evidence... that anything is going on in New Zealand other than the flow of rivers along shingle-beds, the growing of trees, the sleeping of hills and the rolling of clouds'.9 This conservative tradition of naturalistic landscape and still life was challenged by artists such as Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus, whose work was page 6 influenced by European modernism. The work of these artists was at the forefront of stylistic developments in New Zealand art in this period. But there was no comparable social realist development, and no political or modernist movement to compare with, say, the Melbourne Contemporary Art Society or the Angry Penguins movement, which brought together socialist and modernist interests in Australian art in the 1940s. The images of work which appeared in a few New Zealand paintings of the 1930s, such as Rita Angus's 'Gas Works' and 'Activity on the Wharf or 'Silverstream Brickworks' by Christopher Perkins, were inspired by an interest in composition rather than by a social realist impulse. The notable examples of direct social or political comment in New Zealand art in this period were a small number of paintings by Lois White, who studied under AJ.C. Fisher, socialist and tutor at Elam School of Art in Auckland, and the work done by cartoonist and artist Dennis Knight Turner for Auckland trade unions in the late 1940s. These were certainly significant works, but a discussion of them falls outside the scope of this book. They also represent a very small body of left-wing art, and in the longer term had little influence on the mainstream development of New Zealand art.

The 1930s saw significant developments in left-wing and workers' film movements in Britain, America and Europe, with the establishment of organisations such as Kino and the documentary film units sponsored by government agencies in Britain, and the New York-based Nykino group in America. But there was no left-wing film movement in New Zealand. This was despite the visit to this country of British documentary film maker John Grierson in 1940, at the invitation of the Labour government. The result of Grierson's visit was the National Film Unit and its Weekly Review newsreels, which concentrated on tourist publicity, news items and war propaganda.

The example of left-wing cultural movements overseas had the most direct influence in New Zealand in the medium of theatre. Although relatively little New Zealand left-wing drama was written, left theatre groups were formed in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin in the late 1930s and the 1940s. These form the subject of chapter six. This book also looks at Tomorrow, journal of the intellectual left, which was published from 1934 until 1940, when it offended the sensitivities of the Labour government and was effectively suppressed; the Left Book Club, an organisation founded in England in 1936, which had 26 branches in New Zealand and provided a major focus for left-wing discussion, social and some cultural activity in the late 1930s; cooperative bookshops which were established in Auckland, Wellington, Christ-church and Dunedin; and the Progressive Publishing Society, a brave though short-lived venture which was inspired by both socialist and nationalist ideals.

The Progressive Publishing Society brought together interests in national and socialist culture. The connection between the left and nationalist cultural page 7 movements of this period, expressed here in a practical experiment in creating a 'popular culture', is explored more fully in chapter two. This chapter takes as its principal text for a discussion of the central themes of left-wing cultural theory in this period a series of articles in Tomorrow written by H. Winston Rhodes, Canterbury University College English lecturer, political activist and fellow traveller, who had a part to play in most of the organisations with which this book is concerned. Tomorrow magazine, of which Rhodes was one of the founders, was not only the major forum for debate within the intellectual left in New Zealand in the 1930s; it also provided the only regular medium for the publication of New Zealand literature and was the most important forum for the discussion of cultural, as well as political, economic and social, affairs in New Zealand. It has an importance in the cultural and intellectual history of this period far greater than the largely symbolic stature accorded to the shorter-lived Phoenix. The story of Tomorrow serves here to describe the cultural and intellectual climate of New Zealand in the 1930s which was the common background out of which the left-wing and nationalist cultural movements developed.

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1 G. Texidor, These Dark Glasses, in Texidor, In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot. Selected Fiction. Ed. and with an introduction by K. Smithyman. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1987, p.26

2 Phoenix, Mar. 1932 (v.1, n.1), pp.[2], [1]

3 M.H. Holcroft, Discovered Isles. A Trilogy. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1950, p.83; A Curnow, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1945, p.18

4 Ibid., pp.16,18

5 D. Glover, Typographical Printing Today', in A.H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Wellington: Government Printer, 1966, v.2, pp.871-2

6 J. C. Beaglehole, 'From Bookshop Assistant to O. M. Eminent ex-Bookseller talks to N.Z. Jubilee Conference', Bookseller-, 3418, 26 June 1971, pp.2594-7; 'Book Production in New Zealand', Studio, Apr. 1948 (v.135, n.661), pp.130-1

7 P. Fraser, Apr. 1948, quoted in J. M. Fox, 'State Aid to the Arts in New Zealand'. MA thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 1967, p.26

8 Phoenix, Mar. 1932 (v.1, n1i), p. [1]; 'Notes', Landfall, Mar. 1947 (v.1, n.1), p.3

9 E. H. McCormick, Letters andArt in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940, p.189; A.R.D. Fairburn, review of A. Curnow, Enemies. Poems 1934-36, Tomorrow, 28 Apr. 1937 (v.3, n.13), p.415 10 J. Shelley, 'Canterbury Society of Arts Annual Exhibition', Art in New Zealand, June 1934 (v.6, n.4), p.178

9 E. H. McCormick, Letters andArt in New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940, p.189; A.R.D. Fairburn, review of A. Curnow, Enemies. Poems 1934-36, Tomorrow, 28 Apr. 1937 (v.3, n.13), p.415 10 J. Shelley, 'Canterbury Society of Arts Annual Exhibition', Art in New Zealand, June 1934 (v.6, n.4), p.178