Selling the Dream: the Art of Early New Zealand Tourism, edited by Peter Alsop, Dave Bamford and Gary Stewart (Craig Potton Publishing, 2012) 408 pp., $79.99.
The days when glamour and romance were still attached to travel are well and truly over. Now economy travel by air is referred to colloquially as ‘cattle class’, and the individual passenger is treated almost as unceremoniously as a Fed-Ex parcel, slung hither and yon and fetching up after a matter of hours on any other part of the planet, which increasingly resembles every other part of the planet. New Zealand, once seen as requiring ‘a voyage’ – a long ocean journey to the periphery, to ‘an exotic frontier’ – is no longer a collection of distant isles in the expanses of the blue Pacific symbolising adventure, but an easily accessible stopover – part of a packaged semi-anonymous ‘experience’ of short duration and pre-processed activity – whether one arrives en masse by jumbo jet, or on a five-star cruise ship behemoth with its thousands of passengers and hundreds of crew.
The quest for Shangri-la – for Wonderland – still goes via Queenstown, but the contemporary promotional material seems generic and placeless – or for somewhere else: a land branded and marketed as JRR Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the place-names of which overlay the Māori and Pākehā ones.
Today the notion of New Zealand as a pristine locale glittering with 100 per cent pure paua shell iridescence is treated with scepticism and irony (that iridescence is likely to be car exhaust) – a far cry from the optimism of yesteryear, as a recently-published treasure trove of graphic designs produced before 1960 reveals.
Containing over a thousand images of vintage, unvandalised holiday posters from the golden age of travel – that is, mainly the first half of the twentieth century – Selling the Dream: the Art of Early New Zealand Tourism is an art gallery exhibition between hard covers: a big colourful compendium. However, it’s also a bit of a jumble: hard-to-navigate, arranged chronologically and somewhat haphazard in its approach to themes – which are accompanied however by enlightening essays from an array of art historians and commentators, including Richard Wolfe, Warren Feeney, Gail Ross and Margaret McClure .
The history of tourism marketing in New Zealand, as Margaret McClure makes clear in her essay, is one of Government-initiated campaigns whose anticipated success will be wildly over-estimated and which are actually followed by a modest growth in tourist numbers, punctuated by disasters – both natural, as in the 1931 Napier earthquake, and political as in World War Two – which cause wholesale cancellations and disruptions.
Government-sponsored tourist initiatives have also served to foster an art of national identity and a spirit of cultural nationalism, which, as Gail Ross points out, preceded and even inspired visual artists associated with the beginnings of Modernism in New Zealand: Rita Angus, Rita Lovell-Smith, Olivia Spencer Bower, A. Lois White, Russell Clark – and Colin McCahon. According to both Ross and Warren Feeney, Modernism actually arrived as a cultural force fresh off the boat in imagery created by New Zealand commercial artists alert to the latest overseas trends.
One reason why commercial artists were in the vanguard was that they received the same art school training as those who eschewed ‘commercialism’. School pupils were trained in vocational art classes as part of the national apprenticeship scheme. In turn, many of the most talented students were headhunted for cadetships in advertising agencies or the art studios of newspapers, magazines and retail stores, where they were encouraged to apply strategies deriving from Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and Abstraction to the central premise of poster art: namely that it’ should tell a story at a glance’. Influenced by World War One propaganda posters, the best commercial artists demonstrated ‘economy of means and the power of simplicity’.
Selling the Dream delineates the growth of tourism promotion from the 1900s on as a deliberate Government strategy, which drew on certain concepts summed up in catchphrases: ‘Maoriland’, ‘God’s Own Country’, ‘Zealandia, Daughter of Britannia’, ‘The Sportsman’s Paradise’, and so on.
In the years before World War One the region of ‘Geyserland’ received preferential treatment, with the construction of a model Māori village and Rotorua’s development as a ‘spa town’, complete with bath house, parks, tea-rooms, brass bands and zoo. Indeed, the Government invested so heavily in tourism here that for some time there was little funding left for the wilderness parks of the South island.
Tourist posters and magazine illustrations until the 1920s were painterly and often cluttered and solemn-looking, deferring to an Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts look popular in Britain at the turn of the century, but gradually, and then more rapidly, a new look emerged, brighter and breezier, more suited to the Jazz Age. Local commercial artists, notably Leonard Mitchell, Marcus King, Howard Mallite and George Bridgeman, began to use dynamic layouts, flat primary colours, geometric shapes and hand-drawn or stencilled silk-screened posters which grabbed people’s attention with their bold immediacy, but which were also subtle in the way they gave directions to the eye to locate the meaning or the message.
This signified the advent of tourism on an industrial scale, available to Everyman and his family. The poster as a mass-produced, ubiquitous, endlessly reproducible artefact offered aestheticism for the masses, seen on hoardings, billboards, walls. It was democracy in action, presenting clear simple rational images, leading one critic to aver in 1937: ‘commercial art has become a thing of beauty’.
The new style was sometimes known as Streamline Moderne, a variant of Art Deco, employing Art Deco’s reductive motifs to create a film set ambience, with vignettes of sporting types holding action poses, engaged in golf, tennis, skiing, tramping. Advertising agencies working up this new form of capitalist realism – the seductive image – knew that ugliness doesn’t sell; but they also tapped into the new restlessness, the yearning for fresh experiences that travel might fulfil.
New Zealand in the late 1930s was still promoting itself as ‘the gem of the British Empire’, but it was also using the slogan ‘the Switzerland of the South Pacific’. Already known as Britain’s big farm, a land of milk and wool, it buttressed this subservient identity by evoking an alternative self-image as an Arcadia that was ‘ a world in itself’, blessed with a beneficent landscape where Greek and Maori gods might disport themselves beneath a hard blue sky ornamented by a puff or two of cloud and girt by bright waters of lake or sea.
When forbidding Imperialism was transmuted into genial Tourism, Government-sponsored consummate draughtsmen led the way, creating a collective unconscious – or maybe just the illusions of Cloud Cuckooland and escapism – in glowing colours and razzle-dazzle linework. New Zealand began to market itself as a place of difference using signature landmarks, totemic beasts and the tangata whenua. Later this would transmogrify into fruitbowls and breadbaskets: the golden pastoral beloved of bakery manufacturers, but in the 1920s and 1930s the standard lexicon of poster imagery featured the open-air cathedral of the Southern Alps, nocturnal birds and tattooed rangatira – a glorious kitsch really, stamping its visual authority on the mass market through busy dream factory productions.
Some posters showed a silhouetted angler or deerstalker in the mountains – imagine yourself here was the implicit message – while others depicted brawny types in the Bay of Islands besting a thrashing swordfish or other denizen of the deep. But if such posters promoted NZ as an enchanted realm of all-action prowess on one hand, on the other there were the posters which conjured up health resorts, such as Hamner Springs, offering rest and recuperation and even rejuvenation. Tourism merchandised the allure not of raw or unsullied landscapes of pioneer days, but of landscapes fitted with all the modern conveniences.
International tourist travel was for those who had an itch to move, but who were also hotel-conscious: the leisured set, attracted by the Modernist iconography of locomotion – curves of cars, the ploughed waves at an ocean liner’s bow, the whirling propellers of flying boats lifting off from Oriental Bay on trajectories implying the very spirit of upwardly mobile aspirations. Well, we still have versions of that symbolism at work today: the idea of flying through the Southern Alps and landing on a glacier near Mount Cook, and so on: common ground turned magical, become scenery – but also become the preserve of the wealthy.
The best thing about Selling the Dream – which stresses its credentials as a miscellany of nostalgic ephemera fated to become valuable collectibles – is the blow it strikes against forgetting – against the cultural amnesia aided and abetted by advertising with its built-in drive to obsolescence – in the shape of the story it tells about the New Zealand Railways and its posters.
In the 1920s, New Zealand Railways were encouraged by the Minister of Railways to compete with the car as the mode of popular transportation. It responded by creating one of the great dream factories: the Railways Studio, located in Wellington, with a staff of 74 – commercial artists, signwriters, photographers, carpenters and billstickers. Publicity became a production line. As the General Manager of New Zealand Railways declared in 1929: I don’t like the word ‘advertising’, I prefer ‘publicity’. Railways were a public service, a public good, needing awareness; people would see the light, they wouldn’t need to be seduced, or lied to.
This publicity was not aimed primarily at the overseas tourist – like most Tourist Board promotion – but at the domestic travel market, encouraging mass travel by train to local holiday destinations, ranging from Caroline Bay in Timaru to the ‘Fairy Tale Waitomo Caves’ and Chateau Tongariro in the form of weekend excursions from the main centres.
Posters were churned out at a prodigious rate to support this ‘Back to the Rail’ movement, bearing such legends as: ‘The Romance of the Rail’, ‘Sunshine Trains’, ‘Modern Transport’ and ‘Your Opportunity’. Modernism in New Zealand reached an early idealist apogee here as linocut prints celebrated speed and the dynamic machine age with zigzag graphics displaying an up-to-the-minute Futurist verve; while steam-ships and main trunk and branch line steam trains combined to bring crowds from around the nation to the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1925.
By the mid-1930s the New Zealand Railways Magazine was advertising itself as ‘New Zealand’s National Monthly’. This then was the culmination of mass transportation in New Zealand, because if travel was the new opium of the masses during the years before World War Two, then for most people that travel was within New Zealand and by rail. War would change that as mobilised troops embarked in their thousands for overseas, most of them leaving the country for the first time.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.