Rethinking NZ Art and Curating


The convenor and lecturer for this course is Associate-Professor Leonard (Len) Bell, a specialist scholar of New Zealand art, who has published extensively on art and New Zealand, both in the past and present.

"All contacts leave a trace."

This course explores painting, sculpture, photography and other visual images and objects from the time of first contact between Europeans and Maori in the late eighteenth century through to the near present. The various and differing ways people, cross-cultural interactions and the land and landscape, both as untouched wilderness and as transformed by agriculture and industry, were represented feature prominently.

Other topics include primitivising art, abstraction and non-representational art, Surrealism in New Zealand and the impacts on art in New Zealand of artists and photographers from Continental Europe and non-English-speaking societies and cultures.

How artists adapted to "things" New Zealand, how Maori arts and culture impacted on European and Pakeha artists, and what innovations emerged are explored. Questions, such as what was or is distinctive about the visual arts in New Zealand and how the arts have related to ethnic, social and gender identities, the arts and ideas about national identity, "New Zealand-ness" and art,  are also addressed. Why some art scandalised and provoked so many people in New Zealand is investigated, as are the reasons why so many New Zealand-born artists left New Zealand for Britain, Australia and the USA. Why was there such a "lust" for London?

The course is not an encyclopaedic survey. Rather it focuses on a selection of crucial periods, art works and themes: first contact and the precolonial period (up to 1840), the colonial period (1840 to World War I), the years of new nationhood and early modernism (1920s to c.1970), and the post-modern and contemporary period (1970s to the present). The works of major artists from those various periods are examined closely – for instance, William Hodges, Augustus Earle, CF Goldie, Gottfried Lindauer, Christopher Perkins, Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Milan Mrkusich, Gordon Walters, Theo Schoon, Marti Friedlander, Gretchen Albrecht, Richard Killeen, Michael Parekowhai and Lisa Reihana (to name a few). In addition the relationships between art made in or about New Zealand and the arts of Europe, America, Oceania and Asia are brought into the overall picture.

The artworks focused on are all compelling images and objects in themselves, as well as key exemplifications of historically crucial trends in the visual arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand. They are related to broader cultural, social and political currents and events in New Zealand. The selected art works are looked at closely; their formal, iconographic and sociocultural dimensions studied. The differing ways the same painting or photograph can be interpreted and understood are also examined, as well the "careers" of art works or the changing and different meanings and values they can acquire over the decades or centuries. As such the course is as much a study of cultural history as of the history of art, past and present.

Note too that this course provides skills in the interpretation and understanding of the visual arts generally, in exploring differing ways of looking and seeing, and in relating practices in the visual arts to theoretical views and positions and ideas about society and culture. These skills are applicable not just for encounters with art in and about New Zealand, but also for our experiences of the visual arts and culture generally, whether historical or the most contemporary.

Availability 2024

Not taught in 2024




ARTHIST 314: 15 points


HISTORY 252 and 15 points at Stage I in Art History or 15 points at Stage II in Art History, and 60 points passed


ARTHIST 110, 110G, 214