The Pursuit of Modernism in the 1940s
and Early 1950s - Part 2


In 1941 Charles Grignon had noticed that, while 'in the United States, and even in Australia, the presence of emigré artists [had] brought about striking changes in technique' this had not occurred to any significant degree in New Zealand, either before, during, or immediately after, the war. (There were a few exceptions: in 1938 John Zambelis, in 1952 Jan Michels, and in June 1949 Rudolf Gopas, the most important of the European immigrants arrived.) Even in 1950, the situation still remained more or less as Eric Lee-Johnson described it: 
As a rule the painter, when deprived of the inspiration and encouragement supplied by the example of other artists working on similar problems to his own, is likely to dry up or turn to books on overseas work for company and stimulation.9

This turning to books was, indeed, a significant factor associated with the introduction of modernism into New Zealand. When we turn to the books that influenced painters over the period of the late nineteen-thirties to the early nineteen-fifties we find they were concerned primarily with the visual aspects of painting in a very practical sense. Yet nearly all these books were either updated editions of previously published works, or newly translated texts that had been written earlier in the century. The way in which these authors were frequently read, without any regard to their place in the development of modernism, is reflected in the often confused state of modernism as it is detected in New Zealand painting over this period.

MILAN MRKUSICH Composition in Related Shapes 1946
gouache on grey-toned paper, 360 x 550 mm.

What were these books? There was renewed interest in Wilenski's The Modem Movement in Art, for a new edition had been issued in 1945. But, as already indicated, Wilenski's text did little to clarify the true nature of modernism in art. A lesser-known book, but one in which the author displayed a greater appreciation of what modernism stood for, was Expressionism in Art by Sheldon Cheney. It had first been published in 1934 and revised in 1948. To the question, 'What is it that the artist expresses?', Cheney replied:
He expresses primarily his feeling for life and order growing out of his own experience of universal abstract values, perhaps as apprehended from a sense-experience of an object or subject in outward nature; his expression being intensified also by a special mastery of the materials and methods of his art.10

From Cheney's very lengthy dissertation two pictorial concepts stand out as having special relevance. These are, the idea of representing volumes in space in terms of their plastic qualities, and the idea that the picture-plane should not be violated. When applied to a painting they are best seen as a dual concept. in practical terms this concept becomes the interaction between the plastic qualities of pictorial representation when set against the flatness of the picture plane. This interaction introduces a certain type of visual movement into a painting which has to be held in tension so that the three-dimensional element in a picture is held in equilibrium. One painting from this period which gives a clear indication of these qualities is John Tole's Rotoiti (c. 1950).

Another book which aroused some interest after a new English edition appeared in 1952 was Amedee Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art, originally published in 1928. Ozenfant constructed his theories on a wide base into which foundation he poured his intense interest in architecture, sculpture, music, literature, science, religion, philosophy as well as painting. It is this diversity that gives to the book its attractiveness rather than his comments on painting. His specific assessment of modernism in painting tended to reflect too closely the issues relevant to the nineteen-twenties, but his absorption with the universal nature of art may well have assisted in breaking-down the local artistic provincialism of its New Zealand readers.

By far the most influential book was Herbert Read's Art Now, subtitled An introduction to the theory of modern painting and sculpture. First published in 1933, it was revised in 1936 and 1947, at which time an Epilogue was added. Whereas Sheldon Cheney's use of Expressionism in his title created its own problems of interpretation, Read's title was direct, simple and to the point. Cheney's book had been specifically directed to artists and art students, but Herbert Read was much wider in his approach and in his appeal. His text was not particularly long and his style of writing was concise. As a defender of modern art Herbert Read saw the role of modern art as going beyond the confines of pure aesthetics. He was able to establish in the minds of artists, as well as a receptive public, the idea that modern art was creating a vital tradition central to the culture of our times.

In formulating his theory on modern art Read may have placed too much reliance on psychology. Such psychological interests at times side-tracked him, or did not tally with some of his strictly philosophical arguments. What saved Read was his wide acquaintance with contemporary art and artists and his idea that society should cherish what the artist can do. In Art Now Read presented a survey of the developments in modern art over a fifty year period with the theoretical issues interspersed at the appropriate place within this survey.

In respect to these books by Wilenski, Cheney, Read and others, the question here is not so much which artists read what book. Except in a few known instances, that question can never be adequately answered. What was important was that many of the ideas promoted by these authors were spreading, not just through the means of the printed page, but also by means of studio talk. The real question was whether or not an artist chose to respond to the ideas of modernism in art or dismiss them as so much nonsense. Among those who accepted modernism, their approach to it took on a new seriousness. Artists began to seek out what it was that modernism really meant.

It seems significant that one of the earliest paintings from the period of the nineteen-forties to clearly display all the signs of modernism in a fairly blatant way was by a painter who had worked as a fabric designer in England and who knew from first-hand experience the means whereby the sense of a flat surface could be retained while representing objects normally associated with a solid, three-dimensional world.

MELVIN DAY The Grand Piano 1950
oil on board, 450 x 490 mm. (Collection of the Dowse Art Gallery)

This work is May Smith's Characterization in Colour, (1941, see Art New Zealand 28: p 49). We might ask: why this particular title? We only have to study the simple manner employed by the artist to resolve the proposition that a work should retain the impression that it is painted on a flat surface while still representing objects that have mass and occupy space. The compromise reached in the way the face is const~pcted warrants particular attention.

There had been works of a similar nature produced in New Zealand before this date, though hardly any were so well defined as to the consistency of their modernism. Among the most successful were a few cubist-orientated paintings by John Weeks; while between 1934 and 1936 M.T. Woollaston had created such works as Landscape, Tahunanui (1934) and Portrait of Rodney Kennedy (1936); and there were Colin McCahon's Still Life for the play 'Professor Mamlock'(1939) and Still Life (1940).11 Too frequently, the temptation was to minimize any disposition towards modernism under the trappings of symbolism. Generally the results were disastrous or, like Sina Woolcott's watercolour Bronze Cast (c.1942-3), 12 barely tolerable. W.J. Reed fared better in his Visitation (c.1939)13 but of far greater significance was Colin McCahon's symbolic Picassoesque still life with its title prominently inscribed, A Candle in a Dark Room (1943).

For many artists, however, the technical solutions of modernism were associated with the problems of abstract art. Finding solutions that worked in a practical and convincing manner was not as easy as some artists thought it would be. From time to time during the nineteen-forties an artist might attempt an abstract painting, but very few succeeded. Madge Clayton came closer to succeeding than most with her Composition (c.1943) and Pungas (c.1944-5). 14 Many of these attempts simply consisted of stylized shapes, usually brought together in a composition that lacked a real sense of pictorial cohesion. Too often they have the appearance of being the half-hearted efforts of artists who are uncertain of their cause.

One artist alone stands out as fully committed in this sense. That was Gordon Walters. Consider his painting of a Chrysanthemum (see Art New Zealand 27: p.42). Here is a composition that is resolved within a consistent degree of abstraction. It is also a work that clearly demonstrates in very simple terms the basic tenets of modernism. Considering the state of New Zealand painting at the time it comes as a jolt to realize that this work was painted during 1944. On the whole such a serious approach to the more astringent problems of modernism did not begin to appear until several years later, when the nineteen-forties were well advanced.

By then the seriousness which an increasing number of artists were beginning to bestow on modern art was considerably boosted by the number of books on subjects related to modern art that began to trickle into New Zealand. The bookish stimulation commented upon by Eric Lee-Johnson held both advantages and disadvantages. This situation became a dual factor in the highly competent works produced from the mid-forties by artists like John Ritchie and Gordon McAuslan. it was, however, a factor that touched the work of nearly all who pursued modern art at this stage of their awakening.

Further encouragement resulted from the flow of art books and magazines that increased steadily from about 1948 onwards. Among the more readily accessible titles was the series Penguin Modem Painters, which included over a dozen monographs on British painters, as well as the Americans Ben Shahn and Edward Hopper, and one European, Paul Klee.

But more important was a small series of basic texts published in New York under the title The Documents Of Modern Art. Among the authors were Duthuit on the Fauves, Apollinaire and Kahnweiler on the Cubists, Hans Arp and Max Ernst on the Dadaists and Surrealists, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy on non-objective art.

oil on board, 680 x 440 mm.

To this series can be added the publication in England of Paul Klee's talk On Modem Art during 1948. This was followed several years later by the publication of his Pedagogical Sketchbook, which Klee had prepared while teaching at the Bauhaus. From among these books the one to make the deepest impression on a number of New Zealand painters was Kandinsky's text of 1912 Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky had equated the idea of progress with materialism and the emphasis this gave to a superficial type of descriptive art. To counter such a trend Kandinsky wanted to inject into art a greater sense of spirituality. In doing so he promoted the possibility of a totally non-representational mode of painting which liberated form and colour. Kandinsky's treatise gave artists an appreciation of the deeper issues involved in abstract art. But the subtlety of Mondrian's thesis, which saw art as an expression of pure plasticity, took longer for artists to assimilate.

For the local artist who was interested, these books not only added to their understanding of what modern art was all about, they also carried the implication that modern art was in the process of establishing a new tradition. One book in particular appeared to summarize what this new tradition really meant. It was Moholy-Nagy's Vision in Motion, published in Chicago in 1947. This book was greeted with considerable excitement. Even the layout and typography epitomized the modern spirit. Vision in Motion updated the educational philosophy of the old Bauhaus. Art and technology were inseparable, and the book showed how this combination affected all avenues of modern living. It was this sense of the wider implications of art, as defined in the broadest way, that was an essential part of the book's attraction.

There would seem to have been only one artist in New Zealand to have been aware of the Constructionists' theories on art as a source for inspiration prior to the appearance of Vision in Motion. That artist was Milan Mrkusich. What is significant about Mrkusich's Composition in Related Shapes (1946) is the fact that it is a non-objective painting and not just an abstract composition. The difference is significant, though not always appreciated. Whereas in an abstract painting the subject is abstracted from something existing outside the work, with the non-objective painting the subject is constructed from within a frame of reference that issues from the painting itself - or rather, what the artist injects into it. The painting does not refer to any object outside of itself, but is selfcontained. Mrkusich's composition not only demonstrates this, but it also meets the criteria of modernism in a concentrated form. By this I mean the way modernism has been reduced to its most basic elements.

The problem confronting artists such as Mrkusich or Gordon Walters during this period was the difficulty of having their paintings accepted for public display. Because there were no readily available outlets, artists of their persuasion tended to work in isolation, often unaware that other artists holding similar views might also be living in the same city.

It is revealing that Mrkusich's first solo exhibition was held within the sympathetic domain of the Auckland School of Architecture's foyer during July 1949. In commenting on it the Auckland Star also showed itself to be exceptionally sympathetic, especially when most of the works were 'abstractions'. The commentary suggested that the exhibition represented 'what is happening in modern art in New Zealand what it is trying to say and in what direction it is going.'15 But work of this nature rarely gained such an open-minded reception.

In these circumstances books, such as Herbert Read's Art Now, played an important role in the gradual acceptance of modern art. They provided ammunition for the battle between the traditionalists and the modernists'. It was a battle that became personified in the controversy that raged in Christchurch during 1948 and 1949 over Frances Hodgkins's painting The Pleasure Garden.

Art Now could be read by the modernists as fighting-talk, or as comfort to the modern artist when the local art society yet again rejected his latest work: but most of all, it gave to the artist who wanted to express his modernity a sense of vocation and a text with an argument justifying modernism in art as having an important function in society. Yet in this battle-ground atmosphere where the struggle between the traditionalists and the modernists tended to be seen purely in terms of black and white, Herbert Read's text could be read like the voice of moderation. The tenor of his argument can be gauged in this passage from the preface to Art Now. He writes:
Modern art is inevitably modern; but its modernity is expressed in terms which are strictly artistic, and these are the result of developments within the technique and science of art. The great artists who have most determined the course of modern art - Constable, Turner, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso - have been and are singularly devoid of ideological motivation. They have lived in their vision and their paint, and have followed the inevitable course dictated by their sensibility. That their reliance on their sensibility may have had revolutionary consequences is perhaps to be admitted; but that too is an inevitable tendency of the modern spirit. The more mechanical the world becomes ... the less spiritual satisfaction there is to be found in the appearance of this world. The inner world of the imagination becomes more and more significant, as if to compensate for the poverty and the drabness of every-day life ... People forget that the artist ... has the acutest sense of us all; and he can only be true to himself and to his function if he expresses that acuteness to the final edge. We are without courage, without freedom, without passion and joy, if we refuse to follow where he leads.16

In this passage there are hints that point to some of Read's weaknesses as well as his strength. The passage also contains a word that adds a new and vital dimension to the concept of modernism. The word is 'sensibility'. When used in association with modernism it not only implies something about the, nature of an artist's motivation, it also reflects on the quality of the paintings created by an artist. In the pursuit of modernism in New Zealand painting, by the time 1950 had been reached, the artist's sensibility to subject, to method of approach and the medium used, began to play a more demanding role as the obvious manifestation of modernism became apparent in their work. This was also the time when modernism in painting began to lose its shyness and show its face in public.

The most forceful manifestation of modernism in the early nineteen-fifties was the way in which Cubism reasserted its hold over a considerable number of painters. This resurgence largely resulted from the efforts of two painters, John Weeks and Colin McCahon, both of whom, over a long period, had shown an interest in Cubism. Much of the knowledge about Cubism among New Zealand painters came from reproductions in books: but Weeks had come close to the real thing when attending André Lhôte's Academy in Paris during 1926. Although undoubtedly confined by the situation he found in New Zealand, where the application of cubist principles had to be used with restraint, with the new surge of interest in Cubism this aspect of Weeks's work revived.

In 1951 McCahon's appreciation of Cubism as an idiom was sharpened through his contact with Mary Cockburn Mercer while he was on a short stay in Melbourne. This woman painter had been in Paris before the First World War and had met some of the original Cubist painters. What McCahon had learnt began to emerge with the appearance of his Triptycb: On Building Bridges.

On the other hand, a large number of the paintings produced by other artists at this time were little better than formal exercises based on what painters assumed to be the basic principles of Cubism. For many, Cubism provided them with their first lessons in modernism.

JOHN TOLE Rotoiti c. 1950
oil on board, 460 x 580 min. (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

This type of exercise can be seen at its best in the way Melvin Day tackled the job of pulling apart a grand piano and reassembling it as a Cubist painting, in his work of 1950, The Grand Piano. However, the manner in which the linear element in the composition tends to converge toward the central area of the painting shows that Day had not fully comprehended the function assigned to pictorial space by the Cubists. Whereas the spatial element in Day's painting remains self-contained within the four edges bounded by the frame that surrounds his picture, the Cubists were seeking a different kind of space. For the Cubists, pictorial space, and the objects contained within this space, were of equal importance and therefore spread evenly across the flat surface of a painting. Furthermore, the Cubists wanted to create the impression that their pictorial space continued on beyond the outer-edges of the painting.

When we look at Freda Simmonds's painting Rima, we have an artist who has understood this important lesson. In learning it Freda Simmonds, and other painters like her, were beginning to show that the more subtle aspects of modernism were coming within their grasp. This appreciation of pictorial space as an active agent with a capacity to imply its own continuance beyond the picture frame was, in itself, of greater importance than the surface trappings of Cubism, no matter how well an artist might convey the incidental characteristics associated with the style.

While some of the most creative painters in New Zealand still continued to be attracted to Cubism as an historical movement, they did not hesitate to use the pictorial concepts of Cubism as a springboard for their own artistic endeavours. In this process the sensibility of an artist had an important part to play.

One has only to contrast John Weeks's Homage to Leger (see Art New Zealand 22: p.63), with its allusions to industrial factories and machinery, with Tamed River, a painting of a hydroelectric power-station by Frank Gross, to appreciate the difference between the artist with genuine artistic sensibility and the painter largely devoid of its benefits. As much as Gross's painting can be labelled modern, or seems indebted to Cubism, little effort is required to realise that this is a superficial veneer, and that there is, in fact, no real appreciation of what either modernism or Cubism really stand for.

On the other hand, if we turn to a painting like McCahon's I AM, we find an artist whose sensibility to the pictorial possibilities raised by Cubism had become very finely tuned. Indeed, McCahon had become so adept at utilizing the language of Cubism that he could play games with its basic concepts. By the manner in which he constructed his letters, deliberate spatial ambiguities are introduced which, at first glance, look rational enough, but are actually based on contradictions. This becomes apparent the longer we look at the way each letter in I Am is constructed. McCahon is teasing our eyes.

Another painter to use Cubism as a springboard for her art was Louise Henderson. Awakened to an interest in Cubism by John Weeks, her enthusiasm for it was fully aroused when in Paris during 1952. If less concerned with the systematic analysis of form, she showed in her work a liking for still-life arrangements, with a pictorial bias towards a flat decorative surface. In this respect her work is usually at its best when she is austere.

On the whole, this type of painting fitted in well with the ideas on wall surface decoration promoted by many of the younger architects throughout the nineteen-fifties. For some of these architects the principle of the flat wall surface was more strictly adhered to than most modern artists would have wished. Behind this insistence lay the old idea that architecture was the mother of the visual arts. As an idea it had been revived by several important writers, among them Moholy-Nagy. But in his Vision in Motion Moholy-Nagy had given the concept a relevance that was related to the twentieth century.

oil, 373 x 568 mm. (Collection of the Hocken Library)

Although ostensibly the pictorial subject of Milan Mrkusich's Buildings (1955) superficially shares the same' subject matter as Louise Henderson's Jerusalem series, in the way his painting has been formulated it is much closer in spirit to his non-objective works from the same period. What appears to be the real subject of Buildings and of City Lights, from the same year, are the suggestive qualities evoked by the colours employed in both paintings and the way the various units of colour create a pattern of slightly receding and advancing oblong planes that undulate across the flat surface of the picture plane.

One important source for Mrkusich's interest in colour was Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In common with other painters during this period, Mrkusich had been deeply impressed by Kandinsky's argument. Some hint as to Kandinsky's way of thinking can be gained from the caption to one of his charts for the colour circle, showing each colour paired off with its opposite colour. It reads: 'The antithesis as a circle between two poles, i.e., . the life of colours between birth and death.'

It is from these middle years of the nineteen-fifties that modernism became increasingly associated with abstraction and non-objective art. Even older painters such as T.A. McCormack and W.S. Wallis joined in with this trend; and, as Wallis's Abstract Composition Derived from X-Ray Plates (c.1955-7, see Art New Zealand 13: p 38) demonstrates, they could compete on equal terms with the younger modernists.

In the work of Mrkusich and Gordon Walters the new attitude was most clearly asserting itself. International in outlook, they sought to be aware of what modern artists in Europe were painting. Although Mrkusich retained his interest in Ben Nicholson and the work of Constructionists like Moholy-Nagy, he was also looking at the paintings by Monet and the method of Seurat's work. With the way he increasingly broke-up the surface of his paintings into smaller brushstroke units and the way he established a colour mood for individual works as he moved back toward non-objective subjects during the latter 'fifties, it is possible to see Kandinsky's antithesis of life forces evolving into the antithesis of order versus chaos that became the central theme for Mrkusich's paintings of 1959 to 1962.

Gordon Walters, who in the early 'fifties had developed a geometric style to some extent based first on Vasarely's, then Auguste Herbin's work (see Art New Zealand 9: p.58 and p.60) had, by 1956, begun to evolve a style of painting utilizing the koru motif found in Maori art. During this period he relied on the periodical Art d'Aujourd'hui to keep himself informed as to what was occurring in contemporary European art. In 1957 Don Peebles also turned to a more whole-hearted form of abstraction, having begun the first works in his extensive Wellington series.

Soon they were joined by other painters in the race that occupied the final years of the nineteen-fifties, when the modernists among New Zealand painters showed their desire to catch up with painters of similar persuasion in the rest of the Western World.

By the early nineteen-sixties it looked as if this race was being won, when, slowly at first, the international magazines gave the hint that a new spirit was adrift in the spheres of international art. Through the formality of modernism the first facets of the Post-Modernist movement were becoming visible. A further agonizing reassessment was required to ascertain the new forms of art if New Zealand artists were to remain abreast with the tradition of the new in Western art.

9. See Arts Yearbook no 6 (1950), p.57.
10. Sheldon Cheney, Expressionism in Art(rev. ed.) New York, Tudor (1948), p.64.
11. For McCahon's Still Life (1940) see Art in New Zealand no. 50, Dec 1940: p.94. Rita Angus's Poplar Trees (1929-30) possibly could be included in this list.
12. Reproduced in Art in New Zealand no. 61, Sept 1943: p. 18.
13. Reproduced in Art in New Zealand no. 44,June 1939: p. 176.
14. Reproduced in Art in New Zealand no. 60,June 1943: p.7, and Arts Yearbook no. 1 (1945), p.61.
15. Auckland Star 2 July 1949, p.7.
16. Herbert Read, Art Now (rev. ed.) London, Faber (1948), p.11-12.
17. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and painting in particular, 1912, New York, Wittenborn (1947), (The Documents of Modern Art): Fig. 111, p.64.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 31 Winter 1984