In the 1920s and 30s, New Zealand art was dismissed by many critics as provincial and unimaginative. British artist W H Allen, for example, declared it devoid of ‘pioneering spirit’ and ‘indifferent to modern movements in art’.
But a new generation of artists soon defied Allen’s harsh assessment. They challenged academic art forms, while resisting mere imitation of Europe’s avant-garde.
Here, we showcase some of their imaginative new visions of art in New Zealand, with a particular focus on the rich contributions of female artists between 1930 and 1950.
Louise Henderson, Les deux amies (The two friends), 1953. Oil on canvas. Purchased 2011 with the assistance of the Molly Morpeth Canaday fund. Te Papa (2011-0012-1).
In this cubism-inspired painting, the figures of two women are broken into rhythmic facets. Louise Henderson explores the possibilities of how to see forms in space, rather than trying to accurately represent the friends or their emotional bond.
Henderson painted the work after studying in Paris with Jean Metzinger, one of the founders of cubism. Its progressive style caused a stir in the conservative Auckland art scene, limited in its exposure to modern European painting.
Henderson’s cubist work was an important forerunner to the development of abstraction in New Zealand.
Frances Hodgkins, Double portrait No. 2 (Katharine and Anthony West), 1937. Oil on canvas. Purchased 1967 from Wellington City Council Picture Purchase Fund. Te Papa (1967-0006-1)
Frances Hodgkins painted this lively portrait of her friends Anthony and Kitty West after a visit to their farm in Wiltshire, England. Its bold colours and expressive brush strokes capture the happy spirit of the trip and demonstrate the increasing abstraction in Hodgkins’ later works.
Hodgkins was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and left for Europe in the early 1900s . She settled in the United Kingdom and became a prominent member of the avant-garde Seven and Five Society. Her willingness to experiment and use colour adventurously helped make her one of the most significant modern painters in Britain.
Rita Angus, Fay and Jane Birkinshaw, 1938. Oil on canvas. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Reproduced courtesy of the Estate of Rita Angus. Te Papa (1998-0028-3)
There is something slightly unnerving in this portrait of two young sisters by Rita Angus. The girls don’t engage with each other or play with their toys, but stare straight out at you with a hard, clear gaze. Their bright eyes are accentuated by Angus’ distinctive painting style, with its sharp outlines and flat, vivid colours.
The girls’ mother secretly loathed this painting and almost threw it overboard when the family departed for England – unaware that Angus would become one of our nation’s most-loved artists, and a pioneer of modern painting in New Zealand.
A. Lois White, Winter’s approach, circa 1938. Oil on canvas. Purchased 1984 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (1984-0031-1)
Winter is portrayed here as a predatory figure with sickly green skin and menacing talons. She emerges from the darkness of the trees to envelop the vulnerable flesh of ‘summer’.
World War II was looming when A Lois White painted this work, which expresses a sense of anxiety about the evil that could overcome peace. Interestingly, it also includes a nod to popular culture. White was an avid film-goer, and her ‘winter’ figure resembles the wicked queen from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – released the previous year.
Flora Scales, Basilica and lighthouse, St Tropez, circa 1934. Purchased 2006 with Ellen Eames Collection funds. Te Papa (2006-0007-5)
In this painting, geometrically shaped buildings contrast with the softer forms of mountains and plants, and warm tones with cooler ones. Flora Scales learned this ‘push-pull’ technique at the Berlin school of abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann during 1931–32.
Scales lived most of her adult life in Europe but returned to New Zealand periodically. During her 1934 visit, a young and eager Toss Woollaston approached her, asking to be taught. As Scales passed on her lessons in composition, colour, and spatial modelling, she planted some of the first seeds of modernism in New Zealand.
Sir Mountford Tosswill Woollaston, View towards Mount Richmond, Nelson, circa 1938. Oil on paper on cardboard. Purchased 1966. © Te Papa. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (1966-0015-1)
Here, Toss Woollaston captures his local landscape with big, expressive brush strokes and muddy tones. The scene is a far cry from the grandiose, romantic landscapes of late 19th and early 20th century paintings.
Woollaston’s desire to find a fresh way to depict the land made him a leading figure in New Zealand modern art. One of his biggest influences was a lesser-known New Zealand artist, Flora Scales. She introduced him to the modernist ideas she’d studied in Europe. Woollaston’s painting echoes her lessons on composition, by using a high vantage point to play with the sense of space.
Doris Lusk, Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula, 1949. Oil on hardboard. Purchased 2007. Te Papa (2007-0004-1)
In this striking landscape, Doris Lusk strips back the view of Akaroa Harbour to its simplest elements. With these muscular, unpeopled hills, she focuses on the formal shapes and lines created by the New Zealand landscape.
Lusk’s approach shows a strong relationship with the work of painters like Colin McCahon, who likewise sought a distinct style of modern art unique to New Zealand. Lusk and McCahon became close friends as art students in Dunedin during the Depression. She would often visit him and his family through the 1940s, undoubtedly discussing art and sharing ideas.
Colin McCahon, Otago Peninsula, 1946. Oil on hardboard. Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1992-0012-1).