Leonard Bell, ‘The Cosmopolis comes to the South Seas: the Internationalization of Maori visual arts in the late 19th-early 20th centuries’

The paper explores how New Zealand Maori artifacts and practices were conceptualized, represented and evaluated in relation to the visual arts by European artists, art theorists and ethnologists in New Zealand and Europe in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. How and when did such Maori works become ‘art’ in the eyes and minds of others in the wider world?

Various texts, practices and events are considered: the reception of the Maori artifacts at London’s Indian and Colonial Exhibition in 1886, H.G. Robley’s book, Moko, or Maori Tattooing (1896), Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen (1893), and J.H. Menzies’, Maori Patterns: Painted and Carved (1910), as well as little-known writings by British artists C.J. Praetorius (1900-01) and William Page-Rowe (1927). Major books including passages on Maori artifacts are noted – for instance, Ernst Grosse’s The Beginnings of Art (1897), Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907) and Owen Jones earlier The Grammar of Ornament (1856). The peculiar case of Edward Tregear’s The Aryan Maori (Wellington, 1885), which postulated fundamental affinities and kinship between Western Europeans and Maori, is also part of the narrative.

From the 1880s to the First World War there was a strong nationalist current in Pakeha (New Zealand European) art production. The incorporation of elements and motifs from Maori history and culture into Pakeha art and design was an aspect of this. At the same time Maori art was increasingly prominent internationally, via museum and individual collecting, art historical and ethnological writing, and the enthusiasm of artists (Jacob Epstein, notably). Settler colonials in New Zealand contributed to this orientation – for instance, articles in the foremost literary and arts periodical there, The Triad, advocated internationalist and cosmopolitan perspectives.

The paper explores the tensions between these imperatives, which immediately might seem incompatible. It also develops lines of thought introduced in the paper I presented at the ICE Workshop in Krakow in 2012, in particular in relation to ideas about the supposed primal universality of spiral forms and motifs.

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