An immediate side effect of opening this book in public is the conversations that it invites. People who see the massive, gorgeous artifact on my lap or flattened across a tabletop feel compelled to comment or ask questions, to make contact. A typical conversation, on this occasion with a man named Greg* in the Otago Museum foyer, went something like this.
“What’s that you’re reading, mate? Looks interesting.”
“Well” I began, only slightly resentful of the interruption, “This is a book about the art of early New Zealand tourism. You know, the posters that were commissioned by Tourism Departments and the like, designed to show off New Zealand and lure people to the country.”
“That right?” and Greg leaned right in, then sat down on the padded bench. I started flipping the thick, shiny pages. There was colour contrast and a blooming scent of newness, of quality. “Old school, are they?”
“Yep. Pre 1960s. Before photography and television. Look at this one.” There it is, Mitre Peak, symbol of all that is grand about New Zealand, one of many mountains and glaciers represented in these pages.
“Or this.” The mighty Rangitata, pride of the New Zealand Shipping Company, taking the shortest route to London. Men in white jackets and Panama hats wave from the canal’s banks to leave us in no doubt as to where the journey will take you.
“Then there’s this kind of thing.” And there she is, a Maori maiden with naked thigh and bare shoulders, gazing up in expectant adoration at a Pan American jet as it propels its cargo of tourists toward the jewel of the southern seas. Mt. Cook in the background, a pastoral scene to the fore, the Union Jack covering part of the thigh. This poster, also the book’s cover image, is magnificent. Published in 1940, how could it not have enticed war weary Europeans and war wary Americans? Even Greg was having trouble tearing his eyes from the slopes and motifs.
Or it could have been the book altogether that was mildly stunning his sensibilities. Because that’s the other side effect of Selling the Dream. The actual art – each piece so skillfully rendered, originally on silk screens or as lithographs, by talented and meticulous artists – is exceptional. You could spend a long time admiring the simplification of form and swimming in the broad, flat areas of pure colour. To see them all together, contained (but only just) within these four hundred pristine and glorious pages, would be overwhelming, were it not for the careful curation of Alsop, Stewart and Bamford.
Arranged in sections with such titles as Unique Maoriland; Plains, Trains and Automobiles (and Ships); and Pastoral Paradise, the posters by themselves are a narrative of how a ‘young’ nation perhaps saw itself, or of how it wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
“For those who like words with their pictures,” I said to Greg, “There are also a dozen essays on hand to further tease out the narrative and shed insight on the artistic process, the outrageous cultural appropriation, the role of publicity in shaping New Zealand’s identity.”
But I had lost him to the glossy pages, to Timaru by the sea, to Mt. Cook’s Hermitage, thousands of feet above worry level, to trout fishing in the Routeburn river. He was stopping to sniff the trout. I drew the line there. “Greg,” I said, “If you’re that keen, get yourself across the road to the University Book Shop right now.”
As he disappeared out the sliding doors I re-entered Selling the Dream, to bathe in splendour, to await the next enquiry.
*Not his real name
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism
Edited by Peter Alsop. Gary Stewart, Dave Bamford
Published by Craig Potton Publishing