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Pig islanders painting like Picasso

Linda Tyler talks Orwellian haircuts, boogie-woogie rhythms, and waltzing koru in her introduction to modernism in New Zealand


<P data-associrn="445045"></P> <P><STRONG>A modern frame of mind</STRONG></P> <P>Picture the modern Wellingtonian in early 1949. Imagine the 29-year-old Helen Hitchings, with her blonde bangs and cigarette, tying a jaunty scarf around her neck and notching up the volume on the Andrews Sisters on the radiogram. Living in her parents’ Thorndon flat, she is smoking and thinking about the gallery she will soon open in Bond Street to show works by her artist friends. But is Wellington ready for modernism? Who will the buyers be?</P> <P data-associrn="389488"></P> <P>Over in Karori, young Peter Fleischl is home from medical school. He admires the French doors, designed by the Viennese émigré Ernst Plischke, which open the back of his parents’ house to the northern sun. He pulls an art book out of the bookshelves and takes it to the patio, where he has set up a deck chair to read. What is the book? Wilenski’s <EM>The Modern Movement in Art</EM>, from 1927? No, the argument is too creaky now, with its labouring of classical form and disparaging remarks about the degrading influence of photography. Maybe it’s the newly revised edition of Cheney’s <EM>Expressionism in Art</EM>, with its insistence on the flatness of the picture plane and the need to hold all three-dimensional elements in balance? Too weighty for a summer day. </P> <P>Slim and tall, like the reader, the book we see in Peter’s hands could just be <EM>Art Now: An introduction to the theory of modern painting and sculpture</EM> - the 1947 edition, with its new epilogue. According to its author, the English anarchist Herbert Read, art was not the product of bourgeois society, as the Marxists believed. Instead, it was a psychological process that had evolved at the same time as consciousness. Modern art could, therefore, revitalise the culture of its time. </P> <P>‘The modern man lounges, he is relaxed and carefree, or, at any rate, he pretends to be.’ So Plischke had written two years before.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> With his Orwellian haircut, his casual clothes, and his interest in fresh ideas, Peter is being modern. He shows us that modernism is not a style, but an attitude of mind.</P> <P data-associrn="41605"></P> <P><STRONG>‘By golly, he’s got something’ </STRONG></P> <P>The Fleischls’ living room was dominated by a two-metre-long landscape that Peter’s parents, Mario and Hilda, had commissioned from an impecunious young artist working at the Wellington Botanical Garden. The Fleischls were early supporters of Colin McCahon, and in <EM>Otago Peninsula</EM> (1946), he gave them a glimpse of his home turf, laying out the peninsula and its characteristic knob of Harbour Cone like the breathing, green flanks of a reclining animal. The lessons he has taken from European art are there for all to see: the high vantage point of Cézanne, the sombre dark outlines of Rouault. McCahon has placed the horizon line close to the top of the painting, with only the rumpled hills folding back from the foreground to suggest depth. Linear perspective as a method for constructing pictures is finished, he tells us. The unilateral vanishing point - and all the rules that went with it - has gone.</P> <P>In February 1948, the historian and critic John Cawte Beaglehole - a friend of the Fleischls - opened McCahon’s exhibition at the Wellington Public Library. In a review for the <EM>New Zealand Listener</EM>, he praised McCahon’s pictorial construction, liking this new adventure in art: ‘While [McCahon] works in colour, he also works in form: and he is experimental.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> In a letter to a friend, he went further: ‘By golly, he’s got something’, he wrote.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Not everyone was convinced. The reviewer for the Dunedin student magazine, <EM>Critic</EM>, sniffily remarked that ‘McCahon is following the usual modern road to fame in striving to be outrageously different but little else’.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Beaglehole knew that ‘experimental’ was a safer word to use than ‘modern’, which took on a pejorative tone as the antagonisms that led to the Cold War started to bite. Modern Books - the bookstores founded in major New Zealand cities by the Progressive Book Movement - were left-wing and therefore unsavoury. Even Plischke ‘had to be a Bolshevik’, one of his junior architectural partners remembered: ‘Bolshevism came to their minds whenever they didn’t understand something.’<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP><BR></P> <P data-associrn="43851"></P> <P><STRONG>The end of illusionistic naturalism</STRONG></P> <P>Returned serviceman James Coe’s depiction of an abject Wellington raffle-ticket seller struggling to keep warm still strikes a chord of compassion. In <EM>Art Union ticket salesman, Cuba Street</EM> (1945), Coe borrows the golden yellow and deep reds used by the German expressionist Emil Nolde to fire up the feeling for the broken man and his limbless post-war life, and crops his composition to emphasise the indifference of the legged to the legless. In Toss Woollaston’s <EM>Portrait of Rodney Kennedy</EM> (1936), too, there is no hiding that the painting is made on a flat surface. The cruddy cardboard even shows through the bald patches in Rodney’s sleeve. (A landmark exhibition of Woollaston’s work, along with paintings by McCahon, was to show at the Helen Hitchings Gallery in 1949.)</P> <P>These modernist artists are denying us the comfort of illusionistic naturalism, where artifice conceals how the picture is made. Instead, formal qualities come out to play, and the mechanics of structure go on show. Line, tone, colour, texture, pattern, and shape all boldly assert the flatness of the surface and reveal the choices the hand has made. Painting is no longer a window onto the world - it has become another object in it. </P> <P><STRONG>The European influence</STRONG></P> <P>This is modernism, full frontal, with nothing pretending at depth hiding in the recesses of the composition. Although ARD Fairburn lamented that there was ‘falsity in the efforts of a Pig islander to paint like Picasso’,<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> a gentle cubism cantered through the art societies, allowing artists to acknowledge the revolution without getting burned on the barricades. Selwyn Muru, that pioneer of M&#257;ori modernism, still refers to Picasso as ‘our old koroua [elder]’.</P> <P data-associrn="36401"></P> <P>Newly arrived artists and designers from Europe nudged the locals towards complete abstraction. Gordon Walters took his camera to Weka Pass, in Canterbury, to document the M&#257;ori rock art he was shown by the Dutch-Javanese émigré Theo Schoon, admiring the way a line was taken for a walk on the cave walls. When Walters came to deploy the European language of abstraction himself, he played up his Kiwi accent. Right at the top of <EM>New Zealand landscape</EM> (1947) is a starburst of cabbage tree, while the ochre pigment and spiral motif gesture to M&#257;ori art.</P> <P data-associrn="41183"></P> <P><STRONG>Hitching art to architecture</STRONG></P> <P>While Walters was all biomorphic curves and organic structure hinting at living creatures out in the primeval landscape, up in Auckland Louise Henderson and Milan Mrkusich decided to stay in town. Their kind of modernism was urban and urbane, rubbing shoulders with architecture and at home with craft. (Moholy-Nagy’s <EM>Vision in Motion</EM> had arrived in bookshops in 1947, updating the Bauhaus philosophy of the unity of painting and design in the new machine age. With its startling layout and typography, it epitomised visual communication in the modern mode.)</P> <P>In <EM>Untitled (Jerusalem series)</EM> (circa 1957), Henderson - a Paris-born painter and embroidery designer - edges the shapes of mosques and walls in white, layering her colours like overlapping ceramic tiles to show the old city in its new Zionist guise. Her tones are tamped down, creating subtle harmonies of pink, green, brown, and blue-grey, like a tasteful frieze for a modernist foyer. <BR></P> <P data-associrn="39408"></P> <P>Mrkusich’s affiliations to architecture were even more pronounced. In July 1949, while he was working as a designer for Brenner Associates in Vulcan Lane, he held his first solo exhibition of paintings in the foyer of Auckland’s School of Architecture; he also designed his own home. In <EM>Buildings</EM> (1955), Mrkusich turns off the mute and amps up the volume, striking bold chords. The buildings of the painting’s title are tall fingers of dark, holding their ground behind a glittering profusion of lights that are reflected on the waters of the harbour and fracture into a mosaic of colour. You can hear the far-off beat of Piet Mondrian’s jazz-inspired <EM>Broadway boogie woogie</EM> (1943-44) in this Mrkusich: he matches Mondrian’s syncopated rhythms with pulsing, hot flashes of colour that loom in and out of the shadowy base. </P> <P data-associrn="39141"></P> <P><STRONG>Cubist experimentation</STRONG></P> <P>Back in Holland, Mondrian had articulated his ideas as ‘neoplasticism’, explaining that ‘horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness … can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> His tree paintings famously became more and more abstract until they were eventually transformed into networks of bold line and pure colour. Mondrian’s trees claw their way into convinced cubist John Weeks’ 1950s work <EM>Orange and black composition</EM>. For Weeks, labouring in his Elam studio, Mondrian’s black lines became the scaffold he climbed to escape the ties to the real world that had entwined him until then. Finally, he had achieved a purely non-objective painting.</P> <P>Joining Weeks in these uncharted realms was an unlikely ally: Te Kuiti-born Major John Pine Snadden. Snadden had fought in the Battle of Crete and he returned to Greece after the war, rendering its architectural features as a collision of sphere, line, and arched rectangle. In <EM>Spatial composition</EM> (1952), he concentrates on the basics: black and white, with two primaries and one tertiary colour. Form is all, with no distractions, but Snadden still keeps some naturalism as he heads for three dimensions: the balls are shaded as if they are lit by the sun from above, each planet with its own moon. Suspended in space, his arrangement of elements suggests arrested motion in rotation, at the same time as it strives for equilibrium.</P> <P data-associrn="35840"></P> <P><STRONG>Taking the koru for a waltz</STRONG></P> <P>Snadden’s red segmented arch motif recurs again, a year later, in Gordon Walters’ <EM>Painting no. 2</EM> (1953). The work’s title offers no description of what is there; it forces us to empty our minds and <EM>look</EM>. What we see is a new take on positive and negative space: colour is pared right back to black and white, with accents of green and red. Geometric and generic, the shapes insist on sitting at the surface. Crossing over to op art by way of Victor Vasarely’s <EM>Zebra</EM> (1937), Walters ended up taking the koru for a waltz down the piano keyboard for the next decade or two. </P> <P data-associrn="702581"></P> <P>But the tradition of representing the human figure did not stay abandoned for long. In <EM>Te Kooti at Ruatahuna</EM> (1967), Para Matchitt transforms the motif of the arch inside the rectangle, turning it into the heads, uplifted arms, and dancing legs of men performing the haka. A whole generation of M&#257;ori artists was now announcing that their time, too, had come for being modern.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Ernst Plishke, <EM>Design and Living</EM>, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1947, p. 4.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>JC Beaglehole, ‘Colin McCahon’s Pictures’, <EM>New Zealand Listener</EM>, vol. 18, no. 454, 5 March 1948, p. 7.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Tim Beaglehole, <EM>A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar</EM>, Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2006, p. 327.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>Critic</EM>, 11 March 1948, p. 3.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Geoff Nees, interview with John Saker in ‘Rediscovering Ernst Plischke’, <EM>Wellington City Magazine</EM>, September 1985, p. 59.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>ARD Fairburn, ‘Some Reflections on New Zealand Painting’, <EM>Landfall</EM>, vol. 1, no. 1, March 1947, p. 52.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Piet Mondrian, <EM>Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, 1937, and Other Essays, 1941-1943</EM>, Wittenborn, New York, 1951, p. 152.</FONT></LI></OL> <P><STRONG>Linda Tyler</STRONG> is director of the Centre for New Zealand Art Research and Discovery at The University of Auckland, where she administers the university’s art collection and manages programmes and exhibitions at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Prior to that, she was curator of pictorial collections at University of Otago’s Hocken Library. She is an expert in the New Zealand work of the Austrian émigré architect Ernst Plischke, and has published widely on Plischke and a range of other art-historical topics. She is co-editor of <EM>Ka Taoka Hakena: Treasures from the Hocken Collections</EM> (Otago University Press, 2007).</P> <P><EM>Note: An earlier version of this essay incorrectly stated that Helen Hitchings was living alone in her Blythswood flat (which was her home in later life) at the time she opened her gallery.</EM></P>
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James Coe, Art Union ticket salesman / Cuba St 1945, 1945, oil on canvas on board,
Gift of James and Jemi Coe, 1998.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Eric Lee-Johnson, Fleischl residential property in Karori, Wellington, circa 1949,
Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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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
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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M.T. Woollaston, Portrait of Rodney Kennedy, 1936, oil on cardboard,
Purchased 1990 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gordon Walters, New Zealand landscape, 1947, oil on cardboard,
Gift of the Friends of the National Art Gallery, 1991.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Milan Mrkusich, Buildings, 1955, oil on cotton fixed to hardboard,
Purchased 1979 with Special Projects in the Arts funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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John Weeks, Orange and black composition, 1950s, oil on paper on board
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gordon Walters, Painting no. 2, 1953, oil on canvas,
Purchased 1982 with Ellen Eames Collection funds and assistance from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Paratene Matchitt, Te Kooti at Ruatahuna, 1967, PVA on hardboard,
Purchased 2007.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Louise Henderson, Untitled (Jerusalem series), circa 1957, oil on board,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz