Imagine an alternative history of New Zealand art where the ground-breaking 20th-century painters we celebrated weren’t Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, but names such as Leonard Mitchell, Marcus King and Howard Mallitte. Never heard of them? That’s because the works they produced were mainly for railway platforms and billboards here and overseas, not for the gallery wall. But Mitchell, King and Mallitte, and other artists and designers employed by the Tourist Department and Railways Department till the 1960s when colour photography and television took over, are now celebrated in Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, a new book that reproduces hundreds of examples of their posters, as well as their covers for annuals, brochures and magazines.
In essays supporting the images, Selling the Dream also sells the idea that these commercial artists were at the forefront of New Zealand Modernism and the forging of a national identity through movements such as Regionalism. “Perceived as contemporary and distinctly modern, Regionalism in New Zealand undoubtedly shared much in common with commercial art,” writes Warren Feeney, art historian and head of the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington. “It was not just its style. Even the subjects of Angus’s and [Rata] Lovell-Smith’s paintings had been anticipated by commercial artists: the railway hoardings, barns, telegraph poles, bridges and other man-made motifs from the rural landscape were recurring themes in numerous Regionalist paintings.”
Meanwhile, the emergence of Modernism and abstraction in the late 1940s “was equally pre-empted by the work of commercial artists and designers”, writes Feeney. “Often praised for his ‘radical’ depiction of the New Zealand landscape, Colin McCahon recalled he became aware of European Modernism through the work of advertising and design artists in New Zealand in the 1920s.”
Read Guy Somerset's full review at The Listener
I have a copy of this large,spectacular, beautifully designed book (design and production by The Gas Project) for review but I felt that Guy Somerset's review was right on the money so I am going to post it rather than add a further review of my own.
Can I urge you though to have a look at this magnificent book at your independent bookshop or race into your library and reserve a copy. It is very special, dazzling even and I plan to spend several hours over the coming weekend enjoying it.
My congratulations to all involved.
SELLING THE DREAM: THE ART OF EARLY NEW ZEALAND TOURISM, edited by Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart and Dave Bamford, foreword by Fran Walsh (Craig Potton Publishing, $79.99).