Francis Pound takes his title The Invention of New Zealand from two very similar statements, made 20 years apart, by poet and critic Allen Curnow and painter Colin McCahon.

In 1945 Curnow said: "Strictly speaking NZ doesn't exist yet ... It remains to be created - should I say invented - by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers."

And in 1966 McCahon wrote: "I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not even really yet invented".

The quotes are printed on the back cover of this book, book-ending it so to speak, and serve Pound's purpose perfectly, for the imaginative "invention" of the nation by the creative efforts of artists and writers is his central theme.

First, one quote is by a poet and critic, the other by a painter, and this is appropriate because although this is primarily a book of art history it is also informed by an intimate knowledge of New Zealand literature and of the close parallels between the two art forms in the period (which Pound designates Nationalism) being investigated.

There were many cross-overs between the two art forms, with writers such as E. H. McCormick, A.R.D. Fairburn and Charles Brasch being active (as practitioners and/or critics) in both fields. Both artists and writers were equally preoccupied with what Curnow once called "the condition of New Zealand".

Secondly, Curnow and McCahon were, in Pound's reading, the key practitioners and theorisers of New Zealand literature and art, so not surprisingly they are crucial to his argument.

Curnow is crucial both for his New Zealand-centred poems of the 1940s and for his core belief, as laid out in his poetry anthology introductions of 1945 and 1960, that "what is special belongs here uniquely to the islands of New Zealand" and that New Zealanders by definition "see differently and see different things from others".

McCahon is crucial for his heroic journey as a painter from the "regional realism" (in Pound's phrase) of his manner in the 1940s (the South Island landscape and biblical paintings), through in the 1950s his seminal encounters with European Cubism and abstraction and with American abstract expressionism, encounters which transformed his work.

At the same time his work changed Cubism and abstraction into something distinctly unlike themselves - bending them to accommodate the New Zealand landscape, so central to the aesthetics of Nationalism.

While generally sceptical about the claims of Nationalism, Pound develops a reluctant admiration for this deliberate misreading of international movements.

Thirdly, the key quotations come close to the beginning and the end of the period in which Nationalism held sway. Curnow's quote is 1945, McCahon's is 1966.

Pound's time span is a little broader, 1930 to 1970, but, as he shows, it took Nationalism time to wind up and wind down, and these two quotes are like the abutments of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, with the span of his survey curving between them.

These few remarks do hardly more than scratch the surface of this remarkable book, literally the work of decades. As he says in his preface, Pound began the book more than 25 years ago, as a sequel to his study of 19th century New Zealand landscape painting, Frames on the Land (1983). Its publication has been anticipated for years.

Reading it, one comes across passages or ideas that have been encountered before in some of the 62 articles by him (a prodigious number) listed in the bibliography.

Because of the book's lengthy gestation some might have wondered if it was like Samuel Beckett's Godot who, though long-awaited, never shows up.

But any sceptics have been thoroughly confounded. Pound has not only delivered, he has written one of the great books of this country. It is passionate, scholarly, witty, crowded with characters and ideas, rich in texture, highly readable and admirably contentious. Art history in New Zealand will never be quite the same.

The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity 1939-1970, by Francis Pound (Auckland University Press $75)

* Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer and founding director of the Holloway Press.