A Battle of the Critics

The Concept of The Avant-Garde comes to New Zealand


The first thing that might strike any reader of nineteenth century New Zealand criticism of art is the ferocity and certitude of its opinion. How tamed or timid our critics seem now! In those days, if an artistic debate was on, critics asserted it, took sides. This was so with that debate on the impressionism of Nairn and his Wellington Art Club which is to be the subject of the present article. Yet today, with, say, the debate between modernist and post-modernist - which is among artists now as intense as ever the one between impressionist and Academy was - not a whisper.

There is also the weight, the sheer volume of words devoted by nineteenth century newspapers to art: the importance attached to it. If W.M. Hodgkins read a paper to the Otago Institute of Art or Nairn to his Wellington Art Club, they had their whole speech reported verbatim. An artist's talk might occupy almost a whole page of the smaller type of the time. It is as if, say, McCahon's talks at Curious Cove had been reported verbatim: and so had not to be reconstructed from the briefest of notes and from memory's invention, years later; or as if Killeen's slide talk at the Bosshard Gallery in Dunedin had been in entirety reported ... Happy days when the pages of newspapers were embattled with art!

Portrait of.J.M Nairn 1894
(detail) watercolour
(The National Gallery,

But now, to our subject ...

Something of the concept of the avant-garde, the idea of modernity, of ceaseless change, of experiment, of progress, of the implacable opposition of the new to the old, first clearly comes to New Zealand with Nairn and his Wellington Art Club. Their works, of course, look perfectly harmless today, and were hardly, in any international sense, avant-garde. But it was by the door they somewhat gingerly opened that modernism - the art of today - came clamorously in, with its confusion of opinion, its conflict of schools, and the endless noise of its manifestos.

It is, perhaps, a twentieth century prejudice in favour of the-avant-garde (who have for us the wonderful convenience of being at once always the underdog and always in the right) that has led recent commentators persistently to quote the critical assault Nairn's work received here in the 'nineties: and never to mention the praise it got. For, such as they were, and late as they were, these 'impressionists' in New Zealand, just as the Impressionists in France, did enjoy buyers and friendly critics, as well as suffering barbs of hostility.

Yet the avant-garde is not merely a twentieth century notion imposed on the nineteenth: it was already believed in then, by artist and public alike. The avant-garde artist, then as now, was a conventional romantic type, of whom the public expected excess, scandal and poverty; and he or she was usually pleased to provide it. Nairn speaks for every such artist when he says: 'I shall always make a point of trying to outrage the taste of the ordinary public'.1

With a paper Nairn read to his Art Club in 1892, and had publicly aired in a newspaper, the idea of progress, of change, is implied even in the title: The Progress of Art in New Zealand.2 Nairn's paper consistently opposes the new to the old. Of the 'true art thinker', it has this to say:
He has first of all left the old conventional school, and struck something new... Now, let the public accept it or not, let them call it what they like, but I uphold they have no right to judge, An artist's place is always given him by his brother artists.

This idea of only a brother artist being able to judge of new work, whose very newness makes it incomprehensible to the public, remains a conventional utterance of avant-garde artists; as does Nairn's idea that their works are 'experimental, but these experiments demand attention and respect'. Even by those old and established artists, who have had it all their own way in past shows the younger men must be felt and given a higher place in art, from their desire to forge ahead, leaving behind those displays . of conventional pot boiling too commonly mistaken for art... We, however, are gaining the right track now, and the educated will see, and the uneducated must have it drummed into them, by our giving fresh renderings of nature. it will take us all our time to drum this into the art loving public, and though it may not have the desired effect directly, we must continue to do so, however far off our chances of success.

Nairn's paper said of his Club that they had 'been training for a good fight against trumpeting commonplace'. Of the 1890 New Zealand Academy exhibition (that is, the one before Nairn and his lot had really got going): 'there were not ten pictures that I'd have troubled in carrying home'. How amusingly truculent the tone of Nairn and his followers, and how offensive it must have been then!

Wharf at Kaikoura 1903
oil, 260 x 360 mm.
(Collection of the
Auckland City Art Gallery)

The critics were quick to join the 'Battle of the Schools', as Goldie later called it, to set going a parallel performance - what we may call the 'Battle of the Critics'.3

The Evening Post critic's attack on Nairn's and his followers' 'chromatic lunacy' has often been quoted. He called Nairn's work, and the work of his Wellington Art Club, 'bilious as to colour, inchoate in form, and the creations of a disordered imagination'. But other critics were quick to pick up their pens as weapons of defence, and of what is said to be its best form, attack.

The quality of colour and newness of thought were, I consider, much above the average of the contributions from other cities, because in no case was there that repetition of commonplace prettiness in landscape which was at once noticeable in the other work exhibited. if the would-be critic of the Evening Post would, by the assistance of a common pin, open his eyes to see, and by ceasing to use terms the real meaning of which he does not understand, study what an artist's mission is, then we who have some idea of the value of art, may listen to him, but at present, certainly not... I say, 'give it up, Mr Reporter!' The report shows only, of course, the incapacity of the writer to understand a sketch. Possibly, if some of the sketches were more truly 'finished', as were some of the Auckland works, they would appeal more to common eyes, such as those of the POST 'critic'. . .4

The occasional critic more cautiously refrained from enlisting with either side (just as do critics today - wise creatures), and contented himself with reportage. The Dunedin Star so speaks of Nairn's An Idyll: this being to some a mere suggestion in splashes. While some receive it as an example of high art. We leave the contending parties to settle the question between themselves.

Some maintained a sufficient detachment even to parody the contending parties, as again in the Dunedin Star:
I marked not that the air was green,
that my face was violet,
I failed to note the amber sheen
That bathed the
purple parapet.
The fact I very much regret.
The times, I fear, I'm far blind;
I simply notice it was wet -
Forgive me! I am colour blind.

But, whatever the response might be ' everywhere there was new realization that art changes, and that change is painful. In nothing than the painter's art is it more certain that 'the old order changeth to give place unto the new'. . . The loosening of the bonds of traditional conventionality is, however, a matter of always considerable time and often of much difficulty; and it is only within a very recent period that any tendency in this direction has been noticeable in the work of colonial painters.5

As often with the avant-garde, the new aesthetic criteria of Nairn and his followers were largely negative - or, at least, the easiest way to approach their aesthetic is through what they excluded. Realism, in fact, is as rigorous in its rejections as Academic Idealism: both refuse to accept all of nature. '

Let a collage of the Wellington Art Club's friendliest reviews vociferously make the point:
These heretics - blessings be upon them, and may they increase in the land - do not always paint the everlasting Sounds, Mitre Peak, Evening on Mt. Earnslaw, etc. etc . . .

It is pleasant then to be able to congratulate the Wellington Art Club on succeeding in opening the first exhibition of pictures in the Colony where Mitre Peak is conspicuous by its absence.7

It is pleasant then to find that the walls of the exhibition are not hung with endless presentments, in various degrees of feebleness and horror, of the gigantic scenery of the West Coast Sounds, or the unspeakable magnificence of the Alps ... 8

Sneers at the old objects and emotions of the Sublime in New Zealand became so much a commonplace that the columnist 'Justitia', in an article on art teaching, could define the traditional teacher as 'Mr Milford. Sound', he who teaches nothing but 'Copying Mitre Peaks, and Milford Sound'.9

Near Timaru 1894
oil on board, 210 x 310 mm.
(Collection of Michael
Dunn, Auckland)

This realist rejection of the Sublime, of the grandiloquent as subject, perhaps meant more than simply a change in the objects represented. It was, so it has been claimed in a recent article by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, a necessary pre-condition for the existence of the avant-garde picture; it was the beginning of modernism.10 For, by accepting what seemed to be the 'ordinary' as subject, since that subject was no longer so exciting or beautiful in itself, the aesthetic excitement had to be shunted from what was represented to bow it was represented. Such excitement, such beauty as there was, had to be in the way it was painted. And so what was asserted was the means of representation, the painting's material fact: dabs, splashes, washes of colour on a canvas or board. It was precisely this that caused those howls of pain from nineteenth century critics, for it was hard, then, as it still is for many today, to see painting as painting, and not as some window, true and transparent to the world.

And yet, and yet, I hear a voice which shall remain nameless saving: were Nairn and his Art Club really so avant-garde as all that? Did they really make canvas and paint so flagrant a thing? Did they really so assert their painting as independent of the visible world?

The answer here (which must be brief) will have simply to be this: no (I have been able to argue for this here merely asserted answer somewhat more fully in my recent book, Frames on the Land).

Nairn, in fact, quite often succumbed to four qualities excluded from the truly avant-garde in nineteenth century painting: the sentimental, the picturesque, the anecdotal, the literary.12 These qualities may be called anti-avant-garde because they distract us from the picture as painting: the anecdotal takes us away in time from the picture, to the story suggested before and after it; the sentimental carries us away by a false or too easy emotion; the picturesque to that in nature conventionally thought worthy of being put into paint; the literary carries us away to a book.

Nor was Nairn an outsider in the sense of some profound alienation from the Academy, or from society at large; though he evidently enjoyed the postures of bohemianism, the pleasures of seeming avant-garde in New Zealand, some thirty years after the battle of Impressionism actually was. Nairn might claim 'I shall always make a point of trying to outrage the taste of the ordinary public', but he did not cease to exhibit with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and he remained a member of that establishment until his death. Even the exhibitions of his Wellington Art Club, though they might seem those of a kind of Salon des Independants, were hardly those of some Salon des Refusés The second exhibition of the Art Club was opened by 'His Excellency the Governor', Lord Glasgow, surely setting on it some seal of official approval, and Nairn in a conciliatory mood at the opening said that the Club was 'not in any sense opposed to the New Zealand Academy, but was filling a want which the Academy did not provide for at present.'13 Lord Glasgow was given to understand that the Club 'made no pretensions to produce advanced art, but principally sketches'.14

Nairn's acknowledgement that what the Club principally produced was sketches' is a significant concession, for such freedom of brushstroke as shocked critics of the Club (if not quite such colour) was conventionally allowed in sketches, though not in finished pictures. It might be remembered here, too, that the friendly New Zealand Mail and Times critic, when attacking the unfriendly critic from the Evening Post, had also referred to the Wellington Art Club's work as 'sketches' - that same significant concession. Again, even in his paper The Progress of Art in New Zealand, where Nairn may sound at his most aggressively avant-garde, he calls his plein-air works 'studies' - and making mere studies from nature was a perfectly respectable performance, permissible for academic and non-academic alike.

Oatfields, Otago 1901
watercolour on paper,
534 x 621 mm
(Collection of the
Auckland City Art Gallery)

No indeed, Nairn and his Wellington Art Club may not have been truly avant-garde in any international sense: but in their own time and place they adopted some of the poses of the avant-garde, and were perceived by hostile critics as so doing. And if friendly critics thought their paintings were simply more true to nature than painting had been before in New Zealand, hostile critics perceived them as madly avant-garde. To such critics, their paintings seemed so. assertively material, so assertively painted things, that they were quite independent of the world, not windows to it at all, but opaque to it-products merely of an imaginative disorder.

1. The Progress of Art in New Zealand, a paper read at a meeting of Wellington Art Club, 21 September, 1892, by J.M. Nairn.
2. ibid.
3. C.F. Goldie, 'Battle of the Schools: Modernism Condemned', NZ Herald, September 28, 1934.
4. NZ Mail and Times, 14 July, 1893
5. NZ Mail and Times, 12 September, 1892, Review of the 4th annual exhibition of the N2. Academy of Fine Arts.
6. NZ Mail and Times, 14 July, 1803.
7. NZ Mail and Times, 16 July, 1894.
8. Unidentified review of the Wellington Art Club Second Annual Exhibition, July', 1894. P.9, folder of Nairn clippings held at School of Fine Arts Libran, University of Auckland.
9. Art Notes edited by 'Caprice', Teachers of Painting and their Pupils (by Justitia), folder of Nairn clippings, ibid.
10. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, 'Enemies of Realism', pp 29-33, The New York Review of Books, Vol.XXW No. 3, 4 March, 1982.
11. Francis Pound, Frames on the Land. Early Landscape Painting in New Zealand Collins, 1983
12. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, ibid., maintain realism had three enemies: the sentimental, the picturesque, and the anecdotal.
13. NZ Times, July 16, 1894,
14. ibid.