Four rad female artists of the 1930s–50s
Curator Chelsea Nichols explores how the work of Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Louise Henderson, and Lois White can help tell a new story about modern New Zealand art
<P>Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Louise Henderson, A Lois White, Olivia Spencer-Bower, Chrystabel Aitken, Evelyn Page, Helen Stewart, and Rata Lovell-Smith. Just a cursory glance at mid-century art reveals the depth of female talent making rich, unique contributions to the changing artistic landscape of New Zealand during the 1930s–50s. This is my polite, art historical way of saying that this country was chock-full of badass female artists making totally rad art works like nothing that had ever been seen in this country before. During this period, artists (of both sexes) began to break free from the conservative British painting styles of their forebears, inspired by – but not blindly imitating – the European avant-garde. Although it is problematic to ghettoise the diverse contributions of female artists, it is still worth asking why many of these remarkable women have not become a bigger part of New Zealand’s modern art history.</P>
<P>Part of the problem, I believe, is that in standard art histories of the period there has been an overemphasis on artists’ desire to find a distinctively ‘New Zealand’ style of painting.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> While national identity was certainly an important driving force for some artists, it simply doesn’t give us the whole picture. Moreover, the predominance of this ‘nationalist’ narrative has downplayed artists and art works that do not fit cleanly into this story, narrowing the diversity of new artistic visions in New Zealand.</P>
<P>Too many of these outliers also happen to be female. In 1981, for example, historian WH Oliver praised the contributions of ‘pace-setters’ like Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston, whose experimental approach to the New Zealand landscape earned them iconic status within local art histories. Yet Oliver dismisses women’s ‘modest participation’ in the artistic revolution of the 1940s, lumping them all together as ‘cautious painters, attaining an authentic personal vision with a narrow compass, seldom departing far from “subject”.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P>
<P>This essay challenges this kind of unfair (yet surprisingly enduring) assertion about both modern art in New Zealand and women’s participation in it. Focusing on four important female artists of the 1930s–50s – Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Louise Henderson, and Lois White – I explore their unique contributions to art of the period, which didn’t always fit tidily with that ubiquitous ‘national identity’ narrative or were not adequately recognised within it. Rather than trying to collapse them into a single narrative, I discuss how their work can offer fresh alternatives to the same old story of New Zealand art.</P>
<P><STRONG>Rita Angus (1908–70)</STRONG></P>
<BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr><P dir=ltr align=left>In portraiture I note the special personality of the sitter, and often endeavour to express through simplicity of line and colour, the content of the sitter’s interesting complexity and diversity of moods.</P></BLOCKQUOTE>
<P>—Rita Angus, <EM>Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand</EM>, 1947</P>
<P>Over the last few decades, Rita Angus has finally secured a well-deserved central place in the modern art history of New Zealand.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> From the late 1930s, her distinctive style of painting – with its clean edges and bold, flat colour – provided a fresh, modern vision of the local landscape that sits assuredly in the ‘national identity’ story of New Zealand alongside artists like McCahon and Woollaston. </P>
<P>Yet I would argue that, in a period when landscape paintings tended to dominate the narrative, it is Angus’s portraits that truly demonstrate the range of her talent and capacity for artistic experimentation. Angus herself was more interested in portrayals of people than landscape, and in developing a personal artistic vision that didn’t fit neatly into any one category.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> For example, Angus’s <EM>Figure allegory</EM> (about 1945) is a little-known but highly evocative portrait of artist Douglas MacDiarmid surrounded by an enigmatic jumble of objects. A purple-robed devil, a spider, a dagger, a bouquet of flowers, and a mountainous landscape float around him, as if ensconced in plumes of smoke. Angus was clearly influenced by the dreamlike imagery of surrealism, but it is difficult to pin this work down to any specific meaning or artistic movement in New Zealand. The painting is an idiosyncratic yet highly sophisticated experiment in style and composition that demonstrates her remarkably creative vision.</P>
<P>Angus continuously experimented with her approach to portraiture as she refined her distinctive painting style through the 1930s–50s. Her confident portrait of Leo Bensemann (1938), for instance, is intense and dramatic, his dark eyebrows mirroring the mountains behind him, imbuing him with sense of quiet strength and resolve. Her portrait of her beloved brother Quentin Angus (1942–44), on the other hand, is much more subdued. She continues to use her signature hard-edged style of painting, yet executes Quentin’s portrait with a softness that reveals her tenderness for the subject. In <EM>Head </EM>(1951), however, Angus takes this hard-edged style to an extreme, using crisp outlines to give her subject a graphic, cartoonish quality that ‘pops’ against the blue background. While these compelling portraits represent only a tiny part of Angus’s diverse artistic practice, they powerfully demonstrate her unusual ability to relate the special essence of her subject, and the versatility of her painting style in this period.</P>
<P><STRONG>Doris Lusk (1916–90)</STRONG></P>
<P>Like Angus, Doris Lusk made a significant contribution to New Zealand landscape painting in the 1940s, usually discussed in the context of national identity and the drive to paint distinctly ‘New Zealand’ landscapes. In <EM>Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula</EM> (1949), for example, Lusk paints the unusual volcanic geology of Banks Peninsula, and indeed the South Island, with a strength and vitality that privileges scale and dimension over fiddly details. Critics at the time recognised Lusk’s work as the beginnings of a ‘native school of paintings’ alongside the art of McCahon and Woollaston.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P>
<P>Remarkably, Lusk painted this important work while visiting the region on holiday with her husband and three small children – one of the few female artists of her generation to find professional success while balancing the commitments of family life. Lusk, however, was wary of being typecast as a ‘woman’ artist and resisted associations with any kind of feminist art movement.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> Instead, she identified more strongly with the tight-knit group of progressive artists she had met at art school in Dunedin in the 1930s, including McCahon, Anne Hamblett, and Rodney Kennedy. Through the 1940s, Lusk and her family would often stay with McCahon and Hamblett (who married in 1942), painting with them and sharing experimental approaches to the landscape. Lusk’s <EM>Akaroa Harbour</EM>, for example, is comparable to works like McCahon’s <EM>Otago Peninsula</EM> (1946), which also emphasises the underlying geological forms of the land in a direct, simplified manner.</P>
<P>Yet Lusk has been regarded as a much lesser side note in the New Zealand canon, even though she does fit nicely with the old ‘national identity’ story. I argue that this is, in part, due to the way her work has been discussed in comparison with artists like McCahon. Gordon H Brown and Hamish Keith, for example, describe McCahon’s landscapes of the late 1940s as having a ‘spiritual intensity’ and ‘an affirmation of his original vision of the landscape order, with increased power and strength’.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> Lusk’s work, on the other hand, is rarely discussed beyond its formal properties, with no consideration for her artistic vision or any profound relationship to her subject. Keith and Brown, for instance, simply describe her paintings as ‘solid and unpretentious, straightforward and uncomplicated landscapes’.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> Lusk, however, never saw her paintings in such simplistic terms:</P>
<P><BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr>… [I] have tried to get to the heart of the matter, involved with the complexity rather than simplicity in describing the nature of our land.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE>
<P>While her work does indeed use strong, simplified forms, the final product is both representational and emblematic. <EM>Akaroa Harbour</EM> may be emptied of people, but she gives a powerful, muscular shape to the hills that instils them with an almost corporeal quality. Lusk reinterprets the traditional female imagery of ‘mother nature’, infusing her landscapes with a grand sense of strength and form instead of any nostalgic sweetness.</P>
<P><STRONG>Louise Henderson (1902–94)</STRONG></P>
<P>Louise Henderson too spent time painting the landscapes of the South Island, accompanying Rita Angus on sketching trips and participating in exhibitions with informal Christchurch art association The Group in the 1930s.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP> The French-born artist, however, was not interested in developing a ‘New Zealand’ style of painting. Instead, Henderson - who arrived in the country at the age of 23 – explored the landscape with the eyes of a foreigner, taking a formal, structural approach to her new homeland:</P>
<P><BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr>I wanted to express the <EM>fundamental</EM> of what I saw, the <EM>form </EM>of what I saw, the<EM> form</EM> of people, the <EM>form</EM> of things.<SUP><FONT size=2>11</FONT></SUP> </P></BLOCKQUOTE>
<P>Henderson’s interest in form and colour led to her initial interest in the cubist style, which had already been a key artistic movement in Europe for two decades. After moving to Auckland in 1950, Henderson was mentored by John Weeks, who had studied in Paris with the neo-cubist André Lhote. Weeks encouraged her experimentation with cubist techniques, and in 1952 she decided to go on her own study trip to Paris to paint with Jean Metzinger, one of the founders of salon cubism.</P>
<P><EM>Les deux amies (The two friends)</EM> was painted in 1953, shortly after she returned to New Zealand. Taking clear influence from Metzinger’s approach to cubism, Henderson experiments with new ways of articulating space and shape, using thinly painted facets of colour to give the figures a geometric, structured sense of form. Broken into tilted, fractured planes, the bodies of the two women in the painting are harmoniously intertwined. </P>
<P>Henderson’s painting does not entirely move into abstraction, but nonetheless the cubist treatment of her subject looked radical in comparison with the ‘regional realist’ landscapes that dominated New Zealand painting. Although cubism had long been eclipsed as an avant-garde style of painting in Europe, paintings like <EM>Les deux amies</EM> caused a major stir during her solo exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1953. Seen as the very cutting edge of modernist painting in New Zealand, her work caught the attention of artists such as McCahon, who was spurred to begin his own series of cubist-inspired paintings.<SUP><FONT size=2>12</FONT></SUP> </P>
<P>Henderson’s work pushed New Zealand painting into a new era of experimentation with more abstract forms. Yet, despite her considerable impact, Henderson’s unabashed embrace of more European modes of painting has sometimes worked against her in terms of New Zealand art history. Her contribution to 1950s painting is given only passing mention in books like Elva Bett’s <EM>New Zealand Art: A modern perspective</EM> and Brown and Keith’s <EM>An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839–1967</EM>, which favour a nationalist narrative that emphasises the contributions of Woollaston, McCahon, and Angus.<SUP><FONT size=2>13</FONT></SUP> Nonetheless, works like <EM>Les deux amies</EM> remain a remarkable testament to Henderson’s fiercely independent creative spirit, and its influence on New Zealand art in the 1950s. </P>
<P><STRONG>A Lois White (1903–84)</STRONG></P>
<P>Of all the artists working in New Zealand in the 1930s–50s, Lois White is perhaps the most difficult to pin down in a tidy story of New Zealand modern art. Her highly mannered figurative paintings featured biblical subjects, left-wing social commentary, and allegorical female portraits – highly unusual in the landscape-oriented painting of the period. Monumental and dramatic, White’s paintings express an imaginative, personal artistic vision that had little precedent in New Zealand painting at the time.</P>
<P>One of White’s most striking paintings of the period, for example, is <EM>Winter’s approach</EM> (about 1938). Painted in a tight, fantastic style, the work depicts a predatory, green-skinned witch towering over a nude, vulnerable girl – ‘winter’ threatening to overcome ‘summer’. With World War II looming on the horizon, White’s painting expresses a sense of foreboding about the evils poised to imperil peace. It also contains an intriguing reference to popular culture: White was an avid film-goer, and her ‘winter’ figure strongly resembles the wicked queen from Walt Disney’s recently released <EM>Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs</EM>. With their appealing subject matter and social critique, paintings like this helped White become one of New Zealand’s key artistic figures of the 1930s and 40s.</P>
<P>By the mid 1950s, however, White’s highly refined allegorical paintings had fallen out of fashion, as more abstract styles came to the forefront. White had been working as a teacher at Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland for over a quarter of a century,<SUP><FONT size=2>14</FONT></SUP> but her insistence on traditional preparatory drawings, composition design, and draughtsmanship started to feel tedious and old-fashioned to her latest crop of students – she often arrived to an empty studio in her last years of teaching.<SUP><FONT size=2>15</FONT></SUP> This was supposedly exacerbated by her sharp and sarcastic manner. Her colleague Michael Smither, for example, described her as ‘an imposing figure that gave off an aura of solid grey.’<SUP><FONT size=2>16</FONT></SUP></P>
<P>Although art history is peppered with tales of successful male artists with difficult personalities, White’s acerbic character coupled with her ‘unfashionableness’ left her once-respected work all but forgotten. It wasn’t until 1977, when White was 74, that her work was ‘rediscovered’ by art dealer Peter McLeavey, who gave her very first solo exhibition. It was only then – with the endorsement of a hip, young dealer – that White’s imaginative contributions to New Zealand modernist painting were appreciated once again, although she never did achieve the artistic status she really deserves. </P>
<P>Yet, like the work of Angus, Lusk, and Henderson, White’s fresh and imaginative paintings demonstrate the rich variance in the new visions of New Zealand art that were emerging in the 1930s–50s. Shouldn’t we celebrate the originality, diversity, and individuality of these remarkably modern female artists, rather than allowing the same old story of art dictate their importance or insignificance?</P>
<LI>The most comprehensive account of this impulse is outlined in Francis Pound’s <EM>The Invention of New Zealand: Art & national identity 1930–1970</EM>, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2009.
<LI>WH Oliver, ‘The Awakening Imagination’ , <EM>The Oxford History of New Zealand</EM>, second edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, p. 549.
<LI>As Elizabeth Eastmond and Merimeri Penfold argue, Angus’s reputation only became firmly established around 1983–84, when the first major touring retrospective of her work took place 13 years after her death. Elizabeth Eastmond and Merimeri Penfold, <EM>Women and the Arts in New Zealand: Forty Works: 1936–86</EM>, Penguin Books, Auckland, 1986, p. 5.
<LI>Jill Trevelyan and William McAloon’s <EM>Rita Angus: Life & vision</EM>, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2008, p. 11.
<LI>John Summers, ‘The Group Show’, <EM>Landfall 9</EM>, vol. 3, no. 1, March 1949, p. 63.
<LI>Lisa Beaven and Grant Banbury, <EM>Landmarks: The landscape paintings of Doris Lusk</EM>, Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, 1996, pp. 12, 25.
<LI>Gordon H Brown and Hamish Keith, <EM>An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839–1967</EM>, Collins, London and Auckland, 1969, pp. 185–86. In another example, WH Oliver also describes McCahon as a ‘spiritual explorer’ who ‘begins with landscape and people, but with an overt mysticism, a drastic simplification of forms, and a readiness to take risks’. See: Oliver, ‘The Awakening Imagination’, p. 551.
<LI>Brown and Keith, <EM>An Introduction to New Zealand Painting</EM>, pp. 135–36. Furthermore, while the authors do mention the contribution of artists like Lusk, chapter headings are dedicated exclusively to male artists, including Christopher Perkins, Toss Woollaston, and Colin McCahon.
<LI>Doris Lusk, 1972, as quoted in Beaven and Banbury, <EM>Landmarks</EM>, p. 9.
<LI>The Group provided alternative exhibition opportunities for progressive local artists from 1927 to 1977. Participants included now well-known artists like Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Colin McCahon, and Toss Woollaston, who helped give The Group its reputation for representing the most cutting-edge art in the country.
<LI>Louise Henderson, as quoted in Elizabeth Grierson, ‘The Art of Louise Henderson 1925–1990’, MA Thesis, University of Auckland, 1990, p. 13.
<LI>Pound, <EM>Invention of New Zealand</EM>, pp. 229–30.
<LI>Elva Bett, <EM>New Zealand Art: A Modern Perspective</EM>, Reed Methuen Publishers, Auckland, 1986, p. 15.
<LI>Brown and Keith, <EM>An Introduction to New Zealand Painting 1839–1967</EM>, p. 170.
<LI>It is regrettable to note that despite her long teaching record at the school, White nonetheless fetched a much lower salary than her male colleagues. Nicola Green, <EM>By the Waters of Babylon: The art of A Lois White</EM>, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1993, p. 88.
<LI>Green, <EM>By the Waters of Babylon</EM>, pp. 114, 119.
<LI>Michael Smither, as quoted in Green, <EM>By the Waters of Babylon</EM>, p. 119.</LI></FONT></OL>