Story: City images

Page 5. The city in art

All images & media in this story

Topographical images

The first paintings of New Zealand towns were topographical depictions of settlements made by surveyors and amateur artists who accompanied colonising companies. Most were made for viewing back home in Britain, and their prime purpose was to attract new migrants. Artists had little compunction about rounding off hills and clearing vegetation to make views more English-looking and enticing. In Charles Heaphy’s 1841 depiction of Wellington the multitude of ships suggests (somewhat prematurely) a bustling port, and the encircling hills owe more to the rolling downs of Kent than the rugged crags of Wellington.

The booster imperative carried through to later works, although these tended to be closer to reality. In George O’Brien’s ‘Dunedin 1888’ individual buildings are meticulously detailed in a composition that stresses the widening expanse of New Zealand’s ‘metropolis’. Jacques Carabain’s ‘Queen Street, Auckland’ (1889) not only faithfully reproduces the thoroughfare’s grand buildings (symbolic of civilisation and modernity) but also its litter and roaming dogs – there are few richer images of colonial street life.

Plein-air health risk

George Nairn introduced to New Zealand the plein-air technique of painting, where an artist painted scenes outside rather than in a studio from sketches. But his habit of painting in all seasons and all weathers did nothing for his health. While painting near Motueka in 1904 he caught a severe cold which exacerbated an existing illness and he died aged 44.

Impressionism and expressionism

The rise of photography reduced the need for realist representations. Painters increasingly adopted new styles that explored the movement of light on a scene (impressionism), or an artist’s emotional response to it (expressionism). George Nairn’s ‘Wellington harbour’ (1894) typifies the impressionist style, his brush strokes capturing the sparkle of afternoon sun on quivering water. The light in Girolamo Nerli’s ‘Dunedin street scene’ (1894) is more muted, but the composition has the caught-in-the-moment quality that characterised impressionist works.

What is striking about these images is their vibrancy. Whereas painters of natural landscapes generally stuck to brooding blues, browns and greens, painters of cities embraced a more brilliant palette. This was especially true of the expressionists. Toss Woollaston’s ‘Wellington’ (1937) is a lively mix of rhythms and forms. It was, he said, an expression of the chaos of Wellington’s built environment. Evelyn Page was also enthralled by Wellington’s dynamism. She could not understand why so many of her peers painted gloomy landscapes devoid of people. ‘Why go to the Riviera’ (1950) depicts a bustling weekend crowd at Oriental Bay. The strong light and vivid tones – not to mention the title itself – clearly celebrate the city.

Powerful protest

During the 1960s the artist Rita Angus lived in a cottage in Wellington’s Thorndon, opposite the historic Bolton Street cemetery. Her images of the destruction of the cemetery for a city motorway remain poignant and powerful testaments to the price of progress. Her cottage survives as a short-stay residence for artists.

City life

Other artists also explored city life. Louise Henderson’s 1930 scene of Christchurch’s Addington railway workshops sits within a social realist art tradition and pictures heroic workers forging heavy machinery. Roland Hipkins’ ‘Renaissance’ (1932) shows Napier after the 1931 earthquake. The foreground is dominated by the ruined cathedral, with the new city rising from the rubble in the middle distance. Russell Clark’s ‘Saturday night’ (1940) conveys the bright lights of a nocturnal street. The image is sexually charged; are the women in the window prostitutes? And Garth Tapper’s ‘Five o’clock’ (1968) shows the male camaraderie of the public bar before women were admitted. These are affirmative images, a stark contrast to the anti-urbanism of contemporary literature.

New representations

This is not to say artists were uncritical. The emergence of abstraction in the mid-20th century saw painters represent cities in sometimes confronting ways. Robert Ellis’s ‘Motorway/city’ (1969) places the viewer high above a generic city to show how motorways randomly divide cities.

The realist Peter Siddell also encouraged viewers to see cities differently. Images like ‘House and Cloud’ (2003) are highly evocative of place (in this case Auckland) but do not depict an actual scene. The absence of people in Siddell’s work is suggestive of alienation, but also provides a surreal quality and sense of timelessness.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City images - The city in art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2022)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010