Māori Modernism: The New Zealand Artist Who Put the Islands' Native People First

May 13th, 2016

Maori Chief

Sitting more than 1,000 miles off the eastern coast of Australia, New Zealand is one of the most far-flung places on the planet, which probably explains why New Zealand was the first nation on Earth to make a tourist agency an official part of its government. From its earliest days as a British colony (1841-1907), New Zealand’s non-native settlers and indigenous inhabitants alike promoted the island-nation’s attractions to pretty much anyone who would listen, as we learned recently when we spoke with Peter Alsop, who, in 2012, edited and co-authored a marvelous book on New Zealand’s tourism history called Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism.

“The church complained that weekend travel was becoming a respectable alternative to Sunday worship.”

Advertising, you might say, made New Zealand happen, and advertising art rather than the so-called fine stuff is what gave the world its strongest impression of the country throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, advertising was so important to New Zealand’s economy that Alsop and his colleagues have published a trilogy of titles on Kiwi advertising art. In 2013, Alsop and Gary Stewart, teamed up for Promoting Prosperity: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising. And in 2015, Alsop and Warren Feeney produced Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World, which focuses its 366 pages on one of the most prolific and famous New Zealand artists of the mid-20th century.

Top: "Maori Chief," 1948, by Marcus King. Above: The unsigned poster on the left, advertising New Zealand's "Thermal Wonders" at Rotorua, is from 1950, in a style clearly influenced by Marcus King. The King poster at right is from 1955.

Top: “Maori Chief,” 1948, by Marcus King. Above: The unsigned poster on the left, advertising New Zealand’s “Thermal Wonders” at Rotorua, is from 1950, in a style clearly influenced by Marcus King. The King poster at right is from 1955.

Today, of course, anyone with the wherewithal to do so can hop on a plane, pop an Ambien, and wake up in Auckland, New Zealand. But throughout its colonial history, New Zealand was more than a month’s journey via ocean liner from London. And even if Victorian Era travelers were intrepid enough to make this lengthy voyage, once they arrived to explore the “Thermal Wonders” in the north or marvel at the multi-island nation’s “Southern Alps,” they’d find scant accommodations awaiting them.

In short, New Zealand was a tough sell, which is why New Zealand art schools not only taught their young students life drawing and perspective, but also printmaking and lettering techniques. The first might get your work hung in a museum, but the second would almost certainly get you a job, since graphic art was deemed essential to New Zealand’s very survival. And by “young students,” we really do mean young: As Selling the Dream contributing essayist Gail Ross writes, “Between 1900 and 1945, the average age of a student entering art school was just 12 years.”

“It was a five-year, 10,000-hour apprenticeship,” Alsop told me when we spoke via Skype, “which was pretty much the same as doing a medical degree.”

Before King arrived at the Tourist Department, Leonard Mitchell was the agency's go-to artist, which is why Mitchell rather than King was chosen to create the main image for New Zealand's Centennial Exhibition in 1939.

Before King arrived at the Tourist Department, Leonard Mitchell was the agency’s go-to artist, which is why Mitchell rather than King was chosen to create the main image for New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition in 1939.

In the first half of the 20th century, there may have been more unanimity about what a doctor should know at the end of his schooling than what a painter should know at the end of his. In New Zealand, the outcome depended a great deal on where the artist studied. Again, according to Gail Ross, Archie Fisher, who was the Director of the Elam School of Art in Auckland, “took a dim view of those interested in commercial work even though the best students did get employment in those areas.” Fisher believed it would be better for his young protégés to starve upon graduation rather than compromise themselves to the interests of crass commerce. Compromise, of course, was in the eye of the beholder. For example, Francis Shurrock, who taught at the Canterbury College School of Art, made it his personal mission “to inoculate New Zealand from the Picasso virus.”

Fortunately, a few New Zealand artists did not bother to follow this “either/or” script, opting to show their work in museums and galleries, as well as to use their skills with pencils and paintbrushes to pay the bills. Foremost among these iconoclasts was Marcus King, who managed to keep a foot in both worlds from 1920 to 1970. Sure, he could paint sumptuous landscapes in the style of 19th-century European Impressionists, and his portraits were always animated and expressive, but he was also a master of the bold, iconic image designed to make a tourist in Australia or Europe drop everything and head for New Zealand, to admire its scenic beauty or learn the history of its indigenous people, the Māori.

Marcus King, circa 1950, painting a Māori village scene.

Marcus King, circa 1950, painting a Māori village scene.

In fact, in King’s case, true innovation occurred mostly when he was selling New Zealand rather than merely painting landscapes of it, however well executed those pictures may have been. “In the early 20th century,” Alsop says, “commercial art was thought to lag behind the fine arts, but in reality it was probably the other way around. Commercial artists were introducing breakthrough ideas to New Zealand, basically forging ahead of the so-called fine arts. New Zealand fine art of that era was typified by approaches inherited from the Mother Country. Commercial art broke away from all that. In particular, the Art Deco movement fueled commercial art heavily. It was an exciting time to be a New Zealand commercial artist.”

For the most part, the primary sponsor of this renaissance, from 1901 on, was the government, via its Public Works Department, Government Publicity Office, Tourist Department, and the Outdoor Advertising Branch of the Railways Department, which opened what became Railways Studios in 1920.

“The Railways Department initially had a branch that looked after trackside lands and leased out space to private advertisers,” Alsop says. “Then, around 1915, the Railways Department set up its own Outdoor Advertising Branch to basically take back control of the rail corridor so it could mastermind the advertising. In 1920, the Branch set up the Railways Advertising Studio, which was soon shortened to Railways Studios. It dominated outdoor advertising in New Zealand for roughly 70 years.”

Artists who worked for Railways Studios signed the studio's name rather than their own, as seen in the lower-left section of this poster from 1935.

Artists who worked for Railways Studios signed the studio’s name rather than their own, as seen in the lower-left section of this poster from 1935.

Unlike posters that were made to entice travelers from outside New Zealand, the posters produced at Railways Studios were largely for local consumption, to encourage New Zealanders not only to see the sights of their own country, but to see those sights via train. “New Zealand had quickly become the second or third most motorized country in the world,” Alsop explains. “Once cars were introduced, people drove everywhere, so the Railways Studios were also trying to protect the government’s railways investment.” Apparently, this push to “democratize weekend travel,” as Alsop puts it, worked almost too well. “At one point,” Alsop says, “the church complained to the government that weekend travel was becoming a respectable alternative to Sunday worship.”

Though separate agencies, Railways Studios and the Tourist Department worked collaboratively, particularly in the late 1920s and ’30s. “But Railways Studios never let its artists sign their names,” Alsop says. “Its posters are always just signed ‘Railways Studios,’ so we don’t know who actually did a lot of the work.”

Maybe that’s one reason why Marcus King, who had been signing his name to landscapes and portraits since leaving the Elam School of Art in 1920, could never bring himself to work at Railways Studios, opting instead for a career in the Tourist Department, beginning in 1935. By then, King was well known within the Tourist Department—he had worked for the government executing numerous murals for various international exhibitions, or what we would call Worlds Fairs. In some respects, he was a real catch for the Tourist Department, but a pair of even larger art luminaries held seniority over him. The first was George Bridgman, who ran the Tourist Department’s in-house art studio. The second was Leonard Mitchell, who was, upon King’s arrival, Bridgman’s “go-to” artist.

Marcus King reduced the elements in his posters to their essentials, as seen in this comparison between a 1936 fishing scene by Tourist Department artist Maurice Poulton (left) and a similar scene executed by King (right) in 1950.

Marcus King reduced the elements in his posters to their essentials, as seen in this comparison between a 1936 fishing scene by Tourist Department artist Maurice Poulton (left) and one executed by King (right) in 1950.

“George Bridgman was the art director, presiding over the work of Leonard Mitchell and, subsequently, Marcus King—they overlapped for about five years,” Alsop says. “Bridgman had a lot of power because he allocated the work. He’d say to Marcus or Leonard, ‘I want something done on such and such,’ and he’d give them feedback to make it a bit more like this or that. Bridgman gave a lot of credit to his artists, but I don’t think we should underestimate his influence on the overall quality of the studio’s work, its look, and the choice of subject matter. He’s under recognized.”

By the end of World War II, which put the work of the Tourist Department largely on hold, Mitchell had moved on. Now King was Bridgman’s go-to artist, and it was under Bridgman, within the newly reorganized and launched National Publicity Studios, that King’s work would shine brightest. In one magazine article from 1949, Bridgman would use a King poster as an example of good design, which he believed should be clean and simple. What’s interesting, though, about King’s work as a whole is how well his foundation in the styles of 19th-century Impressionists worked with the principles of Art Deco and Modernism that followed. King’s early indoctrination in the classics proved essential to his success, and would serve him well all the way into the middle of the 20th century.

In 1949, Tourist Department art director, George Bridgman, used a Marcus King poster from 1947 (at right) as an example of clean, effective design. Note: Bridgman's last name is misspelled in his byline.

In 1949, Tourist Department art director George Bridgman used a Marcus King poster from 1947 (right) as an example of clean, effective design. Note: Bridgman’s last name is misspelled in his byline.

Also essential was King’s small-town upbringing, especially in the way it informed certain types of content he was asked to represent. This is especially clear in King’s depictions of the Māori. As a boy, King spent a formative period in the small town of Manaia, on the western peninsula of New Zealand’s northern island. In Manaia, King explored the remains of a Māori pā, or fortification, which made a strong impression on the young artist.

“When Marcus King took up employment with the Tourist Department in 1935,” Alsop and Feeney write in Marcus King, “he entered a government service with an inventory of familiar stereotypes of Māori that had been refined for publicity over the previous 35 years. Rotorua and its various geothermal and Māori culture attractions, including Europeanized images of young ‘Māori maidens,’ all conveyed the idea that New Zealand was the ‘Wonderland of the Pacific.’ European conventions of representation and display continued to reveal Māori as a distinct ‘other.’ In essence, it was a depiction of indigenous culture from the 19th and early 20th century, evident in the paintings of previous New Zealand artists like Walter Wright and Frances Hodgkins. Both conceived a Romantic vision of an idealized rural and pastoral life of Māori, comparable with the Romantic Realism of artists like Jean-Francois Millet.

“King, however, brought a greater authenticity to his subjects. Despite painting images from Māori mythology, and speculating on the reality of the life and history of Māori prior to European settlement, he undertook such paintings with extensive research. While inevitably drawing from his familiarity with Western conventions of painting, his research and skill in rendering the light, environment, artifacts, and activities of Māori ensured an important element of credibility to his work.”

Marcus King's grew up in the small town of Manaia, home to the remains of a Māori pā, or fortification. That experience informed his attention to detail when it came to representing Māori culture.

Marcus King’s grew up in the small town of Manaia, home to the remains of a Māori pā, or fortification. That experience informed his attention to detail when it came to representing Māori culture.

Importantly, the Māori had not been passive players in promoting what came to be known as Māoridom. As Margaret McClure writes in her essay in Selling the Dream, “Māori had been the first to latch onto the potential benefits of tourism, especially the Tūhourangi, a sub-tribe of Te Arawa, who lived beside the Terraces.” The Terraces were a series of silica-bordered pools that were famously visited by Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s son, in 1870, and just as famously destroyed in the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.

Throughout the 1870s, the Tūhourangi had been in charge of their own tourism industry—guiding and transporting visitors to their area’s thermal wonders, as well as feeding them. According to another Selling the Dream essayist, Mark Derby, “Villages en route to the Terraces could also earn income by providing entertainment such as haka [a ceremonial war dance]. All-male tour parties were often prepared to pay extra to see ‘indecencies’ added to the performance. By 1876 the price of a haka at Ohinemutu stood at one pound per head, or about $130 in today’s currency.”

Not surprisingly, this influx of money from pākehā, or non-native, tourists was a corrosive influence on Māori culture. “Max Buchner,” Derby continues, “a German doctor, felt that the interest of the spectacle justified the expense, although his professional eye noted some of the corrupting effects of commercial tourism. Prostitution, Dr. Buchner observed, was practiced by some unmarried women, and he saw two cases of syphilis. A powerful local tohunga [priest], Tuhoto, is also said to have watched as his people were ‘demoralized by the pākehā’s grog, the young women debauched; a tribe fast going to perdition to make the pākehā tourist’s holiday.’ Many Māori afterwards believed that it was Tuhoto’s incantations that, in 1886, incited Mount Tarawera to erupt and destroy the incomparable silica terraces.”

King’s “Maori Chief” poster from 1948 (right) is probably based on a circa-1900 hand-colored photograph of Topia Peehi Turoa, Chief of Ngati Patu-tokotoko.

King’s “Maori Chief” poster from 1948 (right) is probably based on a circa-1900 hand-colored photograph of Topia Peehi Turoa, Chief of Ngati Patu-tokotoko.

Before long, writes McClure, pākehā entrepreneurs had secured a sizable chunk of the tourist action, while the New Zealand colonial government began to purchase the area’s prime wilderness areas, “to forestall exploitation and ensure spectacular regions remained available to everyone. From the 1880s, the New Zealand government bought up Māori land in the Rotorua region, and took over its development. Government control of the trade also meant regulating Māori tourism initiatives, and shaping their community life as a tourist spectacle for the curious traveler.”

Thus, by the time New Zealand had established its Tourist Department, the first such agency of its kind in the world, Alsop says, the Māori were a key part of its tourism effort. “A lot of other countries kept their indigenous cultures hidden behind the scenes,” he says. “In New Zealand, it was basically at the front and center of tourism campaigns from day one.”

King's "Maori War Canoe" poster from 1948 is probably based on the staged photograph at left.

King’s “Maori War Canoe” poster from 1948 is probably based on the staged photograph at left.

While childhood memories of the Māori pā at Manaia informed King’s artistic sensibility and his attention to detail, he often worked from photographs to produce Māori posters that were unapologetically broad in their appeal. For example, King’s “Maori Chief” screen print from 1948 is almost certainly based on a circa-1900 hand-colored lantern slide of Topia Peehi Turoa, Chief of Ngati Patu-tokotoko, albeit with a more Western haircut and mustache. That relatively minor bit of poetic license on King’s part is nothing compared to a screen print from the same year called “Maori Canoe,” whose source appears to be a photograph that’s clearly staged.

To be sure, the writers admit, King’s depictions of the Māori tended to be overly utopian and artificially celebratory, but they were probably more accurate than most paintings of Māoridom found on a pākehā’s living-room wall, let alone a mere travel poster. Indeed, there were very few artists, Alsop and Feeney believe, who successfully walked this particular historical and aesthetic tightrope in both the commercial and fine art realms. A cursory glance at the Māori-themed posters produced by government tourism agencies and airlines in the late 1950s and early 1960s makes one long for the more respectful approach taken by King.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, commercial artists treated Māori women as cartoony sex symbols (left), while the reasons given to visit New Zealand in the first place were often generic (right).

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, commercial artists treated Māori women as cartoony sex symbols (left), while the reasons given to visit New Zealand in the first place were often generic (right).

By the 1960s, New Zealand was obviously still as far away from the United States and Europe as it had ever been, but air travel had collapsed the time it took to get there. Also collapsed, though, was the sense of adventure and wonder that had once characterized New Zealand’s tourism advertising. Instead of sincere depictions of Māori or handsome screen prints of New Zealand’s scenic wonders, we get cartoony come-ons to “Be There Longer,” featuring a sunbathing woman in sunglasses whose sandy surroundings are so indistinctive, she could literally be anywhere.

Today, the role of New Zealand mythmaker played by Marcus King has been handed over to movie director Peter Jackson, whose “Lord of the Rings” films send thousands of tourists annually to New Zealand to see Hobbiton (just outside the city of Hamilton), Rivendell (Wellington’s Kaitoke Regional Park), and the Rohan stronghold of Edoras (Mount Sunday, near Christchurch).

“If you boil it down,” Alsop says, “there are similar themes between the ways in which Bridgman, Mitchell, and King promoted New Zealand and the themes in the government’s current ‘Lord of the Rings’ promotions. In both, New Zealand as a scenic wonderland is on display.”

This actually may not be such a coincidence, and not just because the beauty of New Zealand has remained largely unchanged. “We launched Selling the Dream in Peter Jackson’s private production cinema in Miramar,” Alsop says proudly. “Today, Miramar is the movie capital of New Zealand, the place where Peter Jackson and his team make their magic. Before that, though, it was home to the National Publicity Studios, where Leonard Mitchell and Marcus King made theirs.”

(All images courtesy Peter Alsop)

2 comments so far

  1. Peter Says:

    Wow. Ben – truly great. You’ve really dived deep into this content and written a wonderful piece.

  2. Lex Says:

    Great article. I had been familiar with the work of the artists but knew nothing of them. King and Mitchell for me are inspiring. Selling the Dream and the book on Marcus King that Alsop released are both must haves for any artists reference library.

    Great stuff.!!

    P.S The Barry Ellis video is well worth watching. I would love to see more video interviews with these artists who worked in the field. Great stuff.!!!


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