The Pursuit of Modernism in the 1940s
and Early 1950s


In 1947 the architect E.A. Plischke wrote about the need to appreciate the effect the social order of a particular period can have on the clothes people wear, the furniture they use and the houses in which they live. Choosing as an example the stiffly formal, heavily constructed furniture and architecture of Byzantium, he contrasted the attitudes behind such a mode of living with life as he knew it.
The modern man lounges, he is relaxed and carefree, or, at any rate, he pretends to be. His furniture, if it is really modern, is light and as comfortable as it is possible to make it. It is certainly never monumental; indeed, it might almost be called casual. To achieve lightness and comfort, the most resourceful and ingenious methods of construction are employed. The wooden parts of the modern chair are often of laminated plywood made much in the same way as the fuselage of an aeroplane. This new method of construction, together with research into the shape best suited to the human body (free from any preconceived idea of what a chair should look like), has created a piece of furniture that has very little in common with the traditional chair. The old description of a chair having four legs, a seat, and a back no longer strictly applies.1

BESSIE CHRISTIE Women in Brent's Lounge c1948
gouache, 554 x 708 mm. (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

Plischke's description includes all the essential aspects of what it means to be modern that would satisfy a dictionary definition: thus modern is the present or recent times; not old-fashioned or antiquated. Plischke also touches on the nature of modernism, which in this case implies a person living in modern times with up-to-date ideas, views, methods or tastes. Both words, however, carry nuances not covered by these definitions.

Within a year of Plischke's book being published, there appeared, in a University Students' newspaper, an item on Colin McCahon criticizing three of McCahon's paintings which had been reproduced in the periodical Landfall. In the article it was stated:
McCahon is following the usual modern road to fame in striving to be outrageously different, but little else.2

Whereas Plischke's use of the word modern' implied a justifiable improvement over what had existed in the past, in the way McCahon had been censured, then 'modern' acquires an unfavourable sense.

In matters affecting the visual arts it is this latter, unfavourable application of the word that generally prevailed throughout the nineteen-forties. When being modern, however, was applied to material progress in technology and to raising the standard of living, then to be modern was acceptable. Being up-to-date in this was, was justifiable in practical terms that could, at least superficially, be easily understood. In using the word 'modern' a lot depended on whether or not a person understood the function of the thing or the idea to which I modern' had been applied. In this way being modern attracted the type of value-judgement that could also imply a double standard, depending on how the word was used. At one moment to be modern could be a term of praise, at another moment become a term of abuse, depending on a person's point of view.

Nowhere was this double standard more apparent than when matters of art were under discussion. In order to avoid this sort of ambiguity, writers and artists often replaced the use of modern with such words as 'progressive' or 'experimental'. By 1948, however, with the Cold War developing, artists were becoming less certain about being described as progressive. As a term it properly belonged to the depression years of the nineteen-thirties. To be progressive carried overtones of a socio-political flavour of the sort associated with the ideals of Marxism and the moral perplexities of the Spanish Civil War. But these associations no longer carried favour.

Self-Portrait as P.O.W.
oil 510 x 410 mm.

It was safer to be experimental. The use of this particular term was well employed by J.C. Beaglehole in an article he wrote for the New Zealand Listener on an exhibition of work by Colin McCahon held early in 1948:
[McCahon] is a serious artist because he takes painting seriously, as something to be thought about and worked at; he knows the importance of construction, of the architecture of a picture, and while he works in colour, he also works in form: and he is experimental. In other words, there is an individual mind coming out in his pictures.3

Just as the quotation from Plischke told us something about what it was to be modern, so too does Beaglehole tell us something of the essence of modernism in painting.

First, to dispel any possible misunderstanding, it needs to be said that modernism in art is not a style. Rather, it is an attitude of mind. This is clearly implied in what both Plischke and Beaglehole say. Although no clear distinction was made at the time between modern art and modernism in art, it should be noted that the approach of a modern artist need not be confined exclusively to the issues of modernism. There was a difference. A good example occurs with those Surrealists who used as a model the works of Salvador Dali. As will be seen, Dali's emphasis on the tricks of illusion and on the techniques of realism were methods opposed to the very idea of modernism.

In the very best sense modernism encourages a self-critical attitude on the part of artists toward the way they work. The basis of this critical attitude lies in realizing what it is about art that makes it function as art. Behind this lies not only an attitude of mind, but a method of approach that aims to discipline what it is that characterizes art. Modernism questions procedures, not from the outside as it were, where the subject of a painting dominates, but from the inside where the formal elements of art give to the subject a context that recognizes a painting as being primarily the product of the medium of art. This aspect can be seen in Beaglehole's insistence that McCahon 'knows the importance of construction, of the architecture of a picture, and while he [McCahon] works in colour, he also works in form...'.4 In other words, modernism employs art by calling attention to what makes art.

In this respect there are three broad factors that constitute the outward manifestation of modernism. In painting there is a frankness in the way the painted surface declares itself to be just that. There is a frankness in accepting that a painting is essentially something constructed out of such formal qualities as line, tone - value, shape, colour, texture and pattern, all of which are brought together to form a pictorial composition. There is also a frankness in accepting that a painting is made on a flat piece of canvas or board and that this should be respected for what it is - a flat painted surface. All three factors are opposed to realism, or rather, illusionistic naturalism in art. Such pictorial illusionism seeks to minimize those qualities which are characteristic of a particular medium, for such naturalism runs counter to modernism by giving emphasis to the art of concealing art. Modernism wants the fact that it is art brought out into the open.

So far our attention has focused on a workable definition of what modernism represents. Now we need to consider how modernism revealed itself in New Zealand art. The most obvious aspect of local modernist painting is the fact that it was an external importation. By the nineteen-thirties the basic ground-rules established for modernism had assumed an entirely international character. In New Zealand, however, this international outlook was frequently modified by being adapted to localized situations, or watered-down by an approach to art that remained essentially provincial. Rather than risk a mid-stream plunge, most artists preferred to paddle in the shallow waters close to the safety of the river bank.

For the period of the Second World War the situation in respect to modernism in New Zealand remained much as it had been in the nineteen-thirties. This becomes apparent if we consider some of the works painted during the war years and relate them to the criteria for modernism so established.

COLIN McCAHON Woman on Riverbank 1943
oil, 410 x 410 mm.

The first and second criteria present no great difficulty. The first relates to the obvious qualities that result from the act of painting a picture. With the second characteristic of modernism it was felt that little should be done to disguise the mechanics of a painting's compositional structure: its use of line, texture, pattern and the like. In her New Year Holiday, Corsair Bay (c. 1942, see Art New Zealand 26: p.27), Evelyn Page goes some way to meet these requirements, but does not move beyond them. The pictorial concepts that dictate her outlook remain, in essence, those which existed at the close of the nineteenth century.

By the nineteen-thirties, however, many New Zealand artists were familiar with a term which it was felt summarized the essential character of a painting's pictorial structure. This was 'architectural form', or the 'building blocks' out of which a painting was constructed. The idea that architectural form was essential in order to construct a good painting was given popular usage with the appearance of a book by R.H. Wilenski, The Modern Movement in Art, first published in 1927. For Wilenski the modern movement represented a return to the architectural or classical idea in art. He gave emphasis to the notion that the typical function of the architect as artist is the typical function of the sculptor and the painter as well.5 While basic to the theme of his book, he was at his most convincing when defending his idea of a return to the orderliness of classical form in opposition to what he saw as the degrading influence that photography had on nineteenth century painting, especially the way in which the use of shadows obscured the form of objects.

As an example of this influence Wilenski used three portraits by John Singer Sargent. From one of these portraits a detail from around the eye is contrasted with a similar area in a portrait by Rubens to show how the sense of architectural form had been lost. Such a test can be applied to portraits painted in New Zealand during the nineteen-thirties, 'forties and 'fifties. Rita Angus's portraits, for instance, show how shadows cast by strong light that would obscure the formal structure of the head were clearly avoided. While few other artists depicted form with such crisp, firm clarity, it is rare to find any painter from this period employing shadows in the way condemned by Wilenski.

As useful as Wilenski may have been in clarifying this and similar formal points of technique, his view of modern art was too narrow in outlook. The backward-looking aspect contained in his theory of architectural form, with his emphasis on Renaissance painting as the source for its ideals, was, in fact, opposed to the real issues of modernism. A similar misconception adversely influenced many Auckland painters up until the nineteen-fifties. It was a misconception promoted mainly by Archie Fisher who, in holding up the craftsmanship of the Renaissance artist as the model to follow, showed just how much he failed to comprehend the real issues of modernism in the art of painting.

The crucial issue for modernism was the idea that the painter should acknowledge the flatness of the picture-plane when composing a picture. When combined with paint quality and architectural form, this idea of flatness became the most significant factor in the artist's attitude to modernism. In Bessie Christie's painting Women in Brents Lounge (c. 1948) it is the creation of a restricted illusion of three-dimensional form where the resulting images are placed within a pictorial space that is deliberately kept shallow. This shallow sense of depth can be likened to the recession one finds in relief sculpture. Although Christie's brush-strokes aim to suggest three-dimensional volume in space, this sense of depth is held in check by the rather flat use of colour. In certain respects the same criterion may seem to apply to Lois White's The Fleet's In (See Art New Zealand 18: cover): a work considered modern when painted in 1943. While there is the suggestion of shallow pictorial space, the manner in which the figures are treated hardly represents modernism in a true sense. Rather, Lois White is seen to share the backward-looking stylized forms promoted by Archie Fisher.

In her painting of Geraldine (1943) Juliet Peter shows herself to be far more aware of the issues that relate to the flat picture plane. Although she wants to suggest a landscape receding into the distance, spatial depth has been deliberately held in check through the way individual images are depicted. This factor is most apparent in the way the buildings are drawn. Note how the nearest face of each building is parallel to the hypothetical picture-plane. The fact that a building also occupies dimensions in space is indicated, not by the traditional means of linear perspective, but by the use of an oblique projection. This fact is important. It means that objects in the painting are no longer under the dominance of the pictorial concepts associated with a centre of vision as the point toward which all objects had been previously projected as had been the case in the Renaissance concept of pictorial space.

For many artists, who liked to consider themselves modern, this strictly front-on method of depicting images was an acceptable form of modernism. It avoided extremes and what was seen as the hideous distortions of modern art. The type of pictorial composition demonstrated in Juliet Peter's painting appears in many works produced from about 1930 onwards. It can be seen in Christopher Perkins's Taranaki (1931) and in Rata Lovell-Smith's Mt Torlesse (1940). In landscapes such as these a strict frontal mode was maintained in which each set of related images occupied a specific band across the painting, but in line with the picture plane. In the case of Mt Torlesse: gate, fields, foot-hills, mountains, sky. This convention of placing images front-on remains valid today (see Denys Watkins's Fringe Benefits, 1978), but was especially so during the nineteen-forties and 'fifties. Its practice can be clearly seen in Rita Angus's Central Otago (1940, see Art New Zealand 26: p.31) and in her Cape Kidnappers watercolour from the middle 'fifties. Here the technique is employed with great subtlety and with greater awareness of the properties of modernism.

A different concept for controlling pictorial images on the picture plane belongs to the tradition exploited by Cézanne. It was not, however, Cézanne's ability to make colours work and rework upon each other that was utilized. Rather, it was Cézanne's frequent habit of depicting a scene from a high vantage point, This notion of looking down upon a scene is well illustrated in The Artists House at Mapua (c. 1939, see Art New Zealand 15 p.44) by Toss Woollaston. The reason for this practice is that the high vantage point, in which the horizon appears near the top of the painting, gave the impression of flattening out the landscape so that this flatness became related to that of the picture plane. Pictorial space is constructed from a series of small planes carefully juxtaposed and spread evenly across the picture's surface. Many of these planes overlap so as to suggest pictorial depth without having to revert to the use of linear perspective with its centre of vision, vanishing points and all its other rules and restrictions. It is also worth noticing how Woollaston's brush-strokes indicate the direction in space assumed by some of these planes and, in doing so, assist in their formation as images.

During 1942 and 1943, Colin McCahon also devoted considerable attention to the Cézannian method of architectural form. However, as a small painting of a Woman on Riverbank shows, Cézanne's juxtaposition of planes was considerably modified by McCahon's interest in the early proto - Cubist works of Braque and Picasso. While many of the features observed in Woollaston's landscape still apply, in McCahon's painting the individual planes are more broadly handled, are more angular, while the stress on the upright, vertical disposition of the individual planes to the plane of the picture is, in its application, more aggressive. This vertical stress is clearly visible in the treatment of the foreground riverbank and the rug upon which the woman sits. McCahon also emphasises graduations of tone and the contrast of light areas of tone played off against dark areas. The Cézannian habit of looking down upon his subject from a high vantage point was also exploited by other painters at this time. Often they were painters who otherwise show no evidence of Cézanne's influence in their work. Such is the case with Doris Lusk's landscape Tahunanui, Nelson (1947).

DORIS LUSK Tahunanui, Nelson 1947
oil on plywood, 795 x
(Collection of the Hocken Library, Dunedin)

So far the paintings considered, even when viewed in the light of European modernism as it existed at the time of the First World War, are pretty tame. How then was the case for modernism in New Zealand viewed from the end of the nineteen-thirties to the mid-nineteen-fifties? In 1949, Rona Dyer wrote from London:
We have a certain smugness in our isolation in New Zealand which becomes disturbingly apparent when one leaves it for the intensity of a city like this one.6

Although some artists who had been to Europe had made an effort to understand modern art, not all found what they saw easy to apply to their own work once they had returned to New Zealand. Such was the case for Austen Deans. While still a prisoner of war in Poland, Deans had come under the influence of other Commonwealth artists who were also prisoners. The Australians Justin O'Brien and Jesse Martin informed Deans that his work was 'old hat'. So they attempted to open his eyes to newer possibilities. These newer ideas are reflected in his Self-Portrait as P.O.W. done in 1943. Back in New Zealand Austen Deans felt that:
None of the tricks I'd learnt overseas, which had helped me to see things and people in Europe, seemed to apply to painting in New Zealand.7

A.R.D. Fairburn considered this same problem in 1947, and explained the situation in this way:
Some of our best painters have tried to break new ground. They have found the problem a difficult one. Granted it is false for an artist today to be painting like a member of the Glasgow school of the 'nineties: but is there not likely to be just as much falsity in the efforts of a Pig islander to paint like Picasso?8

Such an argument was not helped by the almost total lack of even moderately good examples of modern art in the country's public art collections. At the time when Fairburn made his statement the only work to truly reflect a modernistic outlook was a 1937 gouache by Frances Hodgkins titled Ruins which had been gifted to the National Art Gallery in 1940. Even with a broader sweep only four more examples can be added. In Wanganui the Sarjeant Gallery had Roger Fry's French landscape of 1912. In 1938 the Robert McDougall Art Gallery had been given a rather ordinary Fauvist painting by Othon Friesz, while in 1947 the Dunedin Public Art Gallery acquired two works, a reasonable Landscape by André Derain and a good Flower Piece by the British artist Matthew Smith. In all, not much to go on...

The remainder of this article follows in the next issue.

1. E. A. Plischke, Design and Living (Wellington, 1947. Department of Internal Affairs), p.4. (illus.***p.5.)
2. The Critic, 11 March 1948, p. 3.
3. J.C. Beaglehole,'Colin McCahon's Pictures', New Zealand Listener, 5 March 1984, p. 7.
4. ibid.
5. R. H. Wilenski, The Modern Movement in Art (London, 1945, Faber), p. 27 (illus. pp. 11 - 12.)
6. see Arts Year Book, no. 5 (1949), p. 181.
7. Austen Deans, Pictures by Austen Deans (Wellington, 1967, Reed), p. 30.
8. A.R.D. Fairburn, 'Some Reflections on New Zealand Painting', Landfall, 1:49 - 56, March 1947, p. 52.

Originally, this text, now slightly modified, was presented as an illustrated address delivered at the Auckland City Art Gallery, on 6 October, 1983. It relates to the exhibition I had compiled, New Zealand Painting 1940 - 1960. Some sections edited out of the talk have been restored. Also, for brevity's sake I adopted a Greetnbergian approach to modernism. This seemed appropriate for the period as it concentrated on artistic form and riot the many side issues.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 30 Autumn 1984