New Zealand Art History

The island nation of New Zealand has a long art history that stretches back to before written records began. During the early eras, art would have been created by indigenous native cultures. Some examples of this have survived to this day. When different nations began to explore and colonize New Zealand, this had a significant impact on the country’s art. In modern times tourists who come to New Zealand can see a varied mix of art forms.

The Prehistoric Era

In the prehistoric days of human civilization, it appears that art was already practised and thriving in New Zealand. In South Island, a number of cave drawings have been found. Charcoal was used to create these pictures on predominantly limestone rock walls. They tended to be of animals and humans. There were also depictions of mythical reptiles. Some of the birds drawn are now extinct. This includes Moa and Haast’s eagles. The Maori people were responsible for this early art. When it was first discovered by explorers, it was unclear exactly who created them.

The Maori Natives

There are four key forms of Maori art. These are painting, weaving, tattoos and carving. Works by Maori artists have a deeply spiritual significance, especially compared to the art of European settlers. The four art forms were used for communication, and cultural purposes before the Maori began to use writing. Each region of New Zealand had its own unique style. Motifs such as spirals, chevrons and korus were prevalent throughout the country. The primary colours in Maori art were red, black and white.

The Early European Explorers

When Europeans began to colonize New Zealand, they brought new art styles with them. Explorer ships often had an artist on board in order to make visual records of new lands. Isaac Gilsemans is regarded as the first artist of this type. He was on a 1642 expedition to the country. Illustrators on the famous ship Endeavour created the first known realistic drawings of Maori natives. They also visually depicted the local flora and fauna. This occurred in 1769. When William Hodges and John Webber visited New Zealand in the 1770s, their paintings were an influence on the naturalism movement.

The 19th Century

The most famous New Zealand artists in the 19th century were mostly visitors rather than residents. James Berry, for instance, became well known for painting a chief called Rua in 1818. The painting of natives became so popular that some artists decided to do so back in Britain, inviting the subjects of their work to the UK instead of travelling to New Zealand. The early colonizers liked to make prints of the country’s landscapes. Augustus Earle is a good example of this. The biggest markets for art were paintings of Maori people and natural landscapes. This century also saw the start of photography. Works in this medium tended to copy the trends of paintings.

The 20th Century

The 20th century saw a renaissance for the Maori culture. There was a renewal of traditional native art forms. Art schools were established to encourage this. At the same time, a new, distinctly national style of art emerged. People of Pakeha descent like Rita Angus revolutionized landscape painting. The visual arts rose to prominence thanks to filmmakers such as Peter Jackson.