Monday, August 1, 2016

Something New

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“BLOOMSBURY SOUTH – The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $69:99)

            I have just spent two full days reading and thoroughly enjoying Peter Simpson’s Bloomsbury South, and I am in danger of gushing. To restrain myself, I will therefore begin with two comments that are not directly about Simpson’s fine text.
First, a comment on Bloomsbury South as a piece of book production. It is a sturdy, almost-square-shaped hardback produced with generous margins around its double-columned text. Just as important, it is very generously illustrated. This is important when so much of the book concerns the visual arts. We would feel cheated if Rita Angus and Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon and many others were treated in such detail without the illustrations to reproduce the specific art works that are discussed. It is also illuminating to have photographs of the stage productions mounted by Ngaio Marsh and reproductions of the work of Caxton Press, given that drama, poetry and printing figure as largely as painting does. Text and visuals work beautifully together in this book.
Second (and here I might be treading on trickier ground), I suspect that much of what Bloomsbury South has to say will not be news to anyone reasonably versed in New Zealand’s literary and arts history. As I read it with great pleasure, I found a good part of it traversing ground that has been covered in Lawrence Jones’ Picking Up the Traces and Stuart Murray’s Never a Soul at Home and Gordon Ogilvie’s capacious biography of Denis Glover and even Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision with its political emphasis on left-wing influence in the arts. Perhaps all I’m saying is that many of the people Simpson discusses have been discussed elsewhere, and I was not at all surprised by most of the things that Bloomsbury South says about individuals and about the varieties of “nationalism” in New Zealand culture in the 1930s and 1940s.
Having said all that however, I have to note that Simpson is as much concerned with place and with relationships between individuals as he is with the “progress” of the arts in New Zealand.
In his preface, he asks why Christchurch was such a vital centre of the arts in the twenty years he covers (1933-53), and why its influence thereafter faded as Wellington and Auckland became more artistically alive. His conceit is that Christchurch in its arts heyday was like London’s Bloomsbury in the ‘20s and ‘30s, where “both scenes were marked by the presence of a group of talented individuals of varying sexual orientations, all closely linked by friendship and similarities of aesthetic and intellectual outlook.” (Introduction p.3) As he remarks, in Christchurch nearly all the significant painters, printers and poets in the 1930s lived within walking distance of one another (and within walking distance of Cathedral Square), with many of them cohabiting. He is also aware that, for all their “nationalism”, the leading young talents of those years were essentially Modernists patterning their work on models from overseas, which their elders spurned:
‘Bloomsbury South’ also points – admittedly somewhat loosely – to the tendency of New Zealand artists in this era to model themselves on what was happening in London, Europe and occasionally the United States, and to bring these imported models to bear on the physical and social realities of their own time and place, a daring fusion of imported modernism and home-grown nationalism.” (Introduction p.8)
Dividing his text into three parts, Simpson first covers the “boom” years for emerging artists and poets in Christchurch, the pre-war years 1933-38. Although haughty, devoutly Anglican, patrician and many years older than those she influenced, the poet Mary Ursula Bethell (Chapter 1) is seen by Simpson as the “godmother” of younger, and mainly male, talents whom she encouraged and who came to appreciate her influence in wedding landscape to questions of New Zealand identity. Charles Brasch, Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and (the composer) Douglas Lilburn all acknowledged her influence. Meanwhile (Chapter 2) the friends, poet and printer Denis Glover and poet Allen Curnow, were working out their own “nationalist” identity in close correspondence. The setting up of the Caxton Press by Glover (and Leo Bensemann) was a turning point, as it meant the work of younger writers would now be published. Simpson is fully aware that not all innovative work was then being done in Christchurch. R. A. K. Mason, A. R. D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson, leading figures in emerging literature, were all Aucklanders, but they came to rely on the Caxton Press in Christchurch “partly because of [their friend, radical Auckland printer Bob] Lowry’s unreliability”. (p.47). Simpson is also fully aware that ‘progressive’ left-wing theatre was happening in Auckland, but it was in Christchurch that Tomorrow magazine reviewed the Aucklanders’ efforts and became the focus for arts and political commentary at odds with established pieties. Here, however, there is an important reminder that, even if a younger generation was asserting itself, they were not all of the same mind. The more politically-oriented were often at odds with the artists. The left-wing H.Winston Rhodes in Tomorrow took a very negative view of Allen Curnow’s Not in Narrow Seas. Says Simpson: “A growing tension was evident…. between Rhodes’ socialist utopianism in Tomorrow and the critical nationalism of the Caxton poets.” (p.71)
When he turns to the painters (Chapter 3) Simpson chronicles the work of “The Group”, those Christchurch artists who (from 1927) separated themselves from the conservative Canterbury Society of Arts (CSA) and hung their work in separate spaces, circumventing the CSA’s selection committees. Here, however, there is again the fact that not all the younger talents were of one mind. Most of them were scathing about those who ran Canterbury University College’s art department. But Rita Angus “all her life… spoke warmly of her art school education under [conservative] teachers rejected by [Toss] Woollaston and [Leo] Bensemann as stick-in-the-mud old fogies.” (p.82). Even more tellingly, Woollaston and Bensemann never liked each others’ work – the point being that whatever else was being produced in Christchurch art in these years, it was not a “school”.
When Simpson moves onto the war years 1939-45, he at first speaks as if Christchurch’s artistic golden weather was continuing. The early career of Douglas Lilburn (Chapter 4) is recorded almost as a triumph, with Lilburn at his most productive [there is a detailed account of his collaboration with Curnow on Landfall in Unknown Seas]. After James Shelley left for Wellington, Ngaio Marsh (Chapter 5) took over at the Little Theatre, producing imaginative stagings [often with music by Douglas Lilburn] of Shakespeare with student casts. Her Hamlet in modern dress, Othello and other productions were greeted enthusiastically by the general public. Says Simpson: “Metropolitan standards were brought to bear on local practice, in ways that paralleled achievements in other arts such as poetry, painting, musical composition and printing.” (p.157) The “Group” (Chapter 6) acquired new members in the 1940s, including Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk and Molly Macalister. But the war years were beginning to disperse what had been a cohesive arts community in Christchurch, the first major departure being Denis Glover’s going off to war service in 1941. He did come back to post-war Christchurch and was around when Caxton Press published Allen Curnow’s influential anthology of New Zealand poetry and the first work of the teenaged James K. Baxter. But in 1946 there was what Simpson calls “the first signs of decline in Christchurch’s cultural leadership” (p.131) when Douglas Lilburn and Evelyn and Frederick Page all moved to Wellington.
So to the chapters on the end of “Bloomsbury South” in the years 1946-53. In 1947, Dunedin-based Charles Brasch set up Landfall (Chapter 7), which was published by Caxton Press in Christchurch and did establish itself as the country’s most influential literary periodical. But in what Simpson calls “a clear sign of generational shift in poetry and other arts towards the North Island cities in the post-war era” (p.210), most of the new poets introduced by Landfall were Auckland- or Wellington-based (Ruth Dallas being the only South Islander). Restiveness with the Christchurch scene is shown in the early careers of poet James K. Baxter and painter Colin McCahon (Chapter 8). Both at first found a patron in Charles Brasch, both were at first linked by religious themes and South Island landscape, both moved through periods of alcoholism towards Catholicism (never formally accepted by McCahon but still a major influence on him). And both left for the North Island. Baxter came to see Landfall as staid and conservative and began to reject the oppressive theme (promoted by Curnow) of New Zealanders as identity-less strangers lost in a vast and alien landscape. In the post-war years (Chapter 9) the Christchurch artistic scene disintegrated. In the visual arts, the city’s conservatives were able to exert themselves to the extent of making an issue out of the purchase of a painting by Frances Hodgkins. There was “the disarray at the Caxton Press from 1949 to 1951, brought on by [Denis] Glover’s disintegration.” (p.255) Back from the war, Glover was “binge-drinking with increasing frequency.” (p.273) At the Caxton Press “overproduction, declining sales and the mayhem caused by Glover’s absenteeism and alcoholism led to a financial and management crisis.” (p.274) Caxton still produced creditable work, but it now had rivals in the Pegasus Press (also in Christchurch) and the Pelorus Press in Auckland. The Little Theatre, where Ngaio Marsh’s productions had been staged, burnt down in 1952. In 1953, Rita Angus followed Lilburn, McCahon and Baxter to the North Island. The Auckland Art Gallery proved more receptive to both McCahon and modern art than its Christchurch equivalent. Although Peter Simpson doesn’t stress the point, it is clear that “the Group”, once representative of innovative art in Christchurch, was itself becoming more conservative.
By the mid-1950s, younger poets were refusing to accept that there was “never a soul at home” as Curnow had said, and were asserting their identities as New Zealanders fully attuned to New Zealand. The main literary squabbles were between Auckland and Wellington, which were now the major centres of high culture. According to Simpson “Progressively a sort of literary gang warfare had broken out, involving a complex pattern of personal, generational, regional and aesthetic disagreements that became increasingly ill-tempered on both sides as the 1950s continued.” (pp.278-79)
Christchurch’s day as “Bloomsbury South” was over.
In giving you this bald summary of Simpson’s book, I have failed to make many comments assessing it. I will now, like a literary accountant, tot up some negatives and positives.
There are just two, relatively minor, things on the negative side.
First, I think that Simpson underplays contemporary political pressures on artists and writers in the decades he is writing about. Although the Depression and the War are mentioned, they don’t figure greatly in this narrative. We are told that Denis Glover’s peers were surprised when he joined the British Navy in late 1941 because “he seemed to be a pacifist.” (p.180) But surely Glover’s pacifism was really the left-wing “anti-war” feeling of 1939-41, when Hitler and Stalin were in alliance and many left-wingers were persuaded that a war against Hitler was a mere shindy between rival capitalists. Once Adolf double-crossed Joe in mid-1941, the war suddenly became a holy war. It was then that Glover signed on. Pacifism? Not really.
Second, perhaps I’m a little more sceptical of some things than Simpson is. It is impossible to recover exactly what stage productions were like [unless they are filmed]. But I keep wondering what Ngaio Marsh’s stage productions would really look like if a time-machine could take us back to see them. Reading between the lines of positive reviews, which Simpson quotes, I note how a number of critics at the time noted the declamatory way in which dialogue was conveyed. I also note Marsh’s strict insistence on English voices and her refusal to cast anyone who sounded the slightest Kiwi. Obviously her productions had a great impact on people starved for quality live theatre, but would they now seem antiques and alienating, rather than great theatrical leaps forward? But then this is a case of my scepticism – not really of any shortcoming of the book. It’s the same way I feel about both Monte Holcroft’s three long essays on New Zealand’s cultural identity and Bill Pearson’s “Fretful Sleepers” (both discussed in Bloomsbury South). To me they are overstated arguments about defunct cultural questions, which were probably not as their authors conceived them anyway. And in Holcroft’s essays there is much barely-disguised yearning for a home like Mother England. I keep thinking of C.K.Stead’s comments in his latest collection of essays, Shelf Life [see review on this blog], that much of Curnow’s early “nationalism” was disguised Anglocentric yearning for “Home”.
Okay – that’s as negative as I can get. I may be a little surprised that Simpson saves for his last chapter his clearest arguments for Christchurch’s brief cultural dominance, but he makes his case lucidly. I am also interested positively in other surprises. Perhaps with good reason, Walter D’Arcy Cresswell – not the greatest of poets – tends to get a very bad press now, especially from gay writers who see him as the villain who dobbed in a fellow gay (see my comments on Paul Diamond’s article in How WeRemember). But for all his many shortcomings, Cresswell is revealed in Chapter One of Bloomsbury South to have been a shrewd and capable critic of Ursula Bethell’s poetry and is also later revealed to be the first person to discuss openly the coded homosexuality in Sargeson’s stories, when others were reading them simply as assertions of New Zealand identity. Another surprise – a rather sad one – is when Simpson discusses Louise Henderson’s influential paintings and then tells us “unfortunately the whereabouts of only one of these paintings is currently known” (p.89).
While Simpson lauds Brasch’s achievements in setting up Landfall, he is not blind to the publication’s shortcomings, noting “Brasch… paid lip-service to classic Maori culture… though the periodical never [i.e. under Brasch’s editorship] fully transcended its strongly monocultural character. Maori culture figured only as an object of occasional Pakeha attention.” (p.202) Simpson is also aware that “Inevitably in such a small culture, there was a somewhat incestuous intimacy between author and reviewer: indeed in 1948 Curnow reviewed Baxter’s latest book and in 1949 Baxter reviewed Curnow’s.” (p.221)
What I would most praise Simpson for, however, is his avoidance of gratuitous gossip. Bloomsbury South briefly notes that, as among London’s Bloomsberries, there was quite a bit of unorthodox homosexual and bisexual coupling within Christchurch’s arty set in the 1930s and 1940s. But once stated, this is not dwelt upon. Simpson states that some have speculated on the sexuality of Ngaio Marsh or Mary Ursula Bethell, but he does not pursue the matter. He notes in very few words the brief sexual liaison of Douglas Lilburn (not yet certain of his homosexuality) and Rita Angus, and her resulting miscarriage (pp.116-117). He then leaves it at that. His focus is on the city’s cultural achievements and that is as it should be.
So how do I round this over-long review off? I thoroughly enjoyed the sane and calm way that Simpson negotiates his way through all the clashing personalities while still conveying his enthusiasm for the city and its culture. Despite my blasé comment at the top of this review, I learnt much. Above all, I enjoyed it. A good read and an urbane view of a time and its art.

Purely personal and irrational footnote: Oh very well, then. I have refrained from commenting on some of the snobbery that is implicit in much self-consciously high culture, and that was certainly present in Mlles. Bethell and Marsh. But it is a small matter in the overall impact of this book. More importantly for me, Bloomsbury Self helped me renew my platonic love affair with Rita Angus and her art. She was beautiful, she didn’t hold grudges and among other masterworks she did paint Cass, which remains one of the real question marks concerning New Zealand Pakeha identity. I note it is treated as such in Roger Horrock’s essay collection Re-Inventing New Zealand

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