So So Modern

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Thursday 23 December 2010
Julia Waite

This is my first post so I’ll make a brief introduction. I started work at Auckland Art Gallery in October as Assistant Curator/Project Coordinator. I’m interested in New Zealand Modernism and I’m going to look at various works in the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection, starting with urban views of industrial sites….
Industry and Modernism

The 1930s and 40s was a period of profound social and cultural change, marked by a national search for reassurance and stability and a redefined understanding of modern New Zealand identity and art.

Many prominent New Zealand artists looked to natural landscapes as their subject in the fervent quest for a distinctive national culture - but a small group of modernist artists turned their attention to the architectural masses and silhouettes of the urban and industrial landscape.
Industrial paintings from the interwar years include Rita Angus’s Gas works, Christopher Perkins’ Brickworks Silverstream and Activity on the Wharf and the factory and fertiliser paintings by fellow Thornhill Group members Charles and John Tole. These works reflect the growth of industrialisation and urban change. They are significant works, even though it was mountains and hill country, not the factories, that would become the new emblems of modern New Zealand identity.
Industry, 1936 is a key work in John Weeks’ small oeuvre of industrial paintings. In a highly structured style incorporating a restrained use of colour and partial cubism, Weeks captures the factory in motion and transforms it into a celebration of technology. Inspired by the work of French cubist André Lhote and his experiments with colour and form, Weeks simplified the subject in a decorative and harmonious way.

John Weeks, Industry, 1936, oil on board
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1938

Industry, with its highly structured composition, evokes the elements of order, unity and rhythm found in the factory. However, it is profoundly humane, with figures as the work’s central focus and the role of people in industry as the primary concern.

The coming of the Machine Age and its effects on New Zealand society arguably interested Weeks more artistically than socially. His constant questioning of arts functions and methods was an expression of modernity.

Weeks’ representation of industrial forms emphasise the harmony of men and machinery, but it is unlikely it was an overt attempt to extol of a political faith in the working classes. Indeed Weeks’s modernism is more closely aligned with European Modernism than that of the Americans, whose industrial forms were central to their socialist message.