Louise Henderson: From life, edited by Felicity Milburn, Lara Strongman and Julia Waite (Auckland City Art Gallery/Christchurch City Art Gallery, 2019), 256pp., $65
At one time, in the mid-1950s, Louise Henderson was a prominent figure among painters based in Auckland. In fact, she was seen as a modernist; she had associated with John Weeks in Auckland and later studied in Paris with Jean Metzinger (1883–1956), a Cubist painter, teacher and writer. Henderson had changed her earlier style, learnt in Christchurch, for a more abstract and Cubist-influenced approach. She exhibited at the Auckland Art Gallery alongside Colin McCahon and Milan Mrkusich, both of whom were some twenty years her junior. She was highly regarded by collectors and critics, such as Charles Brasch and Eric McCormick. But by the 1970s her star had waned, and although she continued to paint and exhibit into the 1980s she was no longer seen as a leading contemporary painter. Auckland Art Gallery staged an important show of her work called Louise Henderson: The Cubist years, curated by Christina Barton in 1992, and in 1993 Henderson was made a Dame. Henderson has, however, still not been accorded her full due as a painter and teacher. Louise Henderson: From life and the accompanying exhibition aim to redress the situation.
The book is an attractive production, generous in size, and deals with all periods of Henderson’s long working life of some sixty years. The main essays are written by experienced art historians, all committed to a revisionist questioning of the way Henderson has been presented in the past. Of these, Christina Barton is the most outspoken about what she calls ‘the shortcomings of the art historical record’. She argues that ‘Henderson’s evolution as an artist unfolds in New Zealand’, and that her return to Paris to study in the 1950s ‘followed rather than preceded her emergence as a painter in New Zealand’. While this may be true, there is no doubt that Henderson was stimulated by her time in Paris and her direct contact with the international art world she found there.
Henderson’s early life in Christchurch, 1925–41, is introduced by Lara Strongman. We discover paintings that are little known but have stylistic affiliations with Rita Angus and other Canterbury artists of the 1920s and 30s. Influenced by her Paris training in embroidery and textile design, Henderson showed an interest in pattern and colour harmonies at the expense of topographical accuracy. In her essay ‘Return and Transition’, Julia Waite examines the years after Henderson left Christchurch in 1941; the artist first moved to Wellington and later, in 1950, to Auckland. She returned to Paris for a time in 1952 to study abstraction, and spent the period 1956–59 in the Middle East. She wrote in 1952 to her husband: ‘I belong nowhere.’ Henderson wanted to position her work in a more cosmopolitan context than New Zealand. Her painting took on a decidedly abstract character with Cubist frameworks and use of flat geometric shapes. This was the time of her greatest critical success. However, after the death of her husband, in the mid-1960s she developed what Waite calls ‘an immediate mode of expression with nature as its focus’. Her painting became looser, more gestural and expressionistic. The artist observed in 1966: ‘All art comes from the depths of one’s feelings.’
A feature of the book is the large number of reproductions of Henderson’s paintings made after 1965, including her less well-known bush landscapes, and the big and colourful Twelve Months series made in 1987. For the first time it is possible to see the full scope and quality of her work.
Louise Henderson (née Sauze) was born in Paris in 1902 and grew up in France, but lived most of her life in New Zealand. She retained a distinct French character and spoke with a pronounced accent. She came to New Zealand as a result of a chance meeting with Hubert Henderson in Paris; she later married him and joined him in Christchurch in 1925, when she was young and impressionable. There is nothing to suggest that she wanted to lose her French cultural identity even though she studied at the Canterbury School of Art where she also taught. In fact she retained a feeling of superiority, which is understandable considering that Paris was a major art centre and Christchurch a provincial backwater. That she was given an honorary diploma by the Canterbury school indicates an awareness of her Paris training in embroidery and textile design. Her textiles are discussed by Linda Tyler in an excellent essay in the book. Henderson can be compared with several European artists and intellectuals who came to New Zealand as refugees before and during World War Two, who are studied by Len Bell in his recent publication Strangers Arrive. She became friendly with several of these people, who had an international outlook and stood aside from the local preoccupation with a national identity in fine arts.
For me, the essay ‘In Pursuit of Universality’ by Maria Lluïsa Faxedas, a Spanish academic, was helpful. She positions Henderson among female artists in the post-World War Two years: artists who pursued careers as abstract painters and often studied in Paris, then still seen as the centre of contemporary visual art before it was usurped by New York. Like Henderson, some of them came from peripheral centres in countries far from Paris; and their works, no matter how high the quality, suffered the drawbacks of being perceived as from the geographical margins and by women, when the male hierarchy still ruled. One of the artists whom Faxedas compares with Henderson is Vieira da Silva, a Portuguese painter whose abstractions of buildings she relates to Henderson’s Jerusalem series of the late 1950s. Da Silva shifted to Paris, thus making it easier for her work to be visible and noticed on the world stage; Henderson, on the other hand, returned to Auckland and comparative obscurity.
In Auckland Henderson developed her work in an abstract direction with an international rather than regional or local dimension. She had a friend, mentor and confidant in John Weeks, who had been a prominent and progressive painter and teacher at the Elam School of Art. Older than Henderson, Weeks had studied in Paris in the 1920s with André Lhote, a follower of the Cubists. He experimented with Cubist-type works, as well as more abstract and non-figurative studies with an emphasis on formal qualities such as pattern, texture and colour freed from conventional realistic concerns. His paintings fell from favour after the 1960s, but for a time his support and influence were helpful to Henderson’s profile as a progressive artist. She kept in touch with contemporary painting in Paris and was in communication with Auguste Herbin, whose geometric abstractions were admired by Gordon Walters. There are parallels with Herbin in her fine series of architectural works of the late 1950s, which are hard-edge, geometric, and set in a shallow space aligned with the picture plane. Faxedas observes: ‘Henderson’s path towards abstraction was based on geometrisation of shapes and surfaces that divide into flat forms which at some point relinquishes figurative reference.’
Among younger painters, Louise Henderson was friendly with Milan Mrkusich, an uncompromising abstract painter who looked to the international rather than the local context for his style. The pair exhibited together on a number of occasions, once in a touring show that went to Europe. They worked on stained-glass windows and mosaics for Auckland churches, exchanging ideas and exploring the application and relevance of their art to the public context. In 1960 Henderson created two large stained-glass windows for the Church of the Holy Cross in the Auckland suburb of Henderson.
C.K. Stead, the only male contributor to the essays, knew Henderson during her heyday in Auckland and recalls how she made her house in Gillies Avenue feel like a salon, where visitors such as Rex Fairburn and Eric McCormick discussed cultural matters amidst surroundings of bookcases filled with European art magazines and walls displaying contemporary paintings by John Weeks and Henderson herself. Stead captures her character and her charisma, writing: ‘Louise Henderson was an extraordinary woman, intelligent, refined, cultivated and French – with everything that word implied in terms of sophistication, subtlety and manners.’ He calls her an immigrant success story.
Louise Henderson was a prolific painter who achieved considerable prominence in her lifetime and has always been accorded importance for her role in introducing a modernist style based on European rather than British models to New Zealand in the 1950s. She can be compared with Rita Angus, a near contemporary, who worked alongside her in Canterbury in the 1930s and later, like her, was influenced by Cubism in her post-war imagery. But Angus retained a local dimension in her works that is central to her identity as a New Zealand artist. For Henderson, this was not usually the case. Even the late bush landscape paintings are too generalised to be seen as belonging specifically to this country and lack the particularity of Angus. Her search for universality diminished the very elements that contributed to the appeal of Rita Angus, Don Binney and other local painters. To date, Rita Angus has overshadowed Louise Henderson as the leading New Zealand female artist of her generation. Whether this comprehensive and compelling book and the accompanying show will change that remains to be seen.
The book is lavishly illustrated with full-page colour reproductions of Louise Henderson’s paintings, as well as photographs in the margins of the text that include historic images of the artist and her family not previously published. An attractive feature is the section called ‘From the Archive’ which reproduces clippings, notes and ephemera from the painter’s copious collection. It captures her life and times in an accessible and engaging way. There are also photos of Henderson’s Auckland studio where she painted her series of bush landscapes. As the first monograph on Louise Henderson, this is a thoroughly researched and accessible introduction to her life and work. It will be the standard reference for many years to come as it has a comprehensive bibliography and list of all her exhibitions.
Emeritus Professor MICHAEL DUNN studied Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne where he graduated with an MA. He wrote his PhD on Gordon Walters at the University of Auckland. He has published extensively on New Zealand painting and sculpture and he curated the first retrospective of the paintings of Gordon Walters in 1983 for the Auckland Art Gallery. He was Head of the Art History Department at the University of Auckland before being appointed Dean of Fine Arts and Head of the Elam School of Fine Arts. Now retired, he lives in Auckland and is the patron of the Kinder House Society.