The last decade of the 19th century was highly significant for the development of the visual arts in New Zealand. The main reason was the arrival of several professional painters from Europe – Petrus van der Velden (1837–1913), James Nairn (1859–1904) and Girolamo Nerli (1860–1926) – who contributed fresh ideas through their teaching and practice, invigorating the local art scene. All three men arrived quite coincidentally from 1889 to 1890. Prior to this time New Zealand painters had little knowledge of contemporary developments in Europe such as realism and impressionism.
At the century’s end, New Zealand art still depended heavily on nourishment from Europe. Traditional Māori art was ignored rather than studied, even though this was the time when Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) was seeking to absorb primitivist aspects into his painting in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) too was soon to draw stimulus from works of Oceanic art in the Trocadero Museum in Paris.
Between 1900 and 1930 most of the more ambitious and well-known New Zealand painters travelled to Britain and Europe to study new modernist art movements such as impressionism, fauvism, post-impressionism, cubism, and surrealism.
‘Primitivism’ in art is the practice of borrowing visual forms and motifs from art by prehistoric or non-Western cultures. It became popular in the early 20th century through the work of artists like Gauguin, Picasso and Henri Matisse (1869–1954).
The inherent symbolism and energetic rhythms resulting from the use of repetitive ornamental pattern were influential. Artists were also inspired by the absence of traditional linear perspective and the distortion of the figure.
Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947) was one of New Zealand’s most successful artists of this period. She left for Europe in 1901 and by the 1920s was a recognised fixture in the British art scene. In 1929 she became associated with the Seven and Five Society, exhibiting alongside leading British avant-garde artists such as Barbara Hepworth (1903–75), Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and Henry Moore (1898–1986).
At this time artists in Europe began casting aside realism in painting. They were moving towards the modernist position suggested by French artist and writer Maurice Denis (1870–1943) in his dictum of 1890: ‘a picture – before being a war-horse, a nude woman, or some sort of anecdote – is essentially a surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order.’ Artists no longer sought to imitate reality (photography had proven able to do this quite adequately). Instead, they drew attention to the fact that a painting is simply the application of pigment to a two-dimensional surface.
While individual artists were enriched by their overseas experience, painting in New Zealand remained conservative. This was due in part to physical isolation and a lack of new ideas, especially since the more innovative artists had settled overseas permanently. The La Trobe scheme introduced in the 1920s was an attempt to lift the standard of art education in New Zealand.
The La Trobe scheme was the brainchild of William Sanderson La Trobe (1870–1943), the first superintendent of technical education in the Department of Education. He hoped to attract staff with qualifications from British institutions like the Royal College of Art in London. Importing art teachers from overseas – particularly Europe – would hopefully foster professionalism in the training of artists. A number of artists came and were spread thinly throughout New Zealand. Two were particularly influential: Robert Nettleton Field (1899–1987) and Christopher Perkins (1891–1968).
The scheme played a key role in the development of a distinctly New Zealand style of art. It reinvigorated the tired local scene and liberated a younger generation of artists stifled by stylistic conservatism. The La Trobe scheme artists provided an important link with European modernism and exposed their students to new ideas about colour, pictorial construction, form and technique. They fuelled critical debate about New Zealand art by contributing to magazines and journals.
They also had a wider impact on those in the community with intellectual inclinations towards the visual arts. As local writer and art critic E.H. McCormick (1906–95) wrote:
In a trice Botticelli was removed from the living-room to the more appropriate surroundings of the bedroom to make way for the post-impressionists in rapid succession. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers blazed on cream-tinted walls in ever-enlarging versions, ... Van Gogh gave way to Gauguin, Gauguin to Cezanne, while he in turn, for reasons known only to the print-makers, was superseded by the elder Breughel.