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Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial

16: Centennial Exhibitions of Art

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16: Centennial Exhibitions of Art

There was no single, triumphant showing of art associated with New Zealand's Centennial Exhibition of 1940, and without the efforts of an ad hoc artists' collective there would have been little contemporary New Zealand 'fine art' on display beyond the murals and statuary installed in and around the Rongotai exhibition buildings. Visitors with a penchant for art needed instead to visit the temple-like precincts of the National Art Gallery above Buckle Street, opened only three years earlier, to view the 970 exhibits of the Centennial Exhibition of International and New Zealand Art organised by Mary Murray Fuller.' Opened on 10 November 1939, the international section comprised 562 works—mainly British paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture. Except for a small number of borrowed works, including seven from the Tate Gallery, everything had its advertised price. The local component of the exhibition was staged in the adjacent galleries of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and comprised 408 contributions solicited from art society members around the country. In recognition of potential sales to visitors over the centennial period, the Academy's exhibition remained open until the end of January. When the National Art Gallery's international exhibition finally closed on 12 May 1940 it had been seen by a total of 57,150 people, including 9,100 children.2

The more significant exhibition project, the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art, opened in Dunedin's Pioneers' Hall on 19 February 1940.3 Conceived within the centennial branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, the exhibition was largely the work of Otago-born, London-trained historian Alexander Hare McLintock.4 In scope it ranged from the artists of Tasman's and Cook's voyages through to contemporary work and incorporated a variety of media, with drawings and cartoons exhibited in tandem with paintings. The 355 exhibits were borrowed from a wide range of public art galleries, historical libraries, art societies, artists and private collectors. The trusting owners allowed the works to travel on an astonishing schedule of fifteen venues throughout the South and North Islands; after Dunedin came Invercargill, Christchurch, Timaru, Auckland, Whangarei, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Wanganu, Palmerston North, Napier, Masterton, Blenheim, Nelson, and finally in March 1941, Wellington. The project, unfolding through the first stage of the war, reached a vastly wider public than the Wellington exhibition. As work page 223 was borrowed explicitly for exhibition only, nothing was advertised for sale. In this respect, as in the scholarship demonstrated by the published catalogue, McLintock's project maintained professional standards exceeding those of the national art institution.

Before we explore these two exhibitions in greater detail, what was the place of art within the exhibition at Rongotai? Incarnated as an art moderne celebration of modern nationhood, the Centennial Exhibition was itself a gigantic work of art. Perhaps this explains the lack of any plans for a specific display of 'fine arts' such as had been mounted at earlier international exhibitions. The most prominent pieces of traditional painting were four murals on historical themes strategically installed around the central foyer of the Government Court. Commissioned from Wellington-born, London-based artist Frederick H. Coventry, the four murals proposed an historical progression from the 'no-man's-land' of The European in New Zealand before 1840 to The Close of New Zealand's First Century', conveying the results of 'one hundred years of steady progress'.5 Each work measured sixteen feet by sixteen feet—'a scale far beyond anything that has yet been attempted in New Zealand'— and the murals were originally intended to be installed in a suitable government building following the exhibition.6 Other mural-scaled works were produced by Austen Deans and Russell Clark, and possibly the young Maori artist Oriwa T. Haddon.7

H. Linley Richardson's portrait of Mary Murray Fuller, 1940, poses her within the National Art Gallery. Art in New Zealand, December 1940.

H. Linley Richardson's portrait of Mary Murray Fuller, 1940, poses her within the National Art Gallery. Art in New Zealand, December 1940.

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The Women's Section, located in the Exhibition's Tower Block, included Tine Arts' among its advertised exhibits. While the official catalogue describes 'Drawing and painting, etching and engravings, miniatures, modelling and statuary and photography . . . which gives a comprehensive impression of the creative ability of women', the catalogue of the women's section reveals a preponderance of 'Arts and Crafts': decorative needlework, jewellery, pottery, china painting, weaving and spinning.8 The other art collection at Rongotai occupied a four-bay stall in block 12 of the General Exhibits building and was the initiative of the New Zealand Artists' Society, a group formed specifically 'for the purpose of having some representation of the works of N.Z. artists on view at the Exhibition.'9 The display presented 252 drawings, paintings and sculptures by forty-four artists, but unfortunately no precise catalogue of the contents has survived.10 A more spacious 'cultural exhibit' comprising some sixty works of Australian art occupied the mezzanine floor of the strikingly modern Australian Pavilion. Curated by the artist, publisher and entrepreneur Sydney Ure Smith, the exhibition contrasted the 'primitive native arts of New Guinea and the Australian aborigines' with the 'finished work of contemporary Australian masters'.11

We now return to consider the major centennial art exhibition, some distance from Rongotai at the National Art Gallery. Mary Murray Fuller's Centennial Exhibition of International and New Zealand Art was the initiative of a formidable artist-dealer who was a leading member of Wellington's fine arts establishment. Her husband Edwin Murray Fuller opened the city's first real art dealership in 1920, representing a range of local artists, and together they had organised successful selling tours of contemporary British art—mini-Royal Academies—intended to be inspirational for New Zealand artists and enticing to local collectors. After Edwin's death in 1933, Mary served on the council of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and (from late 1936) on the Board of Management of the National Art Gallery. The programme of British art exhibitions mounted by the Murray Fullers in 1928, 1930 and 1932 was continued single-handedly by Mary Murray Fuller in 1935 and 1936. No doubt she relished the entree into Royal Academy circles that such a role afforded her, and the success of the earlier ventures assisted her in persuading a wide range of British artists to contribute to this, the last as well as the most ambitious of the Murray Fuller exhibition projects. The ship bearing the exhibition left England a mere fortnight before war was declared on 3 September 1939.

Most of the exhibits, 515 works, were British. While the majority of the artists would now be regarded as obscure, Murray Fuller had secured works by leading academic figures such as George Clausen, Laura Knight and Alfred Munnings, together with a smattering of moderns including Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. The 'continental' component consisted of sixteen paintings from Belgium and thirty-one from France, the latter including works by Dufy, Marquet, Vlaminck and Utrillo. T always do my own selecting,' Mrs Fuller boasted page 225 to a Listener reporter in 1940.12 But it was this combination of the roles of selector and vendor that raised the question of whether a private art dealership was benefiting from state sponsorship. Wellington artist and publisher Harry H. Tombs was among the objectors:

... it is clear that our National Art Gallery, in its wisdom, has on this occasion turned itself into a commercial organisation for the purpose of selling European work, and has sent an experienced saleswoman, who is herself one of the Management Committee, to England to carry the scheme through.13

Tombs queried the wisdom of forcing New Zealand artists to compete by holding the Academy's exhibition concurrently. 'Aren't we making ourselves rather ridiculous in doing this? . . . The loan idea seems the rational and normal procedure for such exhibitions.'14 In the event, sales were achieved to a range of New Zealand collections, including the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, National Art Gallery, New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson.

The most popular as well as the single largest exhibit in Murray Fuller's display arrived two months late. An official request to the King, asking to borrow Frank Salisbury's enormous Coronation of King George VI 'presented to His Majesty by the Dominion Prime Ministers', had been made a year earlier by the Minister of Internal Affairs—at a time when it was expected that the two exhibitions would be shown in tandem.15 Royal approval was duly received in March 1939 but the outbreak of war delayed the painting's onward shipment from New York's World's Fair. The Coronation finally arrived in mid-January 1940 and proved a godsend for all concerned with the centennial exhibitions.

The National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art was a far more carefully planned affair than its International sibling. It was McLintock himself who had first proposed such a project, inspired by his work on the centennial publications as researcher, writer and illustrator.16 John Pascoe had already compiled an inventory of paintings, drawings and sketches held in public and private collections throughout the country, as potential illustrations for the Making New Zealand series. Heenan embraced the idea of an exhibition and convened a National Centennial Art Committee comprising 'gentlemen who take a keen interest in art generally' such as Auckland Art Gallery's John Barr.17 By this means it was intended to avoid 'the petty jealousies which would inevitably arise if practising artists were selected'.

Regional support was ensured, with lists of significant historical artists and their key works to be drawn up by local committees; and newspaper advertisements invited living artists to submit up to two works for selection at committee meetings in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington.18 As director of the exhibition, McLintock was the ultimate arbiter, maintaining his desired balance between historical and contemporary (roughly two-thirds to one-third) and eliminating scores page 226 of irrelevant works generously offered on all sides. Artfully skirting a host of difficulties, Mclintock made his selection, negotiated loans and insurance values, and burned plentiful midnight oil in perfecting his catalogue.

Following its Dunedin opening on 19 February 1940, McLintock tirelessly promoted the exhibition on the radio (eight broadcasts during the three weeks it was on show) and through lectures and inspirational talks to a seemingly endless stream of schoolchildren. It was exhausting work, for McLintock was also responsible for overseeing the packing, transportation and reinstallation of the exhibition. At the second venue in Invercargill, faced by the realities of bad weather and provincial indifference to the very existence of New Zealand art, he wrote back to Wellington:

Everyone moans about the war but I'm afraid that the term 'NZ Art' damns it. If we called it Hottentot, Chinese or even German, we'd get a better run. What we do need is the 'Coronation Picture' to provide a boost. That drew the crowds in Wellington.19

McLintock's personal solution was to take up an appointment as lecturer in history at the University of Otago, and he was released from the exhibition after the Christchurch opening. In this most British of New Zealand cities, where the press consistently referred to Britain as 'home', the exhibition received wide coverage. Christchurch artist and teacher Leonard H. Booth lectured the Society for Imperial Culture, delivering 'some severe criticisms of what he called the "reckless destruction of New Zealand landscape by the avaricious methods employed by our modern civilisation".'20 Booth's response to the exhibition is fascinating since his focus on 'destruction'—never highlighted as a theme by McLintock—was a result of Booth's personal encounter with the works in the exhibition.

Once the International Exhibition had closed in Wellington, Salisbury's Coronation of King George VI was finally able to travel to Auckland and belatedly join McLintock's exhibition, official responsibility for which had been assumed by the ubiquitous Mary Murray Fuller. The extreme difficulty of getting the enormous Coronation into the Auckland Art Gallery made for an eye-catching newspaper photograph and from this point the exhibition's promotional advertising was to read 'Coronation Picture and Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art'. The painting represented an absurd centrepiece for a survey of New Zealand art, but its inclusion guaranteed the exhibition's continued viability. As Mrs Murray Fuller wrote back to Wellington, 'There is no doubt that the Coronation Picture brings the public, very little interest being shown otherwise . . . Most people come to see the one picture.'21 Attendance in Auckland was 10,023, including 1,869 school children, no doubt pleasing Mayor Sir Ernest Davis who believed that 'in these days of nervous strain nothing could be better for citizens than to spend a little time in the Gallery'.22

The most compelling feature of McLintock's exhibition is the sheer diversity of its contents. Not only does he include a wide range of media, but there is a clear page 227
Hanging paintings for the opening of the exhibtion in Dunedin. Alec McLintock stands third from right. Next to him is Gordon Tovey (holding a painting) and Mabel Hill from the Dunedin Commitee. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, New Zealand National Newspaper Collection, Otago Daily Times,15 February 1940, p.13, C-27623-1/2.

Hanging paintings for the opening of the exhibtion in Dunedin. Alec McLintock stands third from right. Next to him is Gordon Tovey (holding a painting) and Mabel Hill from the Dunedin Commitee. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ, New Zealand National Newspaper Collection, Otago Daily Times,15 February 1940, p.13, C-27623-1/2.

attempt to place popular art forms such as the political cartoon alongside the 'high art' tradition of oil painting. The cartoons include significant historical pieces by William Blomfield ('Blo') as well as drawings by leading contemporaries such as the famous expatriate, David Low. This admixture of the 'popular' is echoed in the inclusion of other artists whose work is frankly flagged as 'commercial', including successful younger figures such as Russell Clark. There is also a significant diversity in the scale of the exhibited works, which range from intimate drawings to relatively large-scale paintings such as Walter Wright's A Native Gathering. The only significant victim of circumstances was sculpture, a less portable medium than drawings and oil paintings, which was displayed in the form of photographs.

Given the challenge of representing the entire span of European art in New Zealand, McLintock mustered an impressive range of contemporary work. While the young Colin McCahon is missing, there are paintings by M. T. Woollaston and Rita Angus (exhibiting as Mrs Rita Cook), as well as the highly topical War Makers from A. Lois White. There is also ample representation of work by artists whose careers largely unfolded outside the country. The leading expatriate Frances Hodgkins page 228 has an early Maori portrait, lent by the National Art Gallery, as well as two more adventurous works lent by the Auckland Art Gallery, but we also encounter talented figures from the younger generation including Rita Angus's brother-in-law, James Cook. All in all, McLintock achieved a subtle balancing of historical against contemporary, high against low, south against north, male against female, and academic against modern.

The published catalogue holds its own amongst the series of centennial publications. The catalogue's format was modelled on that of a 1936 exhibition of contemporary Canadian painting, though the elegance of its typography was largely due to the involvement of the bibliophile historian J. C. Beaglehole.23 The brief introduction to the Canadian catalogue, by the director of Ottawa's national gallery, signalled the 'distinct Canadianism' manifest in the exhibited work, while a noteworthy feature of McLintock's introductory essay is the assertion that New Zealand's art lacks any truly national identity. In his speech at the Dunedin opening, McLintock had again asserted that the country had no 'national art'.

'It was a tight squeeze', reported the Auckland Star. 'The 'Coronation' picture arrives at the Auckland Art Gallery. Auckland Star, 21 June 1940, p.7.

'It was a tight squeeze', reported the Auckland Star. 'The 'Coronation' picture arrives at the Auckland Art Gallery. Auckland Star, 21 June 1940, p.7.

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And I doubt that such will be the case until we realise the distinctive and peculiar characteristics which we have to express. It is local art that also demands our support. In Australia the visitor will find the work of Australian artists prominently displayed. If our art galleries in the coming years will build up a comprehensive and well-selected collection of New Zealand art, they will be doing more for the country than by the purchase of some of the best art from overseas.24

Yet McLintock's selection, based as it was on intensive historical research in addition to the comprehensive advisory and selection procedures, clearly amounted to a representative distillation of the nation's art. While the catalogue is marred by factual lapses (such as the mention of Augustus Earle's return trip to New Zealand on the Beagle), it is also true that McLintock assembled much previously unrecorded information on the lives of the artists he included. While his writing may lack the literary panache of E. H. McCormick's Letters and Art in New Zealand, the art historian Peter Tomory later characterised McLintock's achievement as 'the first well balanced assessment of New Zealand painting.'25

Mary Murray Fuller criticised McLintock's catalogue for its inaccuracies and omissions, even though her own catalogue amounted to little more than a rough room-by-room listing of the exhibition.26 In contrast, McLintock's was organised alphabetically, according to artist rather than by proximity in the exhibition. Writing after the show's final opening in Wellington, when it had been announced that a version of the exhibition would tour to North America, Harry Tombs felt that the exhibition's separation of paintings from drawings, together with the alphabetically organised catalogue, diminished the exhibition's historical value.

Surely in an historical collection such as this the true method both of cataloguing and hanging is to endeavour to impress the mind of the beholder with some clear ideas of the work done in a definite period of time.27

Tombs wanted 'a clear chronological arrangement, sacrificing the usual aesthetic idea of suitable frames, etc.'. Although he does not name her, the criticism is almost certainly directed at Murray Fuller for whom aesthetic concerns were paramount. And it was her 'flair' in such matters, in addition to her keen business sense, that she regarded as her chief qualification for managing the touring exhibition.

I am fortunate in possessing a natural flair for hanging pictures. It's remarkable how few people know how to do this. ... I always see a collection in my mind's eye correctly placed on the walls. When it comes to the actual hanging of the pictures, the work is simplified.28

With little in the way of visual documentation, it is impossible to assess the merits of the earlier installations by McLintock as opposed to Murray Fuller's more 'aesthetic' page 230 achievements later in the tour. My guess, however, is that the range and subtlety of the show's contents would have posed a significant challenge to both curators.

The international and national centennial art exhibitions represented radically opposing strategies in terms of centennial celebration, an opposition which is characteristic of New Zealand's art culture of the period. Murray Fuller's international exhibition reveals a National Art Gallery marking the country's centenary with a show imported from the British 'homeland', in preference to a presentation of New Zealand art. But it was not only artists and historians but also members of the governing elite who were aware of the crucial importance of New Zealand's own tradition. Speaking at the 1936 opening of the National Art Gallery, Governor General Lord Galway had urged that 'only the finest works of authentic art should be exhibited in this gallery', and urged the acquisition of historical New Zealand art.29 Opening the international exhibition in 1939, Galway reminded his audience of the urgent need to locate 'first-class original works of early New Zealand art', adding: 'Now is the time to obtain such works.'30 Yet the inevitable outcome of the National Art Gallery's project was the acquisition of further second-rate specimens of British art from Murray Fuller's collection, works which are now hidden from view in Te Papa's storerooms.

McLintock's touring centennial exhibition, on the other hand, represents the first in what was to become an increasingly important genre of exhibition—the survey of the country's own pictorial heritage, in the concrete form of actual works of art. Produced under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the enterprise commands respect for the range and quality of the works displayed, for the scholarship and elegance of its publication, and for the heroic schedule of its tour through a country at war. This tour's completion was largely due to its effective management by Murray Fuller, whose creative deployments of the exhibition did not lessen the pioneering achievement by McLintock of the first historical survey of New Zealand art.

2 'National Art Gallery Committee of Management Annual Report', Appendix to the Journal of the House of Representatives (AJHR) 1940, vol.3, H. 21, p.3. For general purposes the figures were rounded to 50,000 adults and 10,000 children (Art in New Zealand, XII, 4, June 1940, p.249).

3 A. H. McLintock, National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art: Catalogue (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940).

4 For McLintock see the essay by Edmund Bohan in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol.4, pp.321-2, and for his background as an artist see David Bell, 'Alexander Hare McLintock, printmaker: An essay and a catalogue', Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, Special series no.l, 1994. McLintock's most ambitious historical project was the three-volume Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966).

5 'Murals for Government Court NZ Centennial Exhibition', Art in New Zealand, XII, 1, September 1939, p.33.

6 An account of the art at Rongotai is given in Gordon Brown, New Zealand Painting 1920-1940: Adaptation and Nationalism (Wellington: Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, 1975). Here Brown reports that two of Coventry's murals were installed at the Auckland Museum (note 11, p.70).

7 Brown, New Zealand Painting, p.71. Oriwa T. Haddon's contribution is mentioned in McLintock, Catalogue (1940), p.40: 'He was recently commissioned by the Tourist Department to execute a series of oils in connection with the Centennial celebrations.'

8 'Women's section', New Zealand Centennial Exhibition 1939-1940: Official souvenir catalogue (Wellington: NZ Centennial Exhibition Co Ltd, 1939),p.61. A separate listing of the contents, almost all of which was for sale, was published as New Zealand Centennial Exhibition 1839-1940; Women's Section Catalogue.

9 cOur Centennial' Art in New Zealand, XII, 2, December 1939, p.81.

10 See Art in New Zealand, December 1939, p.123, and June 1940, p.250.

11 'Commonwealth of Australia', Official souvenir catalogue . . ., p.51.

12 'A contribution to art', New Zealand Listener, 31 January 1940, p.41.

13 H. H. Tombs, 'Our National Art Gallery as a sales organisation', Art in New Zealand, XI, 4, June 1939, p.l80.

14 Ibid.

15 J. Heenan to W. J. Jordon, 22 December 1938, Internal Affairs IA 1, 62/106, Pt.l, National Archives.

16 Personal communication, R. I. M. Burnett to editor.

17 Memorandum re National Centennial Art Committee, 12 June 1939, IA 1, 62/106, Pt.l.

18 The advertisement appeared nationally on 4 November 1939, fulfilling the committee's resolution 'to place the method of selection of contemporary work upon a democratic basis'. Minutes of meeting of the National Centennial Art Committee, 26 October 1939. IA 1,62/106, Pt.2.

19 McLintock to Mulligan, 27 March 1940, IA 1, 62/106, Pt.5.

20 'New Zealand art: Mr Leonard H. Booth's address', The Press, 29 April 1940, p.5. Booth was represented in the exhibition by an oil portrait lent by the National Art Gallery and a pen drawing.

21 Murray Fuller to Mulligan, 27 June 1940, IA 1, 62/106, Pt.5.

22 Art in New Zealand, XIII, 1, September 1940, p.49.

23 Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Painting (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1936).

24 Art in New Zealand, XII, 3, March 1940, p. 189.

25 Quoted by Brown, New Zealand Painting, 1975, p.73.

26 See Robin Kay and Tony Eden, Portrait of a Century: The History of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts 1882-1982 (Wellington: Millwood Press, 1983), p.118.

27 'New Zealand and American art', Art in New Zealand, XIII, 3, March 1941, p. 154.

28 'A contribution to art', New Zealand Listener, 31 January 1940, p.41.

29 (Our Centennial', Art in New Zealand, XII, 2, December 1939, p.70.

30 Ibid.