National Gallery, a Film by Frederick Wiseman: A Brief Review

I happened to read a review in The Guardian of Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 movie National Gallery before I saw the film. That review’s title is devastatingly brutal: “A crushingly dull documentary that lacks an eye for art.” It is such a harsh  headline that I almost decided not to spend the three hours watching—but I’m grateful I ignored it, because Wiseman’s National Gallery is a masterfully subtle meditation on the role of the world’s great galleries. The film can even be called art itself.

Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery. The scenes change quickly, and we never really quite get shown a painting for long enough to take it in. The camera angles are at times awkward, or someone happens to wander in front of a painting at the wrong time. There is a lot of talking. There is no music. There is bickering among gallery administrators, and some of these scenes run on for absurdly long lengths of time. But far from being boring, Wiseman gets in subtle humour, letting glimpses of paintings speak for him. A rapid montage of a range of facial expressions in paintings had me laughing out loud, so perfectly were the expressions timed to correspond to the at-times absurdity of such an institution—or simply the beauty of the constant looking-at and being-looked-at. All of this, down to the person wandering in front of a painting at just the wrong time, is exactly the universal and unalterable experience of being in a museum like the National Gallery.

Wiseman’s is a respectful but honest documentary of the National Gallery, and it is artful in how it gets across the essence of the experience of the world’s great museums. Ignore that review in The Guardian—if anything, the reviewer lacked an eye for the subtle art of this film. Far better is the review in The New Yorker; and better yet, just go watch the film.

The New Zealand Scholar: J. C. Beaglehole’s Essential 1954 Lecture

John Beaglehole The New Zealand Scholar lecture essay
John Beaglehole’s desk as he left it on 9 October 1971. Photograph by Lyn Corner.

If there is one New Zealander who has a claim to be the New Zealand scholar, it is John Cawte Beaglehole: authority on Captain James Cook, lifelong professor at Victoria University in Wellington, man of culture and letters. Beaglehole studied Cook, a man whose journeys and discoveries “enlarged the world”, as Allen Curnow’s poem put it, and in doing so Beaglehole both enlarged the world of knowledge and created a tradition of scholarship in this country.

117 years after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his lecture on the nature and aspirations of The American ScholarBeaglehole delivered his own lecture taking up the same question in the New Zealand context. The date was the 21st of April 1954; the occasion, the Margaret Condliffe Memorial Lecture at Canterbury University College. The lecture Beaglehole delivered, later turned into an essay, is a New Zealand classic. When I first read it a couple of years ago on a brief trip back to New Zealand while studying overseas I was stunned by how deftly Beaglehole took up Emerson’s challenge, moved beyond it, and seemed to embed all the while a sense of what New Zealand uniquely needs in its minds.

However, the lecture/essay is notoriously difficult to track down. There is certainly a Digital Emerson, but nothing similar for Beaglehole. The only stand-alone book produced with the essay was done in an edition of 100, and, so far as I can tell, the essay has never been published online. Your best bet in finding the essay has been a book published in 1969 on the occasion of John Beaglehole’s retirement: The Feel of Truth, edited by Peter Munz.

Like Emerson’s was to so many Americans, Beaglehole’s essay is a guiding beacon for New Zealanders wondering where and how to direct their mental energies. It was a particularly bright beacon during a time when New Zealand had little in the way of culture to speak of; but culture and tradition is never-ending, so the beacon should not be much less bright today. Beaglehole calls Emerson’s lecture America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence”; and I hazard that Beaglehole’s own lecture might be seen in similar terms in this former colony.

Beaglehole’s description of the war of intellectual independence:

“A war of intellectual independence is, in the region of the mind, a pretty bloody, painful and wearing thing. It is a civil war; and it shocks into division not merely society—that would not matter so much perhaps—but also the mind of the individual.”

For America, before the declaration of intellectual independence, Beaglehole says that “Culture, the life of the mind, still came from the east.” Ambitious Americans travelled to England, to be “in contact with the heart of things”:

“The expatriates come not from the colony, but from the province. The individual becomes mature—or rather, the potentially mature individual has the unease, the discontent, the growing pains that afflict him in a limited society, and he turns his eyes and his feet towards the metropolis. Nor is this simply a matter of the ambitious young person wanting to make his fortune; not inadequate fortunes are to be made in the province, as every shrewd metropolitan businessman knows. It is a matter of the provincial wanting more life, as a writer perhaps or an artist—to be in contact with the heart of things, even if the heart of things is felt in poverty in a garrett.”

And for the New Zealander prior to 1954, Beaglehole says (though we can ask whether the same is still true today) that:

“For the New Zealander, to go home was to go into exile; the New Zealander was like an Antaeus who sucked up not life but death from the soil, the death of the mind. Is this too melodramatic? Then consider the plight of the sensitive and articulate New Zealanders who have lived much abroad. They are people torn in twain. They are a Katherine Mansfield, with “New Zealand in her bones”, but with New Zealand perforce taking on a rather romantic distant haze, of her own remembered childhood and youth; they are a Robin Hyde, who (to quote Mr McCormick) “knew her country with an intimacy and an understanding that few have equalled, but… was drawn by an irresistible compulsion to Europe where she was to meet her death”—her physical death; they are a John Mulgan, to the first few paragraphs of whose Report on Experience I refer you; they are others to whom I have talked within the last five years, and for whom it is, now, too soon, or too late, to come back.”

After that declaration of intellectual independence America had its own tradition, its own culture, that meant its citizens were not to go into exile should they come home—and it is that idea of how New Zealand might come to have the same thing that Beaglehole takes up in the rest of the lecture:

“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned? My autobiographical fragment will show that my own answer to this has become No; and I think that the concept of tradition may give us a lead into the function that should be his.”

Beaglehole is using Emerson’s definition of a scholar as man thinking. This is a broad definition and allows for not only academics but writers and artists and musicians, people of any kind who use their minds to “enlarge the world”. And it is the creation of a tradition by people thinking that can allow life to be “rich and varied” in a place that is not already a cultural ‘centre’:

“Now existence in a provincial context can be very satisfying if the province communicates life: if the individual, however highly cultivated (I do not say the intellectual snob) can feel at home in it, and has demands made upon him that he feels it worth while to meet. The province will communicate life only if it has a rich and varied life; and the province that has a rich and varied life has a rich and varied tradition.”

How, then, can the province have a rich and varied life, and therefore a rich and varied tradition? This takes Beaglehole to the thrust of his lecture, of the very role of the scholar, of anyone thinking deeply in the country. It is this passage that stands out for me of the whole lecture, particularly where Beaglehole draws attention to the double role that thought must play, being both within the “old-world tradition” and the “tradition that is peculiar to ourselves”:

“A tradition is not a thing that just happens, and persists without the conscious knowledge of those it affects. If we are to profit from it in the best possible way, to extract from its riches the maximum nourishment, we must discover it. It needs critical enquiry, conscious exploration. It is the scholar’s job to make the tradition plain. As a scholar, he must be in the tradition; but he must also stand outside it, and with a double duty, to make real in New Zealand both the old-world tradition, that which we share with others, and the tradition that is peculiar to ourselves. He is concerned with the pattern of life we have got from our own past, as a community in this country, and so with our sense of the age we live in, in this place now. Our scholar, for this purpose, tended to be a literary critic; but in a broad sense he must be a historian, whether his subject-matter be literature, art, politics, economic development, social relations of any sort at all… Whatever he is, he must be conscious of what he is doing, he must be critical.”

Beaglehole draws attention to a tension in T. S. Eliot’s writing, where he says at one point that tradition must be “in the blood”, but that we must also obtain it “by great labour”. But, Beaglehole says,

“I do not think the paradox that emerges from the changed emphasis of the Eliotian mind is at all a real contradiction. For our scholar, our critical historian, is also according to the measure of his greatness in some sort a creator. As he disentangles our tradition, as he makes us conscious of ourselves, he gives us ourselves.”

The measure of success of New Zealand’s culture and tradition might be measured not in how many New Zealanders we manage to encourage to stay in this country for study and beyond, but, rather, how many of those New Zealanders who do leave happen to come back:

“We can, I think, discern with due joy some auspicious signs of the coming days. It would not be auspicious if fewer New Zealanders left New Zealand; I would increase the flow from the province to the metropolis… Obviously some, having gone, will never find it in their hearts to come back. But a province with a tradition rich enough, with a pattern of life varied enough, with a sense of its own identity and its own time lively enough, will always bring enough of them back.”


More on Beaglehole:

“I think I am becoming a New Zealander”: Letters of J. C. Beaglehole, edited by Tim Beaglehole

A Life of J. C. Beaglehole, by Tim Beaglehole

J. C. Beaglehole: Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience by Doug Munro

Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake

Tutira, Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station by William Herbert Guthrie SmithBrowsing grandparents’ bookshelves is always an experience of rediscovery. Books often seem to skip a generation, and then come back to teach the next. Finding William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s book Tutira in my grandparents’ bookshelves left me embarrassed that I had not heard of it before—wondering, even, why I’d not been taught about it at school.

Tutira is, according to its subtitle, “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station”. Its author came out to New Zealand as a young man of just 21, and set about finding a farm of his own. He first tried Canterbury, where he learned his skills, but soon moved to the norther climate of Hawkes Bay, finding the area north of Napier around Lake Tūtira to suit his purposes well. The book—large, heavy, and filled with maps and photos taken by Guthrie-Smith himself—is a record of 40 years spent farming the land, and was published in 1921, almost 100 years ago.

Lake Tutira photograph William Guthrie Herbert-Smith

No detail about the process of farming or the changes of the seasons and animals is too small for Guthrie-Smith. It’s a stunning work of patience and observation. We learn of the arrival of the willow tree in New Zealand direct from the seeds of the trees that planted Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena; we read descriptions of the floor of the lake as Guthrie-Smith plumbed it like Thoreau plumbed Walden pond. Spending a spring weekend reading Tutira is itself an exercise in patience; page after page of minute detail does not make for easy reading, but the whole picture built up is one of sensitivity and care for a natural environment that is changing beyond anyone’s understanding.

And that was Guthrie-Smith’s motivation for writing the book—to note what nature in early New Zealand was like, for those who may someday never see it. With great foresight Guthrie-Smith explains in his preface:

“So vast and rapid have been the alterations which have occurred in New Zealand during the past forty years, that even those who, like myself, have noted them day by day, find it difficult to connect past and present—the pleasant past so completely obliterated, the changeful present so full of possibility. These alterations are not traceable merely in the fauna, avifauna, and flora of the Dominion, nor are they only to be noted on the physical surface of the countryside: more profound, they permeate the whole outlook in regard to agriculture, stock-raising, and land tenure.

The story of Tutira is the record of such change noted on one sheep-station in one province. Should its pages be found to contain matter of any permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever finished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall. A virgin countryside cannot be restocked; the vicissitudes of its pioneers cannot be re-enacted; its invasion by alien plants, animals, and birds cannot be repeated; its ancient vegetation cannot be resuscitated,—the words “terra incognito” have been expunged from the map of little New Zealand.”

And then I remembered, after reading about half the book, when I had last read the name Tutira—earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald article titled simply, “Lake Tutira Turns Toxic.”

“Lake Tutira has an algal bloom likely to be toxic to people and animals… Warning signs were permanently in place at Lake Tutira but people were urged to avoid contact with the lake water and to keep animals away while the cyanobacteria were present.”

It seems too great an irony—too painful a one—that it is Guthrie-Smith’s lake (he gifted the land to the Crown after his death and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation) to be now a feature example of the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. Cleaning up rivers to make them once again swimmable was one of the few points of agreements by virtually all parties in New Zealand’s recent general election, which is at once a promising sign, but also a depressing one for how it came to needing to clean them up in the first place.

And though the decrepit state of Lake Tutira is recent, one of Guthrie-Smith’s central messages is that the environment is changing all the time—species of trees were dying in his day, rare birds disappearing frequently. Environmental change is itself perhaps the only constant in Tutira. Later in his life, while preparing the third edition of his book, Guthrie-Smith began to repent for so many of the changes he himself had caused on the land; Tutira Station itself had once been native bushed, burned down to make way for his farm. Though Guthrie-Smith seems resistant to any grand narratives or messages, one can sense a message of encouraging people to have care and compassion for the land and its species—to understand the necessity of change, but to be thoughtful and caring in it.

If New Zealand had a Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Guthrie-Smith would seem to be it—minus a political message but with a whole lot more conviction and example.


My family’s copy of the book belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles William Corner, who spent his life tending Napier’s parks and gardens. I don’t know if he ever met Guthrie-Smith, but in the small world of Hawkes Bay at that point—and the smaller world of naturalists and gardeners—I think it quite likely.

Note: After writing this I came across an article reviving Guthrie-Smith in the context of Hawkes Bay today. It’s a great read, with more detail than I’ve given here.

Herbert Guthrie Smith, Tutira 1926 William Blackwood

Montaigne on the Education of Children

“The greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge,” Montaigne says, “seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” That seems right; and yet it’s hard to argue that we’ve solved the difficulties.

The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today. He pleas for an education system that focusses on the individual, even going so far as to advise the person to whom his letter is addressed to not send her son to school, but to instead find a full-time private tutor. Our education focusses so much on the masses that it fails to give anyone a real education:

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” 

What is the ultimate point of our education? We debate that question keenly, but for Montaigne it was clear: “The gain from our study is to have become better and wiser by it.” By this he means understanding or a kind of judgement that informs thought and action. Memorisation is the enemy of understanding:

“It is the understanding… that sees and hears; it is the understanding that makes profit of everything, that arranges everything, that acts, dominates, and reigns; all other things are blind, deaf and soulless. Truly we make it servile and cowardly, by leaving it no freedom to anything by itself. Who ever asked his pupil what he thinks of rhetoric or grammar, or of such-and-such a saying of Cicero? They slap them into our memory with all their feathers on, like oracles in which the letters and syllables are the substance of the matter. To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep.”

Memorisation is unrelated to education, for an education properly understood must be about understanding and judgement. And yet our schools continue to teach to tests, and tests require almost nothing but memorisation. This recalls Seneca’s lament that “We learn not for life, but for the schoolroom.” Likewise, when studying history, our schools focus on the irrelevant parts that are easily taught, and not on the essence of how what we learn could inform our lives:

“But let my guide (the teacher) remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.

Montaigne makes what is today a most controversial argument, arguing that science should be left entirely aside until students have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the philosophy of how to live. The common logic today is that students should prepare themselves with technical skills first, and learn about life later; but Montaigne entirely reverses this:

“It is very silly to teach our children ‘What effect have Pisces and Leo, fierce and brave,/Or Capricorn, that bathes in the Hesperian wave,’ the knowledge of the stars and the movement of the eighth sphere before the knowledge of themselves and their own movements.”

It is an argument for the humanities: that our first task in education is to come to know ourselves, so that we can then devote ourselves to a vocation once we are sure on the direction we wish our life to take. The sciences are a luxury; if we don’t know how to live, there’s no point in thinking about them. Montaigne argues, again following Seneca, that the reason so many people leap straight to vocational training before having learned how to live is because they misunderstand philosophy. Philosophy has been confused with complex constructions of logic (and philosophers are mostly to blame for that), when its essence is how to live.

I think all too often we feel the problems Montaigne diagnoses—the rote learning, the mass production that education has become, the sense that we leap into a career before we truly know ourselves—but are inclined to put these down to modern education. His is an important reminder that formal education throughout the ages has changed but little, with students, teachers, parents and public figures all concerned about the same things, but with entirely no idea what to do about it on a system-wide level. If anything, Montaigne demands that we—as students or as parents—take responsibility for our own education and the education of those around us, limiting whatever harms are done, and guiding towards a lifelong ability to learn in order to understand.


The edition I’ve quoted from is The Complete Essays of Montaigne from Stanford University Press, translated by Donald Frame.