The story of this country’s response - or lack of it - to modern art often goes like this. A conservative, parochial backwater, New Zealand was long culturally dependent on Britain and resistant to experiment and change. We were oblivious, moreover, to the exciting movements and styles that helped define modern European and American art. Worse, we neglected struggling artistic talent on our doorstep, notably that of Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. The National Art Gallery, from which the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa grew, was sharply criticised for all these shortcomings in its history before about 1970, as well as for buying conventional and supposedly second-rate British and, more rarely, European art. The reality, however, is far more complex and interesting, suggesting a collection policy with a certain flair - and a pretty good eye - though necessarily constrained by a shoestring budget.
A new chance to see modern oldies
So, what kind of art did this museum actually acquire during the mid 20th century? How has it been complemented and supplemented more recently? Till now, the public has had little opportunity to appreciate much, if any, of this aspect of Te Papa’s permanent collection, except for its genuinely impressive holdings of early to mid 20th-century British art. This selection of works aims to open our eyes and minds to a fascinating range of international art after cubism and before pop. You certainly won’t have heard of all the artists featured here. But you may well find yourself thinking, This is a really good picture (or sculpture). And you’d probably be right!
What do we mean by ‘international’?
Answer: either not being a New Zealander - this applies to most practitioners represented here - or else being an expatriate and responding to your overseas artistic environment. That’s why there’s a special place for Frances Hodgkins after she had permanently quit our shores, as well as for Edward Bullmore, John Drawbridge, Raymond McIntyre, and Frederick Porter while they were working in London or Paris. From the art on show, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish what is ‘Kiwi’ and what is not. In the melting pot of international modernism, national identity is probably the last thing that matters anyway.
Some of the exhibited works are by British artists, but even these have, for the most part, enjoyed little or no exposure in recent decades. A number also represent the school of Paris, whose so-called lyrical abstraction has been eclipsed over the past half-century by the more transcendent qualities of abstract expressionism and the more clamorous and glamorous vibes of pop art. The artistic production that took place in Paris in the 1950s, when New York eclipsed it as the capital of modern art, has long been underrated. Yet a more seductive and lovely semi-abstract painting - whether in terms of structure or colour - than Paul Berçot’s Paysage d’hiver [Winter landscape] (1952) would be hard to find.
How should we look at this art?
Modern art isn’t that easy, and the works explored in this essay are no exception. A child of six couldn’t do it. Much of it is highly skilled in its drawing and colour, in its sense of flatness and space, and perhaps above all, in its application of paint to surfaces. We shouldn’t be too bothered, as many people once were, about whether the outcome is ‘abstract’ or ‘figurative’. The one turns, shades, or is deconstructed into the other. Are the gorgeously coloured tessellated shapes in Jean Le Moal’s mid 1950s work Le port (now, that’s a clue) purely geometrical, or are they stylised masts and anchored boats, bobbing about in the water and light?
Frances Hodgkins and her guessing game
Artists like to keep their options open. They play games with us. Hodgkins does just this in Cut melons (circa 1931), provoking us to ask who cut those melons, and why? Why plonk them outside with the jugs? Where exactly are they located in terms of time and space? What is that building doing there? Why is the landscape so eerily, so desolately green? Hodgkins wants our full involvement. She is committed to the painting, and the intelligent viewer should be too.
Georges Braque - an artist’s artist
What almost every featured artist shares is their engagement with the modernism pioneered by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and particularly Georges Braque, represented here by La nappe jaune (The yellow tablecloth) (1960). This vivid yellow lithograph (a very difficult colour to vary tonally) features a wonderfully wonky teapot that obviously won’t pour - a relation, perhaps, of Hodgkins’ deformed jugs.
Braque’s lemons, too, are uncannily echoed by the fruit in Jacob Bornfriend’s Still life with blue jug (circa 1961) - another of the fascinating, serendipitous correspondences that run through these works. (You will probably spot more.) Braque’s modernism is less restless and subversive than that of his friend Picasso. It is cooler, more classical; harmoniously structured and ordered, often using subtly modulated colours. The still lifes by Patrick Caulfield, Mary Fedden, Raymond Guerrier, and William Scott, together with Allin Braund’s powerfully intense landscape Autumn mist (circa 1957), are impressive enough in their own right. But without Braque looming over them, they just wouldn’t look the way they do.
Is Stanley Spencer modern?
A possible exception to the pervasive modernism is Daphne by the window, Northern Ireland (1952), Stanley Spencer’s haunting study of his teenage niece. Consider, though, its unusual structure and viewpoint: Daphne is brought right up to us, and we are forced to return her rather blank gaze. Closer inspection reveals not so much a conventional portrait as a study of the abstract play of light on surfaces - Daphne’s white shirt and the hard, unforgiving upholstery of her seat. Bernard Fleetwood-Walker’s Three boys (about 1934) are, in a way, her slightly younger cousins. This is seemingly a conservative, academic, very British portrait, and thus a safe acquisition for the newly opened National Art Gallery in 1937. But look again. An abstract green tonality suffuses the painting, while the free, jagged handling of the shirt collar of the boy on the left suggests that Fleetwood-Walker was intelligently aware of Cézanne as he tackled the knotty problem of how to reconcile colour and line, flatness and spatiality on the picture surface.
Time can elide the differences between nominally conservative artists and avant-garde ones. It also reveals synergies between artists who were sometimes barely aware of one another. Graham Sutherland’s little Study for a decoration - mountain range and woman (1945) is characteristically acidic in colour, whereas Slovenian artist Zoran Mušič’s Paesaggio (Landscape) (1953) is moodily monochromatic. Yet both landscapes (really, mindscapes) convey a sense of death and surrealistic unease. Spiritually related to them is a small but powerful painting by Ceri Richards, The force that through the green fuse drives the flower (1945), inspired by a poem of that title by fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas. No botanist would recognise Richards’ mystical, sexualised plant, with its leaf-like, livid-green subterranean ‘fuse’ and its weird bloom bursting out at ground level. The visionary imagination behind it is what matters.
Flowers and trees
Richards’ flower has its thunder stolen by Russian painter Natalia Goncharova’s formidable Sunflowers and portrait (circa 1908-09). If ever any flowers were on steroids, then these are they. This is one of the best early modern paintings on display, executed with confident and surging expressionism. Goncharova was at the forefront of that seminal early 20th-century movement, but she hasn’t let the composition get out of control, as a lesser expressionist might. The still-life elements - a monochrome portrait of Tsar Alexander III, a vase, a windowsill - provide a sober counterpoint to the assertive yellows.
Another jewel in the collection is Alan Reynolds’ Saga (1956). Over 40 years after Goncharova’s sunflowers, we are transported to a post-war nuclear midwinter zone. Reynolds was briefly hailed as the British answer to the American abstract expressionists, and in a work of this power and scale, we can understand why. Studio magazine perceptively observed that such paintings represent ‘the bleak configuration of a lunar landscape … communicating a mood as disquieting as it was indefinable’.1
Abstract or figurative?
Along with her famous contemporary Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth was a figure not only of British but global importance in mid 20th-century sculpture. For most of her lifetime, Hepworth’s art was regarded as abstract and intellectual. Yet when her 1964 sculpture Oval form (Trezion) shares the gallery with Reynolds’ Saga, traditional distinctions between abstraction and figuration break down. Reynolds’ mark-making starts to look decidedly abstract, whereas Hepworth’s bronze evokes the coastal and rock forms of the primeval Cornish landscape that inspired her.
Related dualities arise within Summer harbour (1955), by the German-born and Cornish-based painter Paul Feiler. This elevated, semi-abstract view is remarkably similar to more famous scenes painted by the British artist Ben Nicholson, but there the resemblance ends. Nicholson’s linear exquisiteness is answered by Feiler’s knifed and trowelled paintwork, as rugged as Nicholson’s is refined.
Boats in a harbour look as if they were expressly made for modern artists when we confront the Czech-born American painter Vaclav Vytlacil’s Nantucket roadstead (1946). The work’s explosive expressionism is held in check by its geometrical structure - but only just. Vytlacil is chiefly remembered in art history for having taught such iconic artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Louise Bourgeois. This painting suggests the value of what he had to teach them.
Painting the blues
Vytlacil is an outstanding colourist. So, too, are the Australasian expatriate artists Sidney Nolan, represented here by his shimmering acrylic Greek coast (circa 1957), and John Drawbridge. Bluescape (1963) is nominally abstract, but you would swear you could see the Pacific harbour waters and sky before your very eyes, and the title only seems to confirm this sensation. The paint provides the thinnest and most seductive of veils. Paradoxically, Drawbridge - the most high-profile New Zealand expatriate artist at the time - painted this lyrical work while he was still in London. Although influenced by painters of the St Ives school such as Patrick Heron, he was clearly feeling the pull of home. Drawbridge returned to New Zealand later that year, as The Beatles were hitting Britain. But that’s another story.
Stories of life and death
In this overview, I have deliberately stressed the formal and rarely the biographical or anecdotal. All the artists shown here would have wanted this. Yet everybody appreciates a story. Why else would we still be reading the great 16th-century biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari? A story can lend new emotional depth to a work of art when we next see it. Some feel a lump in the throat when they encounter Vincent van Gogh’s Wheatfield with crows or a black and brooding late painting by Mark Rothko.
The works here tell their own stories, too, and some of them are sad ones. When Joan Eardley was painting her windswept landscape Catterline in winter II (1963) on Scotland’s remote and godforsaken eastern coast, she was dying of untreated breast cancer. Her vigorous brushstrokes take on a death-defying poignancy; according to Iain Chilvers, such ‘freely painted, often bleak and desolate works ... are among the most powerful and individual landscapes in 20th-century British art.’2 Robert Buhler’s drab portrait of fellow artist John Minton is the very image of the post-war ‘existential’ human condition. The doleful, soulful Minton appears isolated and vulnerable. He was just that, and committed suicide several years later, aged 39. By contrast - although this is hardly explicit in his painting - Zoran Mušič was a survivor of Dachau concentration camp.
Affirming and joyous art
Paul Berçot and Jean Le Moal both participated in the 1941 exhibition Twenty Young Painters of the French Tradition, an avant-garde show of force that deliberately defied the Nazi ideology of ‘degenerate art’ in occupied Paris. Yet their aesthetic is far from tragic or angry: instead, it appears affirming and joyous. So too is Charles Wheeler’s charming bronze sculpture Head of spring (circa 1934), which segues nicely to the final work discussed here, Frances Hodgkins’ Cherry tree at ‘The Croft’, Bradford on Tone, Taunton (1946). The 77-year-old artist excitedly wrote: ‘I think I’ve got it. Do you feel it? There’s growth, and spring, and hope; do you feel it?’3 Yes, we do, and we feel it all the more intensely when we realise that Hodgkins was celebrating the first spring of peacetime.
- Cited in Ted Gott, Laurie Benson, and Sophie Matthiesson (eds), Modern Britain 1900-1960: Masterworks from Australian and New Zealand collections, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007, p. 283.
- Iain Chilvers, Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p. 189.
- Geoffrey Gorer, ‘Remembering Frances Hodgkins’, The Listener (UK), v. 37, no. 963, 19 June 1947, p. 968.