Against conformity, Gaylene Preston

Rudi Gopas: A Biography
Chris Ronayne
David Ling, $49.95,
ISBN 0908990820

I was at first reluctant to review this biography of the artist Rudi Gopas. For two crucial formative years, Rudi was my painting teacher, and I am briefly quoted in the book. Hardly the dispassionate and neutral position required of a reviewer. But reading Rudi’s biography sparked my imagination in a broader sense. Was this because of an unconscious desire to know more of the personal life of a once-revered teacher? (If so, this book provides detail of a rather more personal nature than Rudi himself might have wished revealed.) Or was it because, as usual, illuminating the past always shines a brighter light on the present? Anyway, here goes.

Chris Ronayne is not a professional writer – as far as I can tell he has not written a book before. Neither is he one of those perplexing and purposely opaque, academically inspired writers on modern art who confuse and conceal as they profess to reveal. He was Rudi Gopas’ son-in-law and maintains an objective but loving perspective as he steadily explores and exposes Rudi’s life in the round. So this is a life observed by a “naive eye” with family connections. In the world of painting, naivety sometimes illuminates more brightly than the sophisticated view. This book falls into that category.

Rudi was one of those teachers who totally imposed himself on his students. Not for him the kind, encouraging, supportive handling of baby talent on the knee of institutional orthodoxy. We galloped out of our bland sunshine suburbs, complacent in our absolute trust in the nanny state, secure in the idea that truth, beauty, and niceness were somehow one, and ran bang splat into this driven, acerbic and sometimes plain rude man who believed – no, knew – that truth was complicated and niceness had nothing to do with it. It felt to me at the time like being hit on the head with a four-by-two, while simultaneously being thrown in the deep end. In Rudi’s painting class, you were either going to sink or swim. I desperately doggy-paddled.

As I turned 20, then 21, this driven, often tormenting man challenged, cajoled and impressed his ideas on our unformed minds. We were putty in his hands. We ingested a huge amount of German philosophy translated into broken English, and I can remember trying to grasp the polarities between “abstraction and empathy” and “internal disharmony”. The latter was considered to be a necessary personality component for any self-respecting artist, and I worried that I was doomed because I wasn’t sufficiently “internally disharmonised”.

All this time, I knew nothing of how he lived his life. He was a mysterious figure. Our other lecturers implied the odd thing. He was a refugee from Stalin. He was a Commie. Bill Sutton joked he was a Nazi. Rudi certainly took a sanguine position on student revolution while encouraging us to use chainsaws to solve our space problems in the painting department. His English was patchy, and he smelt different. He was a foreigner in a community deeply committed to sameness.

These days a teacher like Rudi Gopas would probably be ordered off the property and into a very long training course, but, in those days, painting was hardly considered an occupation let alone a career; so no-one cared if the supposedly crazy taught the obviously misguided. I found myself questioning how much we now expect assimilation into the “Kiwi way” before any new immigrant is allowed access to the young and talented minds of the nation. (This became really clear to me once when I discovered that one of the cleaners at Wellington Polytechnic was actually a highly regarded Cambodian architect, who was unable either to practise or teach because his qualifications weren’t recognised here.)

It was people like Rudi Gopas who brought to these shores vast riches from much older, more confident cultures. Ideas that may have seemed threatening at first but, once understood and absorbed, added unquantifiable treasure. In Rudi’s case, the price was high. The biography reveals a life that descended into mental illness and drug abuse. Christchurch in the 1960s was hardly the place for a man whose artistic passion for abstract expressionism burnt white-hot along with his rage at conformity. In many ways, Rudi’s story is of a man who refused to assimilate, and paid the price. His personal life was a mystery because, although he was a war veteran, he had fought on “the other side”. With the Germans. In RSA-riddled Christchurch he lived in his own personal underground,  incognito, unable to blend. He couldn’t. His work depended on his keeping his artistic feet in the soil of his mid-European roots. In his torment and struggle for that to be accepted as a viable position, he left an outstanding legacy, both in his paintings and in the minds of his past students.

Given the rising tide of racist remarks about refugees and immigrants, Ronayne’s biography is a timely reminder of the tremendous impact new New Zealanders bring to our culture.


Gaylene Preston is a Wellington film-maker.


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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