In the 1930s and 1940s a distinctly New Zealand style of painting began to emerge. At this time there was an increasing demand by critics like James Shelley (1884–1961) and A.R.D. Fairburn (1904–57) for painters to pay greater attention to local subjects. What developed was a New Zealand style of regionalism that is characterised by a preoccupation with place and local identity. The centre of regionalist painting in this country was Christchurch, with pupils and teachers at the Canterbury College School of Art the main exponents.
The closest overseas models were American regionalist artists of the late 1920s and early 1930s such as Grant Wood (1892–1942) and Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975). Reproductions of their work clearly influenced Rita Angus (1908–70) and Russell Clark (1905–66). With their honest depictions of small town and rural life, regionalist artists in America sought to produce art that was accessible to the general public – not just intellectuals and art aficionados.
Regionalism in New Zealand was not such a formal doctrine. Artists tended to approach the landscape with a diversity of styles and a range of interests. They dealt with themes of isolation and loneliness, and celebrated rural life and the virtues of honest work. Another aspect often remarked upon in these works is the crisp, clearly defined forms and stark contrast between light and dark. This is attributed to an artist’s response to the harsh qualities of the New Zealand light as championed by Christopher Perkins.
The regionalist style can be characterised by a number of features: flattened forms, strong outlines, broad areas of flat colour, and a decorative treatment of form and space. The depiction of unpopulated landscapes with motifs to signify settlement is also typical of this period.
Landscape has dominated New Zealand painting since the first European artists arrived in New Zealand at the end of the 18th century. But similar stylistic developments can be seen in the treatment of figurative subject matter. Under the influence of overseas modernism, the figure was often flattened, simplified and abstracted, and treated as a vehicle to explore the artist’s feelings.
Rita Angus became especially interested in portraiture during the 1930s. She frequently used the female figure as a way of dealing with her philosophical and feminist ideas. In the mid-1930s her portraiture moved from careful representation to more subjective interpretation. She treated the figure as she did the landscape, evening it out, emphasising strong features and painting it in a clear light, without expressive brushstrokes.
Toss Woollaston (1910–98) also completed an important series of figure paintings in the mid to late 1930s. They treated the figure in an uncompromising manner rarely seen in New Zealand before. In many of these works Woollaston’s aim was not to convey a sense of the individual, but rather to communicate emotion through gesture. In this series his work bears similarities to the ‘primitivism’ of Matisse, Picasso and the German expressionists. The mask-like qualities of the faces echoed Picasso’s work of the early 20th century, especially his Les demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907.